HL Deb 16 June 1969 vol 302 cc875-82

4.10 p.m.

Debate on Second Reading resumed.


My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name down on the list of speakers. I would not have joined in this debate, especially as an Englishman in a Scottish debate, had it not been for some remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, in his opening speech upon which I felt some comment was required. He spoke of equal opportunity for all, and quoted comprehensive education as giving that opportunity. I think it is time that we opened our eyes to the fact that that is not the answer. I doubt whether it would be the answer even if all children were alike and had exactly the same talents. But that is not so. Children are as widely different as are adults.

Your Lordships recently had a most interesting debate, initiated by my noble friend Lord Aberdare, on the needs of specially gifted children. I was unable to be here for the debate, but I read it with the greatest interest. One point that came up which it is important to consider in connection with the matter that I am now raising is that gifted children fall into two main classes: there are those who are generally gifted more than the average throughout all their work, and there are those who are particularly gifted in one subject. The first of these will have no opportunity in comprehensive education that other children do not have, and, speaking as one who has spent a good deal of his life in teaching, I may say that the result will be that the pace of the more gifted will be brought down to the pace of the less gifted. That inevitably happens when you have a class of children. As for those who are specially gifted in one particular subject, their lot will probably be a better one, because they will perhaps have individual teaching in their one subject. It is no use trying to pretend that everybody has the same talents. Those who have greater talents are, I think, worthy of a better education.

The noble Lord spoke of abolishing fee-paying schools. If one wants a better thing it is not unusual in most walks of life to pay for it. If one wants more comfortable travel one pays extra to go first-class; and if one wants to stay in a comfortable hotel instead of a pension, one pays more for it. So it is that throughout life one pays more for better quality. Therefore I do not think that the principle of fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools is an extraordinary one. One must presume that at the fee-paying schools one gets better teaching. Let us not close our eyes to the fact that more intelligent children must have better teaching if their gifts are to come to fruition. That is an unquestionable fact to anybody who has ever taught in schools.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he thinks that the only gifted children are the children of parents who can afford to send them to a fee-paying school?


Certainly not. Gifted children come from all walks of life.


Then how do we provide for them?


I can only think that those who have very little money, but have gifted children, may receive some aid from the State.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to enter very deeply into the last exchange of cross talk, because the way in which it has developed shows how difficult it is to form opinions which can be borne out by fact on matters of this kind. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, spoke about the difficulties of providing in a comprehensive school for children who are gifted in every way rather than having one special gift, and I think he used the words, "You cannot do this in classrooms". But one of the points made, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde (it was certainly made by one noble Lord who spoke before the noble Lord, Lord Somers) was that the demand for admission to the fee-paying schools is much greater than the capacity of those schools, and it must follow that some of the largest classes that we have are in fee-paying schools. So the difficulty of affording particular attention to the specially gifted all-round child is as great in the fee-paying school as it is in the comprehensive school.

I hope that no one has mistaken my remarks about the desire for creating more equal opportunities in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Somers, appears to have done, by thinking that I was suggesting that in doing so we shall confer on children equal ability. Of course children are not equal when they go into school, any more than they are equal when they come out of school, or any more than they become equal as adults. But what we want to make certain is that every child will have the best opportunity of making the greatest use of such talents and abilities as he may have.

I do not propose to spend any time in furthering the argument about fee-paying, because I envisaged in my opening re- marks—and although we used slightly different terms, I think we arrived at precisely the same conclusion—that, outside fee-paying, the measure was one about which we should probably find ourselves in general agreement. This is essentially a subject upon which people hold very strong views, and no matter how long we may talk about it we are unlikely to change those views. It is therefore obviously a matter for discussion on an Amendment, if it should be put forward, in Committee; and I propose at the moment to leave the subject there.

I should like to say, however, that I am grateful for the general welcome that has been given to the Bill. This was done particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, in his usual careful and generous way. But the noble Lord asked some questions, and I think that, outside of the argument on fee-paying, he will probably find the answers reasonably satisfactory. His first question was about the use of the expression "general requirement" in Clauses 1 and 3. The new subsection (2) in Clause 1 reproduces the wording of Section 1(2) of the 1962 Act, which already includes the phrase "general requirements". The words have been added in Section 19(1), as set out in Clause 3, to increase the freedom available to authorities to build within a framework of "general requirements" instead of in accordance with specific standards. For example, there may be a general requirement to provide adequate playing fields, without the prescription of areas in precise detail.

The second point upon which the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, asked a question was the provision of premises for school buildings where these could not properly be related to the number of pupils for determining what would be a fair cost. Education authorities are already encouraged to consult with 'town councils and, where appropriate, with other education authorities, over the joint use (to take the example quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn), of a swimming pool, which may be provided in a school but made available to the community. We have heard so often the argument that to provide a swimming pool of sufficient standards really to give school children proper training has obliged education authorities to provide something which was being wasted to some extent if its use was confined to the school. Sometimes even a little increase in the standards would make the pool generally acceptable to the community as a whole. This we wish to encourage as being an economy where perhaps one pool of full standard would be sufficient for a community, instead of having two pools. In such a case, where a larger pool was provided than would have been the case if it had been for the exclusive use of the school, the cost limit of the school would be increased to cover the larger sized pool. This arrangement has the advantage of rationalising the needs of the community, and providing the best result with the minimum of total expenditure. Needless to say, in existing circumstances, in particular, all such proposals are very carefully considered.

I wish to make one small point on Lord Drumalbyn's reference to fees. I must compliment him on his addition of the various sums. It was not surprising that, as an accountant, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, also found that at the end of the day it added up to £250,000. I cannot similarly compliment the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, on his division, because it is not, as he stated, a little more than 1 per cent. It might have been a slip of the tongue. In fact it is less than one-eighth of 1 per cent., because the total expenditure is some £200 million, and £250,000, as I think he already appreciates, is a great deal less than 1 per cent. I mention that in passing because it does not in any way invalidate the argument which he is putting forward. You either accept the argument as a whole, or you reject in whole, and the mistake of seven-eighths of 1 per cent. does not make any difference one way or the other.

I will come to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, later, because his main points were really not on the merits of the Bill, apart from his agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, on the subject of fee-paying. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in eulogising the contribution of the fee-paying schools—and I would not wish to disagree with him in any way in what he said—asked whether they are to be faded out in favour of an untried system. The schools are not going to be destroyed. Change in schools is not something which is new. Practically all schools change from time to time, and although I cannot claim to be an authority on the subject, I will accept as being true the information which I have been given that Eton no longer, for instance, caters for the children of the poor. It is to be expected that schools like Glasgow High will retain their tradition in the new scheme of things.

Comprehensive secondary establishments, although comparatively new, are in fact well tried in particular areas, and as an example of what can be done in Glasgow, schools like Cranhill and Knightswood have already acquired a very high reputation. While I am not attempting to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that his arguments are wrong (because I think I should be wasting my time), I ask him to accept that I do not agree with him that this would mean the destruction of these schools, or of their high reputation.


My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me if I intervene for one moment? The point I had in mind was that Glasgow High School, and other fee-paying schools, serve a much wider community than I understand is intended for the comprehensive school. I understood that the comprehensive school dealt merely with the locality in which it was situated, whereas Glasgow High School caters for a very much wider area than that.


My Lords, I said that I did not think I could convert the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. But I will look into that point, because I have a suspicion that if that is his main objective I may yet find him on my side, although I would also go on to say that if he finds I can satisfy him on that point, he will find other points of objection without any difficulty.

Now I come to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, on the subject of the discussion taking place today, so soon after the publication of the Bill. I am in complete agreement with him about the undesirability of having Scottish business on a Monday. I think, looking back, it is at least four years since any one was able to lay the charge at my door that I have permitted Scottish business to come up on a Monday. Having regard to the difficulties which the Whips have from time to time, I think noble Lords must accept that I have got away reasonably well with looking after the interests of Scottish Peers. At this time of the year we must have regard to the job of the Whips in getting the business of the House through. I must point out that in fact this business was arranged not for to-day, but for to-morrow, and was altered, not at the request of Scottish Peers—although Scottish Peers may want to be associated with it—but because so many people wanted to discuss Rhodesia to-morrow. It was decided that there was not enough time to deal with Rhodesia and Scottish education.

We have to live with things as they are. If the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has to wait another four years before he has occasion to complain about Monday business, I think he will be pretty lucky. In fact, if I may use Lord Strathclyde's excellent term, it would mean that the Chief Whips are acting in an exceedingly "easy-oasy" fashion with Scottish business. Dealing with the interjection of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, during Lord Ferrier's complaint about the Highland Show, as I understand it that Show starts to-morrow. By having the business to-day, those noble Lords who want to attend can get the night sleeper up to-night, have a full day's business in Edinburgh to-morrow, and at the end of the day say, "Wasn't it very good of the Whips to advance the business by 24 hours, so that we can be in Edinburgh to-day instead of London".

Finally, my Lords, this is the kind of Bill where the most important stage is Committee. In deciding whether the Second Reading should be taken either to-day or to-morrow, so soon after the introduction of the Bill, I wanted to make certain that there was a reasonable interval between Second Reading and Committee, so that noble Lords would have a proper opportunity of studying the detail of the Bill for the purpose of tabling Amendments. I do not think noble Lords will have any cause to criticise the interval between now and the Committee stage of the Bill. In a difficult time-table I think the Whips have been exceedingly helpful to us in this matter, and I will accept in due course that we may throw a number of Second Reading speeches on the Committee stage.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I must say that I do not agree with him at all on the point he made about the Highland Show. One Peer, whose opinion I was Partly voicing, pointed out that it was impossible for him to get back to Scotland on Friday, come down again on Sunday night, and then go back again on Monday night to get to the Show. It was for that reason that I asked the noble Lord a question, which he did not answer, which was: would it not have been much better to have the business on Thursday?


Yes, my Lords, if we were arranging the Business of the House to suit one particular Peer. But it would have shortened by four days the period between Second Reading and Committee stage, and I should have thought that that was a very high price to pay for the convenience of one individual Member of your Lordships' House.


My Lords, it would have enabled Scottish Peers to see the Bill. And may I assure the noble Lord that, if I am here in four years time and Scottish Business appears on a Monday, I shall again protest.

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