HL Deb 12 April 1933 vol 87 cc576-89

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill, and I think it is sufficiently simple to require only brief explanation at my hands. Your Lordships will be aware that at the present moment the law prevents the closure of any school, whether a council school or a voluntary school, in a case where there is any dispute on the matter, if there are thirty or more children in attendance at the school. It is those governing words that this Bill proposes to repeal. Perhaps I might read the actual words that it is proposed to repeal. They occur in the Education Act of 1921 in Clause 19 (1) and they run as follows:— …a school for the time being recognised as a public elementary school shall not be considered unnecessary in which the number of scholars in average attendance, as computed by the Board of Education, is not less than 30. For those words it is proposed to substitute by this Bill a provision preventing the closure of a school of more than thirty children unless the displaced children can be accommodated in a reasonably accessible school of the same religious character as the school the necessity of which is in question.

Your Lordships will remember that the Committee on Public Expenditure associated with the name of Sir William Ray in their Report recently recommended the repeal of all words safeguarding schools of thirty children without any alteration of the area over which closure might thereafter be applied. That would evidently make possible much larger economies than are likely to be possible under the modified proposal in this Bill which, as I have said, is limited to cases where there is alternative accommodation of the same type of religious education available for the scholars displaced. His Majesty's Government, interested as they are in the cause of economy, have not thought it right to go as far as the recommendations of the Committee presided ever by Sir William Ray. The clause regarding these schools of thirty and more has for long been regarded as, and in fact is, part of what is commonly known as the dual system by which the position of the voluntary schools has been reasonably settled. If the dual system is to be modified it will have to be modified as part of a general resettlement of the whole problem and it ought not to be done by a side issue of administrative economy which might gravely prejudice the position of voluntary schools in the general system of education. Although we shall not, of course, make the economies which the Ray Committee anticipated, we shall, I think, make substantial economies under this Bill.

I may perhaps be permitted to quote a case which is not untypical of the kind of difficulties that confront local authorities at the present time. There is a case that came under my own notice in the North of England where there is a council school housed in a temporary building, erected as long ago as 1913 to meet an emergency which has now disappeared, owing to other schools in the district having become available. The average attendance at that school is seventy-two. Both the education committee and their local sub-committee agree that it would be an advantage on all grounds to close that school since the children could obtain better education in the other schools that have now been established. Closure would result in the saving of about £700, but just because certain persons in the district petitioned against closure neither the Board of Education nor the local education authority were entitled to give any consideration at all to the question whether or not the grounds on which objection was taken were reasonable. Their hands were tied by the fact that owing to there being thirty children and more in the school the school could not be closed where any opposition had exhibited itself. I think it is quite evident that in these days there is not likely to be any evasion of substantal justice between different types of religious teaching, and I think the State is entitled to assist local authorities to overcome such obstacles to reasonable economy.

I do not know, that I need say more by way of explaining the proposals in this Bill. Your Lordships are aware that considerable reorganisation of schools has been taking place during the last seven or eight years, and I think that on the whole experience of that reorganisation leads one to feel some assurance that the reasonable feelings of parents and the circumstances of the locality are taken into proper consideration by local authorities and by the Board of Education to whom an appeal, if necessary, lies. There is in the Bill a financial clause which in accordance, I understand, with general procedure will be omitted in the course of the passage of the Bill through this House in order that it may be inserted in another place. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Irwin.)


My Lords, as representing the Opposition I venture to suggest that the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of this Bill and who, I am quite sure, every member of this House is very glad to know is restored to health and able to be amongst us this week, was most disappointing in emphasising nothing but the Report, which to us on this side of the House is extremely obnoxious, of the Ray Committee, in emphasising nothing but economy and not dwelling somewhat on the educational efficiency which might result from the closing of these frequently inefficient small schools. I do think it very disappointing that the Minister of Education should rely entirely on economy—that was all that he mentioned in his speech—instead of making it easier for those of us who are immensely keen on educational efficiency to support this measure from the point of view of the greater efficiency which will result from closing smaller schools and concentrating the children in bigger schools,

The Ray Committee made no pretence to consider educational efficiency whatsoever; it limited the whole question to a form of expenditure which was undesirable nationally. Virtually that was the recommendation of the Committee and if it were only on those lines that this Bill was placed before your Lordships I am certain that it would be opposed not only from this side of the House, but on the other side as well. I am sure that is not what is meant, but that there does come an improvement in efficiency when we close down these smaller schools and concentrate the children in schools where they can be grouped in classes based upon age limits. If you get a school of thirty-five, and children from five to ten years and ten to fourteen, all in different stages of advancement, in two classes, clearly that does not mean efficiency. You know you do not get efficiency because you know that the scholarships which are distributed to these schools do not go to the smaller and especially the rural schools.

There are one or two interesting points on which, perhaps, the noble Lord would give me an answer. I wonder if he could tell us—roughly, of course—how many schools the Board estimates may be dealt with under this Bill. On the whole the more of the smaller schools that are closed the better I shall be pleased, provided certain conditions are maintained in regard to improved efficiency, the reception of the children in better schools and, of course, accessibility. In the Act of 1921, the words used are "whether a school is necessary or not." In this Bill the words are "is or is not unnecessary." Would the noble Lord say whether there is any reason for that change of wording—whether there is anything hidden in a change which, unless there is some explanation, sounds a little menacing.

When one turns to page 2 of the Bill we get three conditions which might be worth considering, from the point of view of amendment, because they limit the value of the Bill from the standpoint of educational efficiency. In the first place, under subsection (3) (a), we find that a school may not be closed and the children transferred to another school unless the other is under the same local education authority. There are many cases in the country of a little school by the edge of a county boundary and another school in another county close by; yet under this Bill we cannot close the small school unless the children are transferred to another school under the same local education authority. Surely the Government might modify that so that the children could go over the boundary which, after all, is only an imaginary line and will not trip them up in any way. There could be easily an adjustment of accounts as between one authority and another, as there is in the case of special schools, lunatic asylums and other common services provided for several counties.

Coming to paragraph (b) we have the thorny subject on which I have no doubt we shall hear something in a moment from the most rev. Primate. Far be it from me to reflect upon the quality of the non-provided schools, but it is a fact that three-fourths of the schools on the black list are non-provided schools and that is a very serious reflection upon these Church schools—not all, of course, Church of England schools. In a Report of the Board of Education some years ago it was pointed out that it was notorious that the dependence of the nation upon voluntary efforts for securing an adequate supply of school buildings had resulted in a type of building in which educational efficiency was subordinated to other considerations—for instance, many buildings were intended to be used as Sunday Schools and not mainly as ordinary educational buildings. Unfortunately that is still true because some of the buildings still remain. I personally hoped that there might be some modification of this very strict item (b), but of curse we are not going to press that because it is raising a question of great difficulty which ought to be dealt with on much broader lines.

The last point, raised in paragraph (c), is reasonable accessibility. I very much hope that the noble Lord will just stress a little bit that the Government really means that. I recollect one school-closing case in which I had to take a part, where the local education authority began by saying that the children should walk two and a-half miles to the school which was to replace the one which was being closed, both being Church schools. We said that was impossible because while the children could walk there in the summer, in winter the route became a marsh and the children had to go four miles round. The result of the protest, which was aided by the parents, was that the local authority has provided ever since motor omnibuses to carry the children and, though the parents bitterly resented the closing of the school at the beginning, the children enjoy the motor ride so much—the parents are relieved of the children for the whole day instead of having to provide their dinners at mid-day—that the protest died down and now the children are not only better educated, but their parents are pleased.

This point of accessibility applies in many areas particularly where there is a choice of two schools either of which is available for the children. In a county with which I am connected there are two Church schools, both extraordinarily inefficient—so bad, indeed, that the poor people living in the village, despite the fact that there are the two schools, are saving up their little weekly contributions to provide a private school. They prefer to pay because the conditions of the two Church schools are so bad that they resent having to send their children to them. Neither of them is accessible to many of the children because they were established in places which suited the local landowner rather than the children; also they are old schools built about 100 years ago. I am sure the House, on this question of accessibility, would be very glad to have a definite expression by the noble Lord that they do mean that the children will not have to walk long distances, but that the local authority will not only consider economy but will consider, before economy, improvements in educational facilities and the wishes and desires of the parents.


My Lords, the noble Lord the President of the Board of Education, has quite simply and clearly put before your Lordships the objects of this Bill. I do not wish to prolong any discussion about it, but at the same time it is obviously a Bill which will give rise to considerable heart-searchings, and it might be considered strange if no one expressed the point of view of the voluntary schools, which, I may remind your Lordships, constitute considerably more than half of the public elementary schools of the country. I think it is hardly to be expected that the Board of Education should ignore the very clear recommendations of the Committee which the Government themselves appointed to enquire into local expenditure, known as the Ray Committee. The Report of that Committee certainly made in this matter one very great mistake. It considered the redundancy or necessity of a school entirely from the point of view of school accommodation. Of course in a matter of this kind that is most misleading. You must consider the matter from the point of view of not only school places but of the type or character of the school, because it may very well be that a school which was redundant from one point of view would be necessary from another point of view.

I am therefore much relieved that the Board of Education has not seen fit to adopt the Ray Report exactly as it stood. A distinction has been drawn clearly in the Bill between the two types or characters of schools on which our present public elementary education rests. Indeed, if the Bill failed to do so it would have been a breach of faith on the part of the Government to the voluntary schools. I am not concerned, nor do I desire, to take up the moderate and courteous challenge from the noble Lord opposite about these voluntary schools. I will only say in passing that if it be true that a very large number of them are upon the black list, it must be remembered that they have not that recourse to the rates for the maintenance of their buildings which other schools enjoy, and yet the supporters of these schools have at the same time, like other people, to pay rates for the upkeep of other schools. I think, therefore, it is always a little unfair to contrast the structure and condition of the council schools with those of the voluntary schools; but for the present purposes that must pass. Since, however, the Bill makes this clear recognition of the fact that no school can be declared to be unnecessary or redundant unless the children of that school can be transferred to a school of the same denominational or undenominational type, I can see no reason in principle why this House should hesitate to give the Bill a Second Reading.

I would, however, like to make two remarks. The first is that the Bill is put before us without the authorities representing the voluntary schools in the country having had much time to consider it in all its aspects. I do not know about the Roman Catholic schools, but so far as the Church of England schools are concerned those authorities have not had much time in which to consider it, and it is possible that some difficulties may appear on closer scrutiny, that some safeguards may be asked for, and that Amendments may be moved in another place. That I do not know, and I only think it fair to say that at present all I can commit myself to is to support the Second Reading of the Bill. The other remark, which I think might be made, is that it is very difficult to expect many of those whose schools will be affected by this Bill to regard their schools as redundant.

Put yourselves in the position of a manager of a village school. He may be the incumbent of a parish who has given the utmost possible care and self-sacrifice to the maintenance of that school, and he is suddenly told that it is redundant and his children must go elsewhere. I can imagine the feelings of a teacher who has been for a long time part of the social life of the village, and who, whatever compensation may be offered, is told that his school is to be regarded as redundant. We must not expect that this Bill will operate without giving rise to great heart burnings in many quarters. Indeed, considering the disturbance which often will be caused I sometimes wonder whether the economy effected will be worth while. I do not think that the economy will prove to be very great, except perhaps in some of the towns. I do not think it will be very great in some of the country districts, once you have made arrangements for carriage, the provision of canteens, etc. Still there is that point of efficiency to which the noble Lord called attention, and undoubtedly in many cases in the towns, subject to the safeguards of the Bill, it will be educationally better for one or two small schools to be combined. Therefore, although I do not think that much will be gained, and although I think it will give rise to many disappointments, I find it impossible to resist the principle on which the Bill is based.

May I, without trespassing too long upon your Lordships' time, make one further observation, which may be thought somewhat irrelevant? I hope you will not think me another Mr. Dick, always talking about King Charles' head, but I would like to say this. Do not let the economy necessarily go outside the sphere of education, and merely relieve the financial obligations of the country. There are still, as no one knows better than the President of the Board of Education, many advances which are urgently needed in the educational world, for which anything which can be saved in this way might well be used. This is where I come in with King Charles' head—the youthful unemployed, of whom I have more than once spoken. I hope that any economy which may be effected here may be used by the Board of Education to assist the President of the Board and the Minister of Labour in thinking out a really far-reaching scheme dealing with that problem. It is not merely a temporary problem of finding occupation for those between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. It is going to be a permanent problem of very great difficulty. It is calculated that in 1937 there will be something like 430,000 boys and girls, between fourteen and eighteen, thrown upon the Labour market.

Your Lordships know very well how difficult it will be in the impending changes in industry to absorb anything like the amount of adult labour that will be required, and therefore the time has come when further consideration must be given to the question as to how far we can at least make a beginning in arranging to continue the school instruction of these young people of fourteen in such a way as to prevent them flooding the labour market at the expense of adults who need work very much more for themselves and for their families. Redundant schools may be wasteful; they are not nearly so wasteful as redundant lives, and I venture to hope that possibly some of the money spared by the closing of redundant schools may be devoted to the prevention of the creation of redundant lives. I apologise for this digression and conclude by saying that for the reasons given I think your Lordships will be well advised in giving a Second Reading to this Bill.


My Lords, I do not rise to make any remarks on the Bill, because I have not yet had an opportunity of considering it with those with whom I am associated on these matters. I rise simply to make an appeal to my noble friend not to be in any hurry with the Committee stage. I hope he will allow plenty of time before he embarks on that stage.


My Lords, there are probably none of your Lordships with much more experience of the difficulties between provided and non-provided schools than I had during the five years when I had the privilege of presiding over the Board of Education, and what impressed me airing those years was not the difficulty of the solution of the almost insoluble problem of how to coordinate the interests of the provided and the non-provided schools, but the fact that the smaller schools were the least efficient as a rule, and the difficulty of maintaining those small schools was always apparent to local education authorities. There was the difficulty of securing a proper teacher for the different kinds of children of varying age, and the fact that you might only have one class of children of all ages is, of course, one of the reasons why these schools cannot be expected to be as efficient as the larger schools in our more populous areas. I have not before me the Act to which the noble Lord in charge of the Bill referred, and what I would ask him is whether there is any power of initiative on the part of the Board of Education in connection with the closing of these schools.

After all, if the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Marley, that the schools on one side of the border should be amalgamated with the schools on the other side of the border was accepted by the Government, it might help to remove some of the inefficient schools which are on each side of the border under two local authorities. It does seem to me in that case that schools should be closed on the grounds of efficiency and economy. But the local authorities only have knowledge of the character of the schools in their own districts, while the Board of Education, through their inspectors, would draw attention to the point whether savings could be effected by getting two local authorities to consider the matter together. I would like to ask the noble Lord whether it would be possible for the Board of Education to make, representations to the authorities where they think the matter might be dealt with jointly between local authorities. It does seem to me desirable if it can be secured, and there might be some initiative on the part of the Board of Education to stimulate local authorities where they were not very anxious to close their schools, but where, in the public interest and in the interest of education, their closure was desirable. I should like to know whether there is any power either in this Bill or in the original Act for that purpose.


My Lords, if I may trespass further for a few moments to reply to the points that have been made, I would first of all say that as Minister in charge of this Bill I have no reason at all to complain of the reception it has met with to-day. It is a Bill which deals with a subject that at one time was one of the most bitter controversy, and although I recognise that the most rev. Primate was not, able to feel enthusiastic on the subject, any more indeed than was the noble Lord opposite, yet I think it is not unsatisfactory that by all those who have spoken it should have been received with what I may perhaps term cautious approbation, or recognition of its necessity. My noble friend Lord FitzAlan referred to a point to which, I think, the most rev. Primate had also referred—namely, that there had not been a great deal of time for consideration of the possible reactions to this Bill, and I can assure both the most rev. Primate and my noble friend that it will be my desire that all reasonable time should be given to those for whom they speak to inform themselves upon the matter. I may indeed point out that one of the reasons that influenced the Government in putting down this Bill for consideration at this stage just before Easter was to afford the opportunity over the Easter Recess for these matters to engage more detailed consideration.

The most rev. Primate expressed the view that it would be regrettable if under this Bill, or indeed under any other Bill, we were to see a large closure of small village schools. I should most unhesitatingly agree with him on that point, and I do not believe that that is what the probable effect of the Bill is going to be. He knows at least as well as I do that in spite of the fact that it has for many years been legal to close schools with under thirty scholars, there are in fact something like 2,000 schools to-day with fewer than thirty on their registers unclosed; which, of course, shows that the small village school has a very much stronger security of tenure, due to difficulties of transport, distance and so on, to which the noble Lord opposite referred. I think that perhaps the main operation of this Bill will be in urban areas where, owing to the shifting population, there are a great many superfluous places in existing schools. I do not think that the most rev. Primate need at all have apologised for making what he termed a digression on the subject of juvenile unemployment. I do not follow him into it beyond saying that I share to the full his feelings about the desirability of tackling the problem, which is not static but is growing, and about the necessity, if possible, of trying to find additional money for the problem, with this among other economies that I might find it within the power of my Department to make, and I feel that that would be a contribution, however humble, to that end.

The noble Lord opposite asked me three or four questions. He took me to task, not very seriously but a little, for having founded my case in part upon economy. But he was generous enough to feel that that was not the whole of my mind, as indeed I think it had not been the whole of my speech, for I devoted not a few sentences of my argument to explaining that the purpose of this Bill was to remove an administrative bar in the way of the re-grouping that local authorities have not infrequently sought to carry out. He asked me how many schools were involved. I am not in a position to give him any exact information about that, but I am advised that the estimate of financial saving involved for rates and Exchequer together—it is necessarily a rough estimate—might be put in the neighbour hood of £100,000. I can assure him there is nothing sinister in the difference in drafting between "necessary" and "not unnecessary"; it is purely a drafting improvement or, at least, drafting amendment. He raised a point about the wording in subsection 3 (a)—"the same local education authority"—a point to which my noble friend who spoke last also referred. It is, of course, always possible for one local authority to make agreements with another local authority, and this Bill, I think, will do nothing to interfere with that; it is done in cases of special schools and the like.

The noble Lord who spoke last carried the suggestion a little further, and, if I understood him, he attached importance to the query whether or not the Board of Education had a power of initiation in the sense of suggesting to one or other of two contiguous local authorities that they might close a school and amalgamate. As far as I understand, they have that power. The noble Lord will, of course, know as well as I do, and probably better, the degree to which the whole educational system is based upon local autonomy; but there is another reason, I think, of a more substantial kind even, that he will perhaps allow me to recall to him. In all these matters one essential part of the machinery is that the Board should be available to adjudicate in cases where local authorities may be thought to be acting adversely vis-à-vis the interests of parents and so on. At first thought it would be impossible to combine that semi-judicial attitude, which the Board must of course preserve, with the duty of themselves initiating an amalgamation on which it might be desired to lodge an appeal: but I should like to examine the point further.

I think that those are all the points, except the last point raised by the noble Lord opposite as to the definition of the words "reasonably accessible." I think his own illustration is the best possible argument for proving the difficulty of finding a precise definition in words in this case, when he said that what might be a reasonable path in summer might be a marshy, boggy walk in winter; and it is for that reason, I think, we must use words that are not unfamiliar to the draftsman or the Statute writer. We must leave the definition of what is "reasonably accessible" to local authorities themselves, who are not impervious to the wishes of parents or to information that may reach them as to the actual local circumstances with which they have to deal. I can certainly assure the noble Lord opposite that nothing would be further from my own wishes than to impose on children such physical conditions of getting to school as would render them semi-incapable of profiting by instruction when they get there.

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