HC Deb 23 March 1987 vol 113 cc137-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Malone.]

10.33 pm
Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

I am sure that Conservative Members who remain for the debate will pay full testimony to the importance, although we recognise that half an hour is scarcely long enough, of the issues that need exploring. I welcome and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) and my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), who are here because they strongly support what I am saying and who, as hon. Members are aware, are unable to contribute to the debate, by the rules of the House. However, they have been foremost in their defence of the existing education arrangements in Kingston and are very concerned about the proposals that have occasioned the debate.

I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Brunivels), who, like me, has shared an experience about which more in a moment. I welcome also my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). who will be answering the debate as the Minister, but I particularly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), who in a previous incarnation was deputy leader of the council in Kingston and who knows much about the affairs of Kingston. Her presence is testament of her concern about the matter that we are debating. Finally—this may seem like a long list, but we have a large number of hon. Members here, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles), who is a former leader of the council in Kingston. It is my expectation, should they catch your eye, Mr. Speaker — you never know — that my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Leicester, East and for Nottingham, East will contribute to the debate.

Since people have come up to me in the last 48 hours to ask why 1, whose constituency is a little away from Kingston, have chosen this subject for debate, I must explain. The link is that I spent five years as a pupil of one of the schools at the centre of re-organisation—Tiffin boys' school. I share that experience with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), although 1 think that he spent less time at the school. That experience enables me to attest to the quality of education at that school. Some would say that my education has gone ever beackwards' but it is a great tribute to the quality of teaching and to the pupils themselves.

I understand that the Minister cannot comment on the details, because he has a quasi-judicial role. We would be wrong to expect a detailed rejection or acceptance, but I hope that he will note the genuine concern that I express on behalf of thousands of people in the area covered by the Kingston education authority.

I shall explain the background to the debate. Kingston education authority has eight secondary schools, two of which are selective—Tiffin boys school and Tiffin girls school. Six are not selective and include two Roman Catholic voluntary aided schools, one for girls and one for boys.

Following the election in May 1986, the Conservatives lost control to what some might call an unholy alliance of Labour, Liberal and SDP, with the Liberals in the van. In due course the new authority issued to every household a circular on schools and further education, "Options far Change". This allegedly was to take account of and tackle the problem of falling rolls — a problem which is common to many if not all parts of the country.

A number of problems arise from that document. First, no details are supplied of the costs of the various options. A separate document is available which gives details of costs ranging between nil and £6 million. The innocent, let alone the suspicious, might query why those details were not circulated with the document. One might think that it was because some of the options are expensive. There is no option for the status quo. Whatever choice parents are offered they cannot say that they want things to remain the same, whatever the cost.

There is no opportunity for the two Roman Catholic schools—Richard Challoner and Holy Cross—to remain separate. Every option in the document requires them to amalgamate. That does not provide an opportunity for individual opinion to be reflected.

Above all, no educational justification is advanced for ending the selective education policy. There is no option which allows the continuation of selective education. That is ironic, because, as my hon. Friend the Minister said in an excellent speech in his constituency on 7 December 1985: The National Council for Education Standards concludes from their study of the 1981 and 1982 results that better examination results are associated with the selective system of schools, whether it be a fully selective system of Grammar and secondary moderns, or a mixture of selective and comprehensive schools. Most opinion polls confirm that that is also the view of the electorate. Despite that it seems that the leaders of Kingston council have been determined to fly in the face of that opinion, as illustrated by the document that they have issued.

What has been the response to that document? Fortunately, a campaign has been launched, the Kingston education campaign, and it has circulated its document widely. I am happy to say that that document makes good some of the omissions in the council document. It tackles and punctures some of the myths that were apparent both in the document and the local reaction to that document.

The first myth that is tackled is the suggestion that, in some way, Kingston's education standards are in total inferior—I stress in total—in comparison with those of neighbouring education authorities, especially Richmond. The campaign document points out, using Department of Education and Science figures, that the number of pupils in Kingston attaining five or more 0-level passes is 33.6 per cent. compared to 25.9 per cent. in Richmond, which has a fully comprehensive system. Moreover, if one considers the other end of the scale—those who may have failed in the education system—it is apparent that in Kingston, 7.6 per cent. of pupils leave with no qualifications and in Richmond that figure is 10.5 per cent. Those figures do not suggest a declining or poor educational system. I have already explained that my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton cannot speak in this debate, but he has asked me to specifically point out that parents in his constituency., where all the secondary schools are non-selective, are most alarmed at the chaos that reorganisation will cause to those excellent schools.

The second myth to be perpetrated is that grammar schools are receiving a disproportionate share of the area's resources. Figures obtained by the relevant working party set up by Kingston council show that in 1985–86, on a cost per pupil basis, the average for all secondary schools was £1,143; for Tiffin boys it was £1,106 and for Tiffin girls it was £1,012—that figure happens to be the smallest sum per pupil for any secondary school in the borough. On the basis of those figures, any suggestion that the two selective schools are dominating or receiving excessive allocation is obviously groundless.

The third point worth emphasising from the leaflet is the issue raised by the alliance in its regular publications—I believe that they are called "Focus"—to the effect that there was no certainty about when the Tiffin schools would close and that it was only a rumour. Every option set out in the council document either requires the closure of one or both of those schools or a substantial, irreversible change in the nature of them. It is important that that is placed on the record.

All the statistics show that, of the 104 educational authorities in the country, Kingston is regularly in the top five on the basis of its examination results. Those are the results of all the schools. It should in no way be thought that I am raising a standard for two schools in the borough. I believe that Kingston's record — a record covering all the schools—is good enough to stand comparison with that of any education authority.

I wish to put on record the achievements of Tiffin boys and Tiffin girls schools. In 1986 Tiffin boys' percentage pass rate at advanced level was 85.1 per cent. Over the past 15 years the average pass rate at advanced level has been 87 per cent. and in that time no fewer than 1,418 pupils have gained the minimum university entrance requirement of two subject passes at advanced level. In 1980 the pass rate of 94 per cent. at A-level was 20 per cent., higher than the average for the entire country and 10 per cent. higher than the average for all the Headmasters' Conference schools-broadly accepted as the public schools.

The percentage pass rate in 1986 at ordinary level was 78.5 per cent., with 149 boys gaining 971 subject passes, of which 634 were either A or B grades. At ordinary level in the same year, 30 boys gained 10 or more subject passes each. Three boys achieved an A grade in at least eight subjects. Over the past 15 years the average pass rate at ordinary level has been 80.8 per cent., with more than 1,000 subject passes in five of the past six years. During the academic year ended July, more than 100 boys left the school to go on to degree courses at either polytechnics or universities, and that has been the story for many years.

Over the years, Tiffin has regularly been among the 20 leading schools in the country in the gaining of academic awards. Last year 16 young men, and this year 15, have gone on to Oxbridge courses. These figures bear comparison with most schools in the country, let alone most state schools.

There is another side to education at Tiffin boys school. It has international renown for its choral music. As for instrumental music, it has more bands than I thought could exist in a school. It has a 60-piece orchestra, a brass band, a concert band, a recorder group, a swing band, a string quartet and a piano quartet. The school is renowned for the quality of its dramatic productions. The rugby team is one of the best in the south of England. A few years ago it was seen and rated by Rugby World as one of the top six teams in the country. The school enjoys an excellence in cricket and rowing, and the list continues. There is an all-round development of excellence among the pupils apart from academic achievement.

Tiffin girls school has recently been the subject of an HMI report. I need only say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it was a glowing report following a major inspection in 1986. At advanced level, 77 girls sat examinations in 229 subjects, achieving 205 passes, 47 per cent. at the top two grades. Of the upper sixth, 80 per cent. went on to universities or polytechnics, six girls going to Oxbridge. At ordinary level, there was a pass rate of 92 per cent. among fifth formers, an average per fifth-form girl of nine subject passes. I re-emphasise that this was achieved at the school with the least resources per head of pupil in the borough.

What are my reactions to this background as a former Kingstonian who is now in exile? The argument cannot be confined to the views of those who are pro comprehensive and those who are anti. In my earlier existence as a councillor in another borough, I voted to support comprehensive schemes on their merits. Surely that is how education issues should be viewed. We should not take political lines. We should ask whether the scheme has education merit in the area that is concerned.

In the scheme that is proposed, no opportunity will be given to parents in Kingston to opt for selection. Secondly, there is a necessity to review falling rolls. There is a danger because a closure, or closures, is or are being dressed up as a reason to end selection. In many other areas education authorities have seen the need to close one or more schools, and they have done so without challenging and changing the fibre of the education that is offered within the authority. One or two of the options which have been circulated involve large comprehensive schools which, if adopted, would lead to even more closures than might be blamed upon the ending of selection.

Thirdly, I note that recently eight new governors have been appointed to Tiffin girls school, all of whom, by pure chance happen to be Labour or alliance councillors. Will they work to save that school? Will they work to enable the sort of results and the other achievements, which time does not allow me to develop, to be retained, or will they sit in on what might be the school's wake? I suspect that we are facing something that we have become used to seeing. That is, the usual dogma from the Labour party, which clearly is now shared by the Liberal party and which is simply put: if everyone cannot share such an education, no one will have it.

I understand that Councillor Harris, who is the Liberal education chairman for Kingston, is quoted as saying at a council meeting: 85 per cent. of the pupils in Kingston are suffering, education should not be treated as a political football. If what I have read out is suffering, I hesitate to describe what some other education authorities must be getting on the basis of the Kingston results. To play political football, someone has to kick off. I argue that the kick-off has been conducted by the current council leadership. I understand that Councillor Harris was fortunate enough to have the advantage of a public school education. I do not begrudge him that. Conservative Members are not in the business of doing anything other than congratulating those who have the fortune to be born of parents who have the resources to pay for that type of education. But those of us who did not go and who could never have been sent to a public school would like others coming behind us with a modest financial background to continue to have the chance to have an excellent education. It may be true that Shirley Williams created more public schools than any other person in the past 100 years through her education changes, but one problem which is well known in Kingston is that, if the proposals are accepted, Tiffin boys school at least is likely to move into the independent sector. That is not a gain for the state sector. It means simply that, in future, most of the intake there will be governed more by the pocket than by ability. If that is a gain, I do not see it.

Another alliance councillor, Councillor Mrs. Philpott, at the same council meeting on 8 July to which I referred said: This is a positive and exciting time, history is being made. Perhaps, after all the discussion, the decision will be made to end the proud record of the Kingston education authority. I stress Kingston education authority—I do not mean just the two schools. I submit that that is not the sort of history that many people want made and that they want the education authority, even now, to heed the many thousands of electors in Kingston who are worried about and opposed to these proposals. Through the presence tonight of their elected representatives, they wish the House to note that fact and to urge my hon. Friend the Minister, if he receives these proposals, to give due regard to the protests and fears which I have expressed.

10.53 pm
Mr. Michael Knowles (Nottingham, East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) was kind enough to mention some of my qualifications to speak in the debate. For 12 years I was a councillor in the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames, for nine of them as leader. A further qualification is not mine—it is my daughters'. All three were educated in that system and not one attended Tiffin girls' school. I make that last point as an answer to the excuse offered for attempting to destroy these grammar schools—that their existence denies other pupils a fair opportunity. That is untrue and nonsense and should he denounced as such.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch mentioned the names of other hon. Members. One further name should be mentioned. 1 refer to the man who devised Kingston's system when the new London borough came into existence, Alderman Bill Marshall. Others have held the post of education chairman. In a real sense, as he devised the system, Mr. Marshall was the education chairman. He was the kind of figure in morality, intellect and character, that is not often found in local politics and perhaps not often found in national politics, either. Kingston's system was devised as a system. To delete Tiffin schools would bring at best, a period of chaos, and no better result overall in the end. That has been the experience.

For nine years, I, as leader, defended the system not only because of the Tiffin schools but because the system as a whole defended standards—a view that education means that children should be able to read, write and calculate. Social integration, peace studies, et al are nonsense and should not be given house room in an education system. Unlike other Conservative authorities, we preferred to fight in the first ditch rather than the last ditch in defence of standards.

The argument is between those who believe in standards in education and those who do not. The end result of disagreement with the views expressed by my hon. Friend and myself can be seen in ILEA. That is the end of the road. It will be an irony if, when national Government at last accepts its responsibilities to education, such a system that has stood for over 25 years like a rock against a tide of illiteracy should now be swept away.

I certainly do not expect my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State to mouth the platitudes that we have heard year in and year out about locally administered national systems. I had to deal with Labour Governments and various Secretaries of State—they passed away as Labour Secretaries of State for Education — who attempted to lean on us and twist our arms when we defended the system. I expect no less from my right hon. and hon. Friends when the roles are reversed. I issue the warning most seriously. We should not necessarily accept the views of the education world and its officials. They, too, are part of the education world's conspiracy against good schools of any kind and would advise against helping. If that be not true., why have so many good schools of all kinds been closed with, at best, the supine acquiescence of Conservative Secretaries of State? Here is a chance to take a stand to show that the tide has turned. If talk of standards is to be shown as meaning something more than mere words, here is the opportunity. If not here, where? If not now, when?

10.58 pm
Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on bringing forward the debate. There is no doubt that grammar schools are under threat. There are only 150 grammar schools left in the country. It is particularly sad that the Liberals should launch such an attack on the greatest grammar schools left in the country. I refer to Tiffin boys and girls schools.

Small schools have always been the best. There are 11 secondary schools left in Kingston, with 8,157 pupils. All are liable to major alteration, as my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) said on LBC this morning. Why should there be any alteration? What is wrong with Tiffin boys school? It has 823 pupils at the moment, with 232 in the sixth form. Tiffin girls school has 741 pupils. Both are schools of excellence. They have delivered good results over the years. There has been hard work. There have been caring and dedicated teaching staff, led first by Brigadier J. J. Harper and, secondly, by John Roberts. The demise, if it is to come, will come in September 1989. We must fight to avoid that.

Today the London Daily News reported that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) has said that there would be educational vandalism if Tiffin boys school were to go. I attended Tiffin boys school for four terms. Its results were the best in the country. The pass rate for 0-levels in 1986 was 971, or 79 per cent. Of those, 227 achieved A-grades. The pass rate for A-levels in 1986 was 286, or 85 per cent., and 56 of the 286 achieved A-grades.

There have been 25 years of outstanding results. attend the speech days; they are marvellous. There is still a strong tradition in Kingston, for which we must fight. There is nothing wrong about excellence. It is good that our young people can be trained so well. It is also good that there should be proper examination procedures. Those schools must not be threatened. They must survive.

11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Robert Dunn)

I am delighted to respond to this short debate on the proposed reorganisation of education in Kingston upon Thames. In so doing, I should like to welcome to the Treasury Bench my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) and my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey).

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on his success in obtaining this Adjournment debate. As an old Tiffinian, I know that he retains a great interest in the fortunes and future of the school. I have noted the great concern that he has expressed so well tonight. I congratulate also my hon.

Friends the Members for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) and for Nottingham, East (Mr. Knowles) on their short contributions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch will know and understand, it is important at this stage for the Secretary of State to avoid prejudging the issues, should any proposals come before him with regard to the organisation of schools in any community. Therefore, my hon. Friend will not expect me to say anything about the particular case that is the subject of this debate. I know that he will accept my assurance that I have listened carefully to what has been said. I shall look forward to receiving any deputation, if and when proposals are made. I assure the House that when proposals are made we treat them very seriously indeed because we are under a legal duty to act fairly. In other words, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must judge each set of proposals on its merits and take into account both the arguments of those making the proposals and the views of any objectors.

In conclusion, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his success in raising this subject for debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Eleven o'clock.