HL Deb 04 May 1911 vol 8 cc163-71


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, for two reasons, which your Lordships will recognise as being amply sufficient, I will not occupy much time in describing this little Bill, and I confidently predict that your Lordships will ungrudgingly give it a Second Reading. My first reason for brevity is that close upon two years ago, after an exhaustive inquiry at which fifty-two witnesses were examined, including representatives of Chambers of Commerce and Agriculture, of associations of employers and of trade unions, officials of the Home Office, of the Board of Education and of local education authorities members of the consultative committees of the Board of Education, certifying factory surgeons, school teachers, farmers, and private persons—an inter-Departmental Committee presided over by Mr. Trevelyan submitted its Report to the President of the Board of Education, and this Bill, as I will show directly, is closely framed upon that Report.

My second reason for brevity is that on April 27 of last year my noble friend Lord Sheffield moved in your Lordships' House to resolve— That in the opinion of this House it is desirable that legislative effect should be given to the recommendations of the inter-Departmental Committee on Partial Exemption from School Attendance, and that a statutory obligation should be imposed on local education authorities to provide, where it is reasonably practicable, continuation schools," &c. My noble friend completely convinced your Lordships of the reasonableness of his Resolution, and after sympathetic speeches from the noble Earl the Leader of the House, from the right rev. Prelates of Southwark (now Winchester) and Hereford and from Lord Meath, the Motion was agreed to.

The law as it stands now with respect to school attendance is, in the words of the Report, "somewhat complicated, and in certain minor respects uncertain." The Committee indeed evidently found it very complicated, for in preference to setting it forth at length they rather cunningly refer to a Memorandum drawn up by one of their members, Mr. Lindsell. This Memorandum describes the present state of affairs as lucidly as is possible, and yet with its references to Education Acts, Factory Acts, and by-laws, with their exemptions and partial exemptions, you need to read it very carefully and more than once to understand the position of the child in this country at this moment as regards its educational liability. Broadly speaking, the law of the land at this moment is as follows. Every educational authority is compelled through its by-laws to take educational notice of every child between the ages of five and fourteen, but having taken this notice it may grant exemptions of two kinds—partial and total.

First as to partial exemption. A child between eleven and thirteen may, if employed in agriculture, be absent from school during part of the year if he makes 250 attendances during another part of the year. Again a child of twelve may claim partial exemption if he is employed under the Factory Act, and as this is what is usually called the half-time system, though I should myself prefer to call it the double-time malpractice, I will pause for a moment to describe it. It is the system by which a child in alternate weeks spends his mornings in the mill and in the school, and his afternoons in the school and in the mill. Thus a child of twelve may leave his bed at 5.30 a.m. to be in the mill at 6, work there with an interval for breakfast till 12.30, and after an interval for dinner, work in school from 2 to 5. If this was the child's lot this week, then next week he would spend his mornings in the school and his afternoons in the mill. But what I would specially draw your Lordships' attention to is this. A fortnight's work for a half-timer figures out as follows: 55½ hours in the mill, and 27½ hours in the school, or half as mach again in actual hours as the full-time scholar.

Now as to total exemptions. A child of twelve who has not availed himself of either of the foregoing partial exemption facilities may obtain total exemption on reaching a standard of proficiency, varying in different localities from Standard 5 to Standard 7 of the Code. Again a child of thirteen may obtain total exemption for the purpose of employment if he has made 350 attendances after five years of age in not more than two schools during each of five previous years. This is the provision under which total exemption is most commonly claimed.

I said that I would show that my Bill is framed very closely upon the Report of the inter-Departmental Committee. With your Lordships' permission I will read the summary of the recommendations of that Committee in conjunction with my Bill. The recommendations of the Committee are as follow—

  1. (1) That partial exemption should be abolished.
  2. (2) That there should be no total exemption under the age of 13.
  3. (3) That no exemption should be allowed by reason of previous school attendance.
  4. (4) That exemption at the age of 13 should only be allowed for beneficial or necessary employment.
  5. (5) That in the case of exemption before the age of 14 the obligation to attend a continuation class be imposed; or
  6. (6) That with the approval of the Board of Education the alternative of passing a standard not lower than the 6th be permitted, and that these recommendations should over-ride the Factory Acts.
Now, My Lords, turn to the Bill. The pith of it is contained in Clause 1. Subsection (1) says— The earliest age at which a child shall be entitled to any exemption from the obligation to attend school shall be 13, and such exemption shall be granted only for the purpose of beneficial and necessary employment. Here we have Recommendations 2 and 4 given effect to. Subsection (2) says— No child shall be entitled to obtain partial exemption from school attendance under the age of 14, and the ordinary condition for total exemption under 14 years of age shall be due attendance at a continuation class, or, subject to the approval of the Board of Education, the passing of a standard not lower than the 6th. Here we have Recommendations 1, 3, 5 and 6 given effect to. Your Lordships will recognise the sweet reasonableness of the Bill. You will see that it follows the dictates of the Committee, and you will know that it carries out your own wishes expressed by your agreement to my noble friend's Resolution last year.

It only remains for me to say a word or two in justification of the Bill from my own point of view. I will say without fear of contradiction that, as the Bill gives effect to the recommendations of the Committee, so those recommendations were the only possible result of the evidence that was heard by that Committee. With regard to the raising of the age for any exemption from twelve to thirteen, surely no evidence was required. It is common knowledge that while a child of twelve has memory he has little or no reasoning power, and to take him from school at that tender age is to deny him a fair opportunity in life. I look forward confidently to the day, not far distant, when the compulsory age will be raised yet another year, and when education will be carried further, through continuation classes, to the age of sixteen or seventeen—continuation classes not necessarily in the evening, when the child is tired out, but forming a part of a new and reasonable half-time system by which a child from fourteen to seventeen shall divide a fair day between work and education.

To show how rapidly public opinion is working in that direction I would draw your Lordships' attention to a little fact. Lord Sheffield, in his speech on his Resolution last year, said, referring to the recommendations of the Consultative Committee— The proposals of the Committee which would require statutory enactment comprise recommendations that local authorities should be compelled to provide continuation schools and empowered to make by-laws making attendance at such schools compulsory up to the age of 17 years. He went on— I do not think the time is ripe for carrying out the latter proposal. A similar provision was made in the Scottish Education Act of last year, but none of the great towns of Scotland have exercised the power to make such by-laws, and I am informed that none of them contemplate doing so. One can hardly imagine the noble Lord being otherwise than there or thereabouts when an educational reform was on foot, and yet Scotland seems to have given him the slip, for I visited several education authorities in Scotland last month and I brought away with me, among other little gems of Scottish commonsense, this pamphlet headed, "School Board for Glasgow. By-laws for enforcing attendance at continuation classes, made by the School Board for Glasgow under the Education (Scotland) Act, 1908. Dated 19th December, 1910." I think my noble friend is to be congratulated, for, like the Huddersfield School Board, he has been bringing steady pressure in this direction all his life.

I will only say a word in conclusion on the half-time system as I understand it. The evidence before the Committee amply proved that this so-called system is nothing but the survival of a vicious habit by which parents in some parts of the country, more by custom than from need, exploit their children for the sake of a small weekly wage. I say more by custom than from need because, for instance, the half-time system is prevalent at Halifax in Yorkshire, whereas at Huddersfield, only six miles away, where the chief industry is a similar one, it has been stamped out by the steady pressure of an intelligent school board, the figures of half-timers falling gradually there from 1,762 in 1879 to 94 in 1901, and the half-timer is now as dead as the dodo. The custom is not justified by the necessities of poverty, because the wages earned in the places where it is prevalent are higher than in other places where it is absent. That it demoralises the children who are the victims of it and hinders the classes in which they are irregular attendants is the testimony of every teacher in the land, and, moreover, to numbers of boys who are half-timers it is a system leading to nowhere except to unemployment.

My own first hand knowledge is very small, but, such as it is, a day spent in the mill and in the school in Preston, where the custom is in vogue, confirms me in the conviction that not a day should be lost in wiping it off the Statute-book. Is there any conceivable reason why the children of Bradford, Preston, Halifax and Dundee should not have the same chance in life as those of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hamilton, Reading, Huddersfield and London, where the education authorities would scorn to allow their little ones to be the victims of this relic of the dark ages? I do not wish to harrow your Lordships' feelings, and indeed some of the half-time children whom I saw in Preston were marvels of brightness, but there were others; and the face of one little chap remains in my memory, carrying upon it, as it seemed to do, the weight of the whole of those eighty-three hours of toil. If I could place him here in your midst, you would say that this miserable practice must cease.

Your Lordships are in the peculiar position to-night of having two Bills before you of a curiously similar nature. I feel no hos- tility whatever towards the Bill of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke. On the contrary, I recognise that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Moreover, when noble Lords on both sides of the House are tumbling over each other to secure legislation on this subject the Government will, I hope, recognise that the matter is not only urgent but somewhat overdue. I hope your Lordships will give my Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Saye and Sele.)


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. As we have just been reminded, it is a very useful bit of legislation long overdue. Technically our education laws are for the good of the child, but in this case the various concessions which have been made in our educational system have not been in that direction. The present system must, I think, be described as an extremely wasteful system. Until it has been supplemented by some reasonable system of continuation schools, I do not think that any other description would appropriately apply to it. Just at the time when your Lordships are considering to which of the great schools you will send your own sons, these children in the elementary schools are stepping out into their little world, and multitudes of them, so far as we know, then turn their backs on any organised system of education, and, in fact, begin to forget the little they have learned. The concessions which this Bill is intended to put an end to greatly aggravate the waste, and while aggravating the waste they rob the children of the best part of the education available and at the same time inflict upon them very serious hardship. As we have been reminded, the half-timer, if you add the hours of attendance at the mill and at the school, has to attend daily just one-and-a-half times as many hours in the mill and school together as the whole-timer spends at school. The result is physical degeneration, and the child arrives at school too weary to benefit by the instruction given, and therefore suffers both loss and hardship. I sincerely hope your Lordships, by giving a Second Reading to this Bill and finally passing it with such Amendments as may seem reasonable, will put an end to these cases of injustice and hardship.


My Lords, I feel extremely doubtful as to when to intervene in this debate, because the Bill now before the House is to be followed by one in charge of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, and though to a certain extent they are on all fours they approach the question from a totally different point of view. The noble Lord who introduced this Bill has stated that the Bill is due to Lord Sheffield having brought this matter forward in the year 1908, and as a result of the debate which then took place the Committee was formed on whose Report, as far as I understand, this Bill is based. Lord Saye and Sele's Bill embraces two points. It embraces the question of half-timers and deals also with compulsory attendance of children after school age. This, of course, is a question which gives rise to a good deal of controversy; and the question is not settled there, because there arises the Bill of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, who takes exception to the attendance age in the Bill now before the House. He does so to a certain extent with perfect justice, because I know from personal experience that the agricultural classes do not view the increasing of the age with the same admiration as the noble Lord or those who live in the great manufacturing towns.

The half-time principle was originally started in order to take children from the factories and give them time for education. The present Bill proposes to reverse that and keep children at their education rather than let them go back to their work. I do not express any opinion upon that, more than saying that I sympathise with the noble Lord's view, and I also sympathise very sincerely with my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, whose Bill is to follow this. I cannot help thinking that in regard to the raising of the minimum age a good deal of the difficulty might be met if the child's last year at school were devoted to instructing him in the details of that industry in which he is situated, instruction which would be of use to him in after life. I know there is a good deal of controversy on this subject. I have no doubt that the agricultural classes, who look to children when they reach these years to be able to assist them, think that they can do far better by working on the farms than in what they call book-learning at school. Therefore I think the proposal I have made might go a little way towards meeting that difficulty.

But the present Bill seems to me to treat these cognate questions in an indefinite manner. I read in March last that Mr. Runciman informed a deputation that the Board of Education had been at work for some time upon schemes for linking up continuation classes and other educational reforms. A proposal, he said, had been made by a Committee for the abolition of half-time or raising the age, which must be accompanied by work in continuation classes or schools, and he would shortly introduce a Bill to carry out some of these recommendations. From this statement I think we are justified in arriving at the conclusion that the Board of Education have in contemplation a measure of wide scope on this subject, and I cannot but think that, in view of this fact, if I am right in the opinion I have formed, it would be wiser on the present occasion to postpone dealing further with the Bills of my noble friends until we have the Bill of the Minister for Education before us. We shall then be able to see how far it goes towards meeting their wishes and requirements. In what I have said I have not in any way opposed these Bills, for I sympathise entirely with the views of both noble Lords.


My Lords, I had rather hoped that we should have taken the course, not unusual in your Lordships' House, of discussing both of these Bills at the same time. However, as Lord Willoughby de Broke has not risen I will proceed to say what there is to be said on behalf of His Majesty's Government on this Bill, though what I have to say applies equally to the second Bill to be moved this afternoon. In the first place, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord behind me upon the fact that, having put this Bill down, I think, for every day this week, he has at last been able to secure an opportunity for discussing it. I venture also to think that both he and the noble Lord whose Bill is to follow have rendered a real public service in bringing forward this matter. This is one of those questions on which it is important we should raise a strong public opinion throughout the country, and discussions of this kind in this House can only do good, because they support the object which all education reformers have at heart, and when the time comes they will no doubt make it easier for Bills having the same object to pass into law. One good result I hope will be that further attention will be drawn to the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Partial Exemption from School Attendance, which was published in 1909. It is a very valuable Report and deserves a good deal of attention from all who are interested in the subject, especially, perhaps, the paragraphs in it which deal with partial exemption in cases of agriculture.

The noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of this Bill referred, quite fairly, to the expectations and hopes which have been expressed on various occasions that legislation would shortly be introduced. I do not suppose he is very much surprised to know that it has not been possible, in the pressure of other business during the last twelve months, for the Board of Education to lay any measure upon the Table of either House before this date. Having been concerned with the preparation of this Bill the noble Lord will, I am sure, be one of the first to realise that the questions involved are very complicated questions; and in our opinion they are best met by a Bill introduced by the Government, who have behind them the experience of the Board of Education and the technical skill of the Parliamentary draftsman. Take the question of continuation schools. If attendance at continuation schools is to be enforced it is obviously necessary to provide suitable machinery. What, therefore, I hope on this occasion is that your Lordships will follow the advice of the noble Marquess opposite and give both Bills a Second Reading, and then wait, at any rate for the present, to see the terms of the Bill which will be introduced by His Majesty's Government. I hope that noble Lords who are interested in this matter will be able to bring pressure to bear in order to secure the passage of that Bill, and that when next year comes the whole question will be in a far more forward state than it is now.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.