HL Deb 19 July 1971 vol 322 cc651-5

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government on what grounds the Minister of Education has disallowed the proposals of the Barnet Education Authority for comprehensive education within its area.]


My Lords, the Barnet Authority submitted statutory proposals under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944 (as amended) in respect of 23 county secondary schools. Of these, the Secretary of State approved 16 proposals and rejected seven under Section 13(4) of the Act. The Secretary of State considered that the Authority's proposals to link separately organised schools would tend to produce difficulties of organisation. In her view these difficulties were increased to an extent which was to the educational detriment of the children concerned, in one case, because the two schools were over three miles apart and, in another case, because of the need for pupils and staff of both schools to travel between three widely separated sites. A proposal to establish a six form entry comprehensive school was rejected because for the foreseeable future the accommodation would have been seriously sub-standard for a school catering for all levels of ability. Finally, the Secretary of State rejected a proposal to establish a single comprehensive school in two sets of buildings because the distance of more than half a mile and the need for staff to travel betwen the buildings would have considerably limited the effectiveness of the education provided.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed reply. Does not this action by the Minister contradict her circular in June which insisted on the autonomy of local education authorities? Is he aware that Barnet Council is a Conservative Council, and that by 37 votes to 20 it has reflected its very grave concern about the decision of the Minister? Is the noble Lord further aware that the council has taken great care to consult both parents and teachers, and that they are overwhelmingly in support of the plan which the council has adopted?


My Lords, the decisions on seven of the 23 schools were not at variance with Circular 10/70. It has never been a sufficient basis for the Secretary of State's approval of individual proposals under Section 13 that they should be shown to conform to an overall reorganisation plan, or any overall plan. Each statutory proposal must be looked at in detail on its merits in the light of all the evidence available at the time, including of course any statutory objections. I am aware of what the noble Lord said about the Barnet Council, and, as I hope I made clear to your Lordships on a previous Question a few days ago, good plans for reorganisation come from all parts: Conservative, Socialist-controlled, and Independent local authorities. Consultation did not form part of the reasons for the refusal of any of these seven schools.


My Lords, will the noble Lord explain why he thought it wrong for the last Government to compel local authorities to create a system of comprehensive secondary education when they did not wish to do so and now seeks to prevent local authorities from establishing a system of comprehensive secondary education when they wish to do so?


Because, my Lords, of the 23 schools which are the subject of this Question there was an educational consideration in the case of seven of them which form part of my right honourable friend's Circular 10/70. It was on that ground, in each of these seven cases, that my right honourable friend felt that she could not include these seven schools among the 16 approvals.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as I understand it, the people who have to go backwards and forwards comprise one domestic science class of seven pupils, and that this problem has been looked at and accepted by the teachers concerned? Is the Minister also aware that people, certainly those in Finchley, feel very much that they are disenfranchised over this matter because their Member of Parliament is the Secretary of State?


My Lords, if the noble Baroness will draw my attention to the particular school to which she was referring of the seven which are under discussion, I shall do my best to answer her question about the movement backwards and forwards of a particular class. In answer to the second supplementary question asked by the noble Baroness, it is interesting that one of the approvals was Finchley Grammar and Hillside Secondary Modern.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister why his right honourable friend applies one standard at Brent and a quite different standard at Walton and Hersham in Surrey, where there was a proposal to establish comprehensive secondary education at Rydens which the Secretary of State made impossible by insisting on allowing parents to opt for selection?


My Lords, I know that the noble Lord would wish to be fair with the House on this matter. This is a question of an approval or a refusal under Section 13(4) of the Education Act 1944. The case of Rydens was also a question of acceptance or refusal under Section 13(4) of the Education Act 1944. The part which my right honourable friend felt unable to agree to in the Rydens proposal in Surrey came under Section 68 on a question as to whether the local authority were acting, in the statutory sense, reasonably.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether it is still an element of Conservative local government theory that local authorities should be given more power over their local affairs with less interference from Whitehall? If that be so, how does he reconcile that theory in this case with the Government's practice?


My Lords, I think it is a tenet of this Government that we give more power, if we possibly can, to local authorities, and we are trying to find the resources to match our will.


My Lords, can the noble Lord explain what he means by, "if we possibly can "? Does he really mean that when the Secretary of State wishes it to be otherwise, it is so otherwise?


No, my Lords. I am reminding the House of a matter which noble Lords with a long experience of local government know better than I do; that is, that local government is, in many ways, a partnership between local and the central Government, and sometimes you have to feel your way forward carefully and not direct from the centre.


My Lords, do the Government appreciate, as those of us who live in Barnet do, that after the education authority made all its plans with the full support of teachers and parents alike, this very late decision by the Minister is throwing the whole of their educational arrangements into complete confusion?


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State wrote to the authority on December 23 last year warning that, because each proposal must be decided on its merits under Section 13(4) (and this includes a statutory two-month period for objections, and must include the time for proper consideration of the objections), it would he very difficult to reach a decision before March, 1971, at the earliest. My right honourable friend did this purposely, knowing that the local authority were wanting to reorganise in September, 1971, and she was really doing her best to make the matter as easy as possible for the local authority.


My Lords, I appreciated the first part of the answer, but the noble Lord went into details. As a resident of Barnet, may I just refer to those details? Is it not the case that the Minister objected particularly to a merger of two schools and the enlargement of a third? In the case of the two schools, Friern Barnet County and Woodhouse Grammar in North Finchley, is it not the case that the council has now proposed that there should be separate headmasters and that the exchange of pupils should refer only to the senior classes; and in the case of the enlargement of Whitefield School, Cricklewood, is it not the case that the council has indicated that it would bear the cost of the extension of the laboratory in two or three years?


My Lords, I can honestly say that I am not aware of these points. I would imagine that if the first point was so—and I am sure that if the noble puts it forward it is so—this would have to be the subject of statutory notices once again, because these have now been refused. I should have thought that the same might apply to the second point.