HL Deb 10 July 1907 vol 177 cc1575-86

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the action of the Board of Education with regard to All Saints' School, Salterhebble, Halifax; and to move for Papers. In doing so it is necessary that I should refer to the facts relating to the case. For some sixty years past a national school has existed at this place. Naturally in the course of that time the building had become old and out of date, and in the month of February, 1904, the managers recognised this and instructed their architect to prepare plans for a new building and at the same time to ascertain whether the municipal authorities wanted any of the site for road widening; and in April of that year they informed the Board of their decision. On 28th May in the same year—that is, three months after their decision—they received from the Board of Education a copy of the inspector's report on the premises, which naturally was not very flattering. The Board intimated that the grant to the school could not be continued after 31st March, 1906— Unless by that date satisfactory progress has been made towards providing suitable accommodation to replace it. Not that the new building should have been erected, but that satisfactory progress should have been made towards providing fresh accommodation.

Flans were shortly afterwards sent in to the corporation. Various delays occurred, for which the managers disclaim all responsibility; and in the course of the negotiations the corporation changed its attitude two or three times. No less than three sets of plans had to be prepared and approved, the corporation admitting that they were to a great extent wrong in the matter by paying the managers £30 for one set of plans. At last, in November, 1905 the plans were approved by the corporation. They were forwarded to the Board of Education and had to be sent back again for some slight alteration; but eventually, on 26th March, 1906, the Board of Education returned them. They were, I believe, not actually received by the local education authority till a little later, but that authority finally approved them on 2nd May. You will mark that the Board of Education in March, and the local education authority in May, finally approved the plans, and to all intents and purposes the matter was absolutely settled. The House will remember that in the interval the Education Bill had been introduced, and it could hardly be expected that the managers would proceed, with that Bill hanging over their heads, to spend a considerable sum of money on a new school the fate of which they could not at that time foresee, and consequently they suspended their operations. This view of the matter was fully understood both by the Board of Education and the local authority, for during the interval neither of those bodies moved a step in the matter. In the month of December, 1906, as your Lordships well know, the Education Bill was withdrawn by the Government. In the following month the proceedings began again. The local education authority wrote to ask the Board of Education—I suppose their tempers had not been rendered extra pleasant by the fate of the Bill—for authority to discontinue the maintenance of this school.

At that date, however, the Board of Education took a very fair and proper view of the position. They wrote first of all to the managers and said that the local education authority had approached them and had pointed out that nothing had been done. The Board asked the managers what they were doing. Thereupon the managers explained to the Board of Education the reasons why they had suspended operations, and stated that they had actually arranged to proceed at once with the erection of the school, which, as a matter of fact, they did the same week. This answer—and this is the most important point in the whole of the proceedings—was evidently satisfactory to the Board of Education, for the Board wrote to the local education authority forwarding a copy of the managers' letter and stating— This Board of Education ion hope that this assurance of the managers will enable the authority to reconsider their decision to discontinue the maintenance of the school. That was an absolutely fair letter, but it did not at all meet the wishes of the local education authority, who, from all that I have been able to ascertain, were thirsting for the blood of this wretched little Church school.

What happened next no man knows. And that is my reason for trying to obtain further information from the Government. At any rate, the local education authority immediately after that pressed the Board and urged that no buildings had actually been begun. They also said that another year must elapse, and, although the architect and the managers had explained very fully that they could have half the school ready and in occupation by the end of the summer, they brought all the pressure they possibly could to bear on the Board of Education. The next step which the Board of Education took was to give two days notice that they would send down an inspector. That inspector visited the school, but the principal manager, who had had to do with the business, had other matters to attend to and could not be present. In due course the inspector sent in his report to the Board of Education, and the result was that on 1st May last, in spite of their previous letter, they wrote that in consideration of all the facts they were not prepared to oppose the local education authority in their desire to close the school.

It is obvious that some pressure was brought to bear on the Board of Education to induce them to change their mind. I would remind your Lordships of the parallel case referred to the other day by my noble friend Lord Dartmouth. The present position is this. The local people—as the local Press would show—are naturally very sore about this. Their school, as a matter of fact, is closed, and they consider that they have been very badly treated. They think that either some secret and unfair influence has been brought to bear on the Board of Education in London, or that the Board must have some information which has induced them to change their mind which has not been communicated to the public.

There are two reasons which may be asserted for the action of the Board. One is the delay, but I think I have explained sufficiently the cause of the delay and shown that the Board of Education were satisfied that the delay was not an insuperable objection so late as February last. The other reason may be the assertion of the local education authority that the buildings were unhealthy and unsafe. The managers admit that the buildings were not up to modern requirements, but they have the authority of their own architect, who has known the buildings for years, for stating that they are neither unhealthy nor unsafe. Sufficient repairs have been done to make them adequate for all temporary purposes, and for the few months which would elapse before the new building would be ready for occupation. The parents of nearly all the children in the school have memorialised the Board of Education to preserve the school to them. They say they have no opportunity of getting such Church of England religious instruction as they desire within reasonable distance if the school is closed. Here the people wish to have certain religious instruction, and are told by a Government Department that they cannot have it. I think in this matter the will of the people, of which we have heard so much lately, should be supreme. We were told yesterday in the discussion on the Army Bill, when the question of giving military drill to children under sixteen years of age was being considered, that the opinion of certain Members of the House of Commons must be regarded because it expressed the wishes of the parents themselves. Well, why should not the wishes of the parents be considered when they express a determined wish to have Church of England instruction?

Another point I should like to press very urgently on the attention of the House is that this case absolutely differs from the typical case which politicians frequently declaim, in which it is said that the clergy and the Bishops are at the back of it all. From the beginning to the end of this matter the Bishop has never been mentioned, and by a curious coincidence the vicarage became vacant during the course of the proceedings. The late vicar was not mentioned at all, and beyond the fact that the new vicar presided at a recent meeting no clergyman has taken any part in these proceedings at all. I would like also to draw your Lordships' attention to the extreme energy of some of the managers and others interested. This is not a "one man show." A working man took the trouble to come up to London from Halifax to see the Minister for Education in order to try and induce him to change his views. This is a case in which working men and women have determined to do their utmost to try and retain such religious teaching for their children as they desire, and which, so far as I can ascertain, they are being entirely denied.

The information which, I venture to submit, the Board of Education ought to place before the public in this matter is such official documents as contain the evidence which induced them to change the views they so clearly expressed in February to the views they expressed in their later letter of May, in which they declined to press the local education authority to continue the maintenance of this school. The principal evidence in the matter would be the instructions given to the inspector and the report of the inspector. I know that it is not always convenient to give the whole of the report of an inspector, but in a question of such vital importance as this so much of the report could be given as would justify the action of the Board of Education. The Board of Education is one of the greatest Government Departments, and unless that and all other Government Departments can maintain the confidence of the people of this country I fear that the administrative duties of Government will become very much more difficult for both Parties in the State in the future than they have been in the past.

I trust that His Majesty's Government will see fit to grant my Motion, and so not only meet me but other Members of this House who wish to be satisfied that no unfair or undue influence has been brought to bear in effecting the crushing out of this small Church school. I for one shall feel perfectly willing to acquiesce in any evidence that may be given across the floor of the House which can satisfy me on that point. Failing that I fear that the people of this district, as well as the Members of your Lordships' House and the public at large, will have to come to the conclusion that the decision of the Board of Education was dictated, not by the interests of the children, but by political expedience; not by the welfare of the public, but by sectarian malice and Party spite. I beg to move.

Moved, That there be laid before the House papers relating to the Salter-hobble, Halifax, All Saints School. —(Lord Barnard.)


My Lords, I am anxious not to trouble the House with any repetition of the circumstances stated by the noble Lord. He informed the House that in the spring of the year 1904 the managers recognised that the school was in a somewhat dilapidated and ancient condition and proposed to rebuild it. But he did not state that what induced them to do so was a letter from the Board of Education in September, 1903, declining to recognise the school except temporarily. Then negotiations proceeded, as the noble Lord has described, and the most important point was that in May, 1904, the Board received a further report on the premises from the inspector, and then informed the managers that no grant could be made to the school after 31st May, 1906, unless by that date satisfactory progress had been made in the provision of proper accommodation to replace the old. Surely that was adequate notice. The extension to 1906, under the circumstances, was exceedingly liberal, as I think must generally be admitted.

Then the plans were sent in in January, 1906, and were approved by the Board of Education at the end of March. The local education authority then wrote to the Board of Education and said that nearly three years had passed since the original notice was given to the managers, and they did not see any sign of a new school being erected. Three years is a considerable time, when all is said and done, and in considering this case it is important to bear the fact in mind when either the local education authority or the Board of Education are accused of having exhibited partiality in this matter. They went on to say that the premises were quite unsuitable for teaching purposes, and there were grave doubts about the safety of the roof. They proposed, therefore, to discontinue maintenance. The Board of Education on that desired to put it to the local education authority whether, having shown considerable patience, they might not show a little more, and the local education authority replied that they could not see any reason for departing from the course suggested in their letter.


What date has the noble Earl got to?


15th February of this year. They proposed, therefore, to notify the managers at the expiration of three months that they would no longer be responsible for the maintenance of the school. Then the Board of Education, anxious still to act as peacemakers, entered into communication with the managers, who agreed to advertise at once for tenders. The Board informed the local authority to that effect, adding that if any unnecessary delay took place in carrying out the work the Board would be prepared to support the action of the local authority. The local authority replied that the school was unsafe, and that already three years had passed, and it would be another year before this insecure school could be replaced by another building. They added that for all the children attending this school there was ample room in a school within a few minutes' walk where there were all the advantages of modern equipment. Taking all these points into consideration the local education authority decided that, in the interests of the children, it was their duty to refuse further responsibility for the maintenance of this school. The Board of Education finally replied that they saw no reason for interfering with the decision of the local authority.

I do not think it is disputed that the buildings are entirely unsatisfactory. That will be admitted by all who have knowledge of the circumstances. The noble Lord said that it was not to be expected that the managers could proceed with their building while the Education Bill was in a hopeful, though precarious, condition. That, under certain circumstances, might be a good and sound argument, but it really is not relevant to the question the Board of Education had to consider, which was whether they were prepared to take the responsibility of saying that for one year more this school should continue; and upon that, of course, the question of the condition of the school is the material fact. On that there were, as I am afraid very often happens in such cases, directly contrary statements of fact, and the Board sent an inspector to inquire what the condition of affairs really was. He visited the school in December, 1906, and his further Report stated that plaster was falling from the walls in a dangerous way, and he also stated that in his opinion the roof was insecure. Therefore, my Lords, you will see that the answer to the noble Lord's Question really is not whether the managers did or did not do all in their power to build a new school in time— that is a separate point, on which the noble Lord may have one opinion and other people may have another—but could the Board of Education take the responsibility of over-ruling the local authority when the local authority said that the condition of the school was not such as to make it safe that it should be continued as a school for another year, and when the Board's inspector confirmed that opinion? The noble Lord seemed to consider it a matter of complaint that the inspector went down at two days' notice.


I did not complain, I only tried to point out that it placed the managers in some difficulty.


When the question was as to the stability of a building the point as to whether the inspector went at two days' notice or a week's notice could not very much affect the fact. The question of notice might be relevant in some cases, as it was in the ease brought forward by Lord Dartmouth the other day, but I cannot see, when it is a question of the stability of the roof, that notice has very much to do with it one way or the other. Then the noble Lord said that the parents desired the school to continue. I do not dispute that fact. I do not suppose that ever a school is closed or discontinued but that you will find some parents who would desire it to remain open.

The noble Lord really invited me, I think, to reopen the whole of the question as to how far the wishes of the parents ought to be considered in the question either of the provision or the continuance of schools. The opinions of the Government are very well known on that point. You have to set the wishes of the parents, even by the present law, against the question of the rates, and upon that, where a new school is concerned, the President of the Board of Education has to form an unassisted opinion. I do not know that I have anything further to add except to say this, that my right hon. friend is certainly not prepared in a matter of this kind, which lies within his discretion to decide upon the facts of the case as presented to him, to present the Report of the inspector with regard to the building, which is the one I presume the noble Lord means; and I think the noble Lord will have noticed that my right hon. friend has already expressed his regret in another place that he was unable to give that information.


My Lords, the noble Earl has based the very unsatisfactory answer which he has given to my noble friend mainly on the condition of the building. Now, why will the Government play with this subject? Do they really expect your Lordships and the country to believe that the whole of this question merely arose because the building was bad, and that there were no other considerations which governed the local education authority in Halifax, and made them anxious, if they possibly could, to get rid of the only Church school which was left in that town? Why does the noble Earl treat us like children, as if we were really going to accept from him the idea that it was merely on account of the badness of the building that the school was abolished? The original warning which my noble friend has related to us set forth that if something substantial were done by May, 1906, the Board of Education did not think that any case arose.


That warning was given by the late Government in 1903.


Let me repudiate at once, in a matter of the Departmental administration, this division between one Government and another. It is not a matter to be decided as a Party question whether a school building is or is not in a fit condition. The same Department and the same officials were concerned, and the same sanitary rules bound both Governments. The first intimation was that if something substantial were done by May, 1906, the Board saw no reason why the school should be closed. As a matter of fact, as far as the Church managers were concerned they were well ahead of their time. They pushed forward the matter with great despatch, and the delay which arose was not from their fault but was due to the local town council. That council—a hostile body—delayed the plans as long as they could, and placed the managers in a position of great difficulty. But, notwithstanding these difficulties thrown in their way by their enemies, the managers were up to their time, and by the period of grace which was allowed them they had made substantial progress and had got the plans passed both by the Board of Education and the local education authority.

Then came the policy of the present Government, which, I think, involved a very natural delay on the part of the managers. They felt that they could not proceed with their work while the Bill of last year was pending before Parliament, but the moment the fate of that Bill was settled they proceeded with the work. The noble Earl says the present Government are not responsible. How can he explain the letter which was sent by the present Government in February of this year expressing the hope that the assurance which had been received from the managers would enable the local authority to reconsider their decision to discontinue their maintenance of the school? In other words, the Board of Education, having considered a communication from the managers, decided in their favour, and were of opinion that the local education authority ought to continue the school. That was in February of this year. I forgot whether Mr. Birrell resigned before May. I think it is very possible he did, and passed to the other Department. It then appears that the policy of the Government had changed, and that this letter which they had written to the managers in February was to be repudiated. What my noble friend has asked is, "What passed in the interval?'' What material fact arose in the interval which caused the Government to change their mind? And if no material fact took place except the change in the presidency of the Board from Mr. Birrell to Mr. McKenna, then we want to know from the Government what possible ground they had for changing the decision at which they arrived in February.

What makes this case particularly hard is that in this part of Halifax there is only this single Church school. We heard a great deal about this question last year. The local education authority at Halifax does not allow any syllabus of religious education. The religious instruction given is of the most jejune character. Very little is allowed at all, and that which is allowed must be given by the head teacher, and the head teacher alone. Anybody who has had experience of a large school knows what that means. Halifax is a town where religion in the elementary schools is treated with this marked disrespect; yet this single church school is the one selected by the present head of the Board of Education for this harsh blow. I wonder that the Government are not ashamed of themselves that they use this Departmental pressure in order to oppress the religious consciences of the people. At any rate, this discussion has been of importance because it has shown what we have to expect in our schools from the action of the present authorities at the Board of Education. The country will take note of the kind of treatment which is to be meted out, and I am quite sure they will know how to meet such oppression with the resistance which is appropriate to the occasion.


I very much regret that the noble Earl the Lord President has been unable to remove the very bad impression which this action on the part of the Board of Education has created amongst the working-class Church people in Halifax. My noble friend Lord Dartmouth pointed out a few days ago that there were several cases of this kind. I have also received information which has led me to the same conclusion; in fact, I personally know of one other case. Therefore, I suppose we are to take it that Church people must bow their heads to oppression of the character which these unfortunate people in Salterhebble, in Halifax, have suffered without having any reason or explanation whatever given to them of the course pursued by His Majesty's Government. I beg to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at a quarter be for Eight o'clock, till Tomorrow, half past Ten o'clock.