HL Deb 06 July 1905 vol 148 cc1293-301

, who had given notice of the following Question, "To ask the Lord President of the Council whether the managers of a public elementary school have power to close the school for a fortnight in time of hay harvest so that the boys may be employed in leading horses, this fortnight's holiday being deducted from the usual six weeks given in time of corn harvest," said: My Lords, I should like to make a slight variation in the terms of the Question which I propose to put to the learned President of the Council, otherwise it might appear that, in the event of getting any of the relief which I hope the noble Marquess may be able to see his way to afford, I proposed that schoolboys on holiday should be used only for leading horses. A very few sentences will be sufficient to explain the object I have in putting this Question on the Paper. Most of your Lordships are well aware that one of the great difficulties in agriculture with which we have to contend at present is the shortness of labour. This does not refer only to the South of England. Having some considerable acquaintance with the North of Scotland as regards agriculture and agricultural property, I can say that this complaint is made as strongly and as vigorously there as in the South of England. There was a time when the corn harvest was looked upon as practically the event of the farmer's year, but from economical causes, with which I need not trouble your Lordships, a considerable amount of land has gone out of corn cultivation and been laid down to grass. Under these circumstances the hay crop at the present time claims a far larger share in the interest of the farmer than was the case when his main profits were made from the growth of cereals.

Then, again, my Lords, perhaps I should say at once that in putting this question on the Paper it is not in the least my intention to endeavour to get round any of the regulations imposed by the Education Act. Some of us think that they press a little hardly upon us, but I am well aware of all the benefits conferred by education, and would be the last person in the world to try to get them diminished in any way. Some of us may possibly think that the advantages obtained are hardly commensurate with the expense incurred, but that is a matter upon which I need not trouble your Lordships at present. Probably many of your Lordships indulge in the luxury of a home farm. I use the word "luxury" advisedly, because I look upon a luxury as a pleasure for which you pay money and in many cases get a very inadequate return. Some of your Lordships are, I dare say, more fortunate than others in your agricultural pursuits, but too many of those who undertake the management of a home farm must be well aware of the numerous difficulties that crop up from time to time in making that as paying an occupation as one could wish. I can imagine those of your Lordships who are interested in this matter having, at a time like this, a consultation with your farm bailiff, casting a wistful eye on the weather-glass, and saying, "Oh, if only we had a few more hands what a good thing it would be! It would enable us to get in our hay crop."

Then, my Lords, I may say further, in seeking some assistance in this way from the noble Marquess the Lord President of the Council, that there is one Department of the Government which at the present moment does recognise that it is essential that facilities should be given for the proper carrying out of the hay harvest. Unless I am very much mistaken, the War Office, where the supply of local labour is insufficient, give leave for the employment of soldiers if the necessary application is made. It is on those lines that I am asking my noble friend to see if he cannot assist us by allowing some alteration in the conditions as to holidays in public elementary schools. I might also mention that only this morning in reading a local newspaper I came across an account of a sale—a land sale, I believe—where, after describing what took place, went on to say that most members then left somewhat hurriedly as their hay-making was causing them some anxiety. I mention these things only to show your Lordships that hay-making is not a pastime on many farms it is a matter of very considerable interest to the farmer. Where you have a larger area of land laid down to grass than was formerly the case, it stands to reason that it is a necessity that no obstacles should be put in the way of your obtaining a crop which provides winter food for the animals that are now kept on the land laid down to grass.

Now, my Lords, I do not wish to anticipate the objections my noble friend may have to this suggestion, but there are only two that occur to me, and they are these. It might be said that if you divide the school holidays into two portions it will be hard upon the teachers to have to take one portion of their holidays at one time and another portion at another time. The other possible objection is that by the interposition of a fortnight's holiday in the middle of the summer, followed by a spell of work, and then by a longer holiday, the same results may not be obtained from the education which my noble friend thinks ought to be obtained. But I would ask the noble Marquess whether he cannot see his way to help us in this direction. I do not mean to say for a moment that if it can be done it will remove all the difficulties from which agriculturists are at the present moment suffering. But if he could hold out the prospect of something of this sort being done, I think my noble friend would earn the gratitude of a very large number of agriculturists throughout the country.

There is one point I would put to your Lordships in conclusion; it is this At the present moment, owing to the exigencies of the Education Act, it is far more difficult than it used to be to get boys to carry out what I may call the lighter work of the farm. There are many occupations in which boys could be usefully employed, such as tending sheep, minding cattle, and various other forms of light work; but, owing to the increased length of time they are kept at school, in many districts it is almost impossible to get their services for such work. If my noble friend could assist in the direction I suggest, these boys might be put to such occupations a I have mentioned, by that means relieving men of the duty and enabling the farmer to employ the men so relieved on the harder work of actually securing the hay crop, for which work the boys would not be quite so suitable.


My Lords, before the noble Marquess answers for the Government I should like to endorse to the full all that has fallen from the noble Duke on this important subject. I know from what I have heard that there is considerable discontent expressed in country districts as to the way in which children are kept at school in conformity with the law and not allowed to engage in agricultural occupations of what I may call a critical nature. The ingathering of such a crop as hay is very different from work in a factory and from other kinds of manual labour, inasmuch as time is of such extreme importance.

Then, my Lords, I should like, if I may, to supplement the noble Duke's Question, and to ask whether there is not now, as the law stands, some power whereby boys attending an elementary school may be granted leave of absence for some definite time, under proper conditions, in order that they may assist in important agricultural work, such as the ingathering of crops, hay-harvest, and the like. I have endeavoured to look into this subject, but it is so very complicated as to be beyond my powers to do justice to it. I believe, however, it is true that there was a clause in the Act of 1876 which, under certain circumstances and certain conditions, permitted children of a certain age to leave school temporarily for this specific purpose. As your Lordships will see, this is slightly different from what is contemplated in the noble Duke's Question, viz., the closing of the whole school. It has not yet been mentioned, but it is possible that an objection of a practical nature might be raised to the closing of the whole school for the benefit—although that benefit is great and probably well recognised—of a comparatively small number of children. It seems to me that if the provision to which I have referred is still in force, it would enable the difficulty to be got over. In any subsequent Amendment of the Education Act, such as is sometimes adumbrated, I think this would be an extremely important point to bring forward.

I must apologise for thus taking up the time of your Lordships' House, at this late hour, and especially for addressing a Question of which I have been unable to give notice, but it seemed to me that it was an important point that ought to be cleared up, and that it might possibly afford a means out of the difficulty which the noble Duke has touched upon in his Question.


My Lords, I cannot for a moment say that I regret the Question put by the noble Duke. He has delivered to your Lordships a speech of a most practical character, and one which, I think, represents the views of a great number of agriculturists in all parts of the country. He has not in the least overrated the difficulties which exist in obtaining labour in agricultural districts, nor has he, as I gather from the inquiries I have made since he put down his Question, exaggerated in any degree the desire which exists in agricultural districts that the children should be available to a greater extent than is now customary, in order that, in the various ways in which it would be possible for children educated in the public elementary schools to do, they might assist those who till the land. I therefore welcome the Question of my noble friend. It is unnecessary for me to follow him through his speech, because I entirely agree with the view he has put forward as to the condition of agriculture, which he knows so well, and with which in many districts I am thoroughly acquainted myself.

I think, however, there is a certain amount of misapprehension, or rather, if I might use the expression, a certain want of knowledge concerning the various Education Acts which have from time to time been passed through Parliament. I do not for one moment wonder at it. To my mind Acts of Parliament are extremely difficult even for experts to understand, and, therefore, it is only natural that in the country districts, where these Acts are not studied so closely as we study them in Parliament, there should exist in the minds of agriculturists an idea which is not altogether in accordance with the Act, and certainly not in accordance with the intention of those who were responsible for the framing of the Act. The Question of my noble friend is of great importance, and I am very anxious that what I have described as the misapprehension which perhaps exists in the rural districts should be entirely cleared away with regard to this matter. I have, therefore, given great consideration to the question, and after consultation with my advisers at the Board of Education, have come to the conclusion that it is advisable that I should, on this occasion, point out to your Lordships, and, through your Lordships, to the country, and especially the agricultural districts as a whole, what is the present condition of affairs in regard to the possibility of children working either in the hay fields or in corn harvest.

As the question is of a complicated character I will ask your Lordships to allow me to do a thing that is not generally permitted in your Lordships' House, and that is to read the views which the Board hold on this matter. There is no doubt that it is convenient, and in many cases desirable, that school holidays should coincide with the harvest times, and the specific Question which I propose now to answer is whether the managers of a public elementary school have power to close the school for a fortnight in time of hay-harvest. Before the passing of the Act of 1902 the school boards and school attendance committees had power to Regulate by by-law the time during which children were to attend school. I think I can say that in almost every single case the by-laws on this point left to the managers of voluntary schools complete freedom to arrange holidays as they wished, because the common form of by-law on this head merely required the children to attend school during the time when the school was open for the instruction of children of a like age. Subject, then, to the limits imposed by the Code as to the number of times a school had to be open in a year in order to earn a grant, it would appear that before the passing of the Act of 1902 the managers of a voluntary school had power to close the school in the manner suggested by the Question which has been put to me.

The case, however, is somewhat different since the Education Act of 1902 has come into force, because Section 7, Sub-section (1), of that Act makes it a condition incumbent upon a school not provided by the local education authority, that is to say, upon a voluntary school, that the managers of the school shall carry out any directions of the local education authority as to the secular instruction to be given in the school. In the view of the Board of Education a direction as to the times when vacation should be given would be a direction as to secular instruction within the meaning of the sub-section I have quoted, and, therefore, it would follow that the managers are not free to fix holidays if by so doing they some into conflict with any directions on the point that the local education authority may have given. But, subject to the consent of the authority being obtained, it would appear to be open to the managers to arrange the holidays in the manner indicated in the Question which he noble Duke has put to me. The junction of the employment of children s one of great complexity, but I am advised that the employment of children n agricultural work during holiday times would appear to be regulated by he Employment of Children Act, 1903. Under that Act the local authority may make by-laws for regulating the employment of children under fourteen rears of age. The Board of Education have no information as to the proceedings which have been taken by the various local authorities under this Act.

It would appear, therefore, that where he local education authority do not object the managers may give holidays a the time of hay-harvest; and if the seal authority for the Employment of children Act, which is generally the am as the local education authority or Part III. of the Education Act, 1902, have made no by-laws restricting the employment of children in the various operations of the hay-harvest, there would appear to be nothing to prevent he employment of the scholars in the manner suggested in the Question. I hope it is plain that so far as the Board of Education is concerned no obstacle is placed in the way of employing scholars in this way. The matter practically in the hands of the local education authority, and if, in rural districts, any difficulty has been experienced in this matter since the passing of the Education Act of 1902, it would appear that the county councils are in a position to remove the difficulties.

I have read that because I am very anxious that it should be understood throughout the country that so far as the Board of Education is concerned the power of arranging holidays for the purposes which have been put forward really rests with the local education authority, who may if they choose allow managers of schools some discretion in the matter.

Then my noble friend Lord Zouche asked whether it would be possible for individual children to be given holiday from school in order to participate in any particular work. My noble friend stated that in the Act of 1876 there was such a power given.


I said that I so understood it. It is a complicated measure, but I think that is the gist it.


I must ask my noble friend to allow me to answer him from memory, and therefore I speak subject to correction. I have had no opportunity of looking up the matter, but so far as my memory serves me I think my noble friend is correct. The Act of 1876 did give power under certain conditions for individual children to be taken from school for the purpose of engaging in particular work, but it has been considered that the power was practically taken away by an Act passed, I think, in 1880. That is the reason why, at the present moment, if my memory serves me, it is not possible for individual children to be taken away, and the whole school must have a holiday. If my noble friend wishes to have any further information I shall be glad to communicate with him privately, or if he would put down another Question I would answer it in your Lordships' House, as at the moment I can only give him what, to the best of my recollection, is the state of the case.