HL Deb 11 November 1971 vol 325 cc472-85

3.45 p.m.

BARONESS PHILLIPS rose to call attention to the need for educational policies which pay full regard to the requirements of social equality; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Where there is much desire to learn there will be of necessity much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion is but knowledge in the making. That was written by John Milton in the 17th century. I hope your Lordships will feel that this is the spirit in which we approach this debate to-day. At the beginning of a Parliamentary Session it is right that we should take a long, cool look at our educational philosophies; where they are taking us and whether they are producing the results that we hope for. Can we regard it as the occasion for a Green Paper for education?

I shall limit my introductory remarks to one or two aspects of this vast and important topic. I feel that I am perhaps presenting the canvas on which other Members of your Lordships' House will paint their own pictures. With all due humility, I would say that with two former Ministers of State of the Department of Education participating, a distinguished ex-Minister winding up for the Opposition, a Minister speaking for the Government, as well as a distinguished maiden speaker, it is right for me not to be too long in making the opening statement. I try to be practical and it would be impossible to cover completely this vast subject; so I am tackling the area about which I know best.

My Lords, the word "equality" is an emotive one. Perhaps I had better explain my reference to this word in the text of the Motion. Speaking at the Annual Conference of the Education Committees recently the Minister of Education said: Genuine opportunity there must be; but this does not mean that everything must be the same. Indeed, the reverse can he argued. Children's needs and their potential differ. So must our response. I would quarrel with only one part of that statement: children's basic needs do not differ; they all need love and security if they are to flourish. But I accept that their potential is different. What is our response? I notice by the way that Members in another place were accused of being gloomy when they debated this subject last week. I have the feeling that the same accusation is going to be levelled at me; for I can bring you nought for your comfort. I know that when the Minister comes to speak his brief will contain reference to the splendid building programme of primary schools—for which all credit to the Secretary of State. But we are just not moving fast enough to keep up with a rapidly changing society. I am always saddened and mystified as to why, in my borough, an hotel, or a motorway or a flyover can be built with great rapidity, but an extra sink in a school takes masses of paper, a number of 'phone calls and numerous appeals before it can be installed. Our priorities need eternally to be looked at. I am fortunate enough to be in touch with head teachers, teachers, children and parents, and for the purpose of this debate I have tried to discover what they feel.

May I describe to your Lordships a primary school not very far away from this House? It is in an educational priority area and so it will be rebuilt; not, I hasten to say, this year, and probably not next year. The building is 101 years' old. The lavatories are all outside. There is only one lavatory for 21 members of the staff—shades of the Offices and Shops Act! Seventy per cent. of the children receive free dinners; and 44 per cent. have one parent—they are children of deserted or divorced wives or come from homes where the father is in and out of the home fox different reasons but does not stay very long—and, to use the colourful phrase of the head teacher, 50 per cent. are on "somebody's books" for problems: social problems, educational problems or behavioural problems. The welfare officer, who has to carry the case load and deal with some of these problems, in an. area of this kind covers six schools. In passing, I may say that the method of establishing which children should have school milk is that the head teacher and the nurse consult together. So much for the assertion, made in your Lordships' House, that the school medical officer will determine this question.

My Lords, in many cases these little children begin school without having even the background experience which is the right of any child. How can they even play when they live in high-rise flats? Their vocabulary is limited and their emotional and behavioural problems are enormous. When turning over the subject of this debate in my mind and having talks with teachers, I recalled that when I was a small girl children used to play in city streets. Now even this privilege is denied them because of the dangers that would attend it. What is the plea that comes from this primary school, from the dedicated —they have to be dedicated—overworked head teacher and her staff? What do they ask for? They ask for space; they ask for small classes; they ask for some spare room where a child may be talked to quietly, and they ask for some spare teachers. These folk are remarkable people. Not only are they teachers, but also they are social workers, and in the end they do not always have enough energy and time to do the job for which they are in the school; namely, to teach. What equality of opportunity is there for a child under these conditions? When we seek to deal with violence and crime in our community we must remember that the child is indeed father to the man.

In case an accusation is levelled at me that I have only mentioned a school in an educational priority area—although I assure your Lordships that it is not untypical—I will quote from a letter sent to me by a head teacher in a completely different primary school. It is a provincial school of a suburban kind. She says: In this country we have got so many badly disturbed children these days as a result of broken homes that it plays havoc with their emotional development, and many of the children are not in a fit state to be taught.

Now the Education Minister tells us that during the year the number of primary classes of over 40 fell by nearly one third. I would ask the representative of Her Majesty's Government what this sort of statistic really means. The average is still far too high; 35 to 38 children of mixed ability, with many problems, many of them hungry, having come to school without breakfast, and many of them tired and disturbed. My Lords, I am not overpainting the picture; this is what is happening in primary schools to-day. There is one side effect which is not given proper attention: it is the breakdown in health of teachers and head teachers, young and middle-aged, which is going on all the time. If I may again quote the Minister, she said: The birth rate seems to be on our side. The number of births have decreased each year since 1964. In 1969 it was the lowest since 1960. From 1973, classes of 40 should be virtually a thing of the past. Are we waiting on a declining birth rate to bring down the numbers in our classes? This seems to me to be a warning to From the primary school I have to young parents that they had better not upset the statistical average or we shall never get smaller classes. The money which has been saved by not giving the children their milk now seems to be distributed, at any rate in part, to parents of children in direct grant schools. Those children already have a start over the others. To him that hath it shall indeed be given.

My Lords, may I look at the secondary level? There is much joy about raising the school-leaving age in 1972. To quote a staff inspector, this is not an end in itself but a means by which new enterprise may reanimate the schools—a statement with which I am sure all your Lordships would be in full agreement. But let us look at the reality; and again I quote a dedicated head teacher of a secondary modern school. The building I will not attempt to describe to your Lordships, other than to say that about 600 children were on two floors of an old junior school plus huts in the playground. There were no playing fields and no hall.

From the primary school I have described the results produced are tremendous, but at what cost to the staff? This head teacher reminds us that schools are expected to answer the twin demands of modern society; namely, a traditional feeling of security and order and also to see that the individual has liberty and freedom. Since this is frequently difficult for mature adults, how is it to be done with children? Have we cleared our minds about what we want from the secondary stage of education? Are we satisfied with the fact that still there are far too many young people who leave school with a sigh of relief to take their place in what they call the real world? The plea at this level—the cry for help begins again—is for smaller classes. One head teacher said to me, "A lot of the discussion that takes place could be avoided if you dealt with the practical and the basic things like smaller classes." They ask for space; they ask for an opportunity to teach, and not always to have to act as social workers. One teacher said—and this I think is important—" We do not want any gimmickry to prove how useful the extra year can be. The children see through this more quickly than anything else. There is no substitute for a learning situation."

Edwin Mason, in his very imaginative book Collaborative Learning,says: If education is to be a process which enables people to give what they have, it must be, in individual terms, an identity building process. That is true, and part of this is the status which the adolescent demands from the situation in which he finds himself. He must gain from achievement, from a sense of order, as well as contribute to the main student body.

My Lords, I believe that schools at secondary level are having as many systems as we have education authorities, and so, with this and the selective system still remaining, there cannot really be true equality of opportunity. I am not at all happy about the lack of support for those in authority, even from their own education committees. I believe that damage is done by a television programme series like "Please, Sir!", which suggests that there is something amusing and acceptable about baiting a young teacher trying to cope with boys and girls who are often only four or five years younger than she is—




No, my Lords, they are younger—I see that here we have a very difficult member of the class.

My Lords, I am not sure that the certificate of secondary education has been given the status it must have if the students are not to see it as a pale imitation of the G.C.E., just as many people saw the secondary modern school as a watered-down version of a grammar school. Our children at the end of the extra year must emerge literate, literary, with a desire to go on learning and learning, and a desire to serve. While on examinations, I should like to put in a plea for a four-term year. At present, examinations are taken in the summer term and the results are not known until August. This means that the young people have to approach employers with the rather vague information that they have probably passed the required number of "0" and "A" levels, but they are not certain. In the case of a potential university candidate, he must approach the universities without even being able to give the final examination results. The present system does not seem to be unalterable, and many teachers would prefer better-spaced holidays. I have done a little research on this subject and I find that the Matriculation Board and the Universities Board are quite happy to have a change; and teachers do not seem to mind. So I am waiting to see who will break through this silence.

I am constantly reminded of the great gap which exists between the young child and the adult teacher. On a slightly lighter note, I think your Lordships might appreciate a story of when I took a group of children round the House last week. I told them about the history, in what I hope was a junior style version I told them about the exciting things that we do here; and finally I said to them: "Have you any questions?" Little children always want to do what adults want them to do, and one little boy said: "Please Miss, are those pearls you are wearing real?"

Eternally, my Lords, we are presented with this great gap that exists, and it is one of the duties of education to recognise the point at which we find it. I have not even touched the fringe of this subject, but my appeal is a fervent one. We are a rich country, and we neglect our heritage at our peril. The Norwood Committee said in 1943—and this is a sentence that is not often quoted: Education cannot stop short of recognising the ideals of truth, beauty and goodness as final and binding for all times and all places and as ultimate values. Eighteen years later, that is as true and as urgent. I beg to move for Papers.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, it gives me particular pleasure to take part in this debate, because it welcomes the maiden speech of my namesake, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont—or, rather than that, I am his namesake. Long before there was any prospect of my coming into your Lordships' House, I used to think that the one great advantage of it was that one could shorten one's signature considerably. But, owing to the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, or at that time of his mother, I had to change my signature from "Tim Beaumont" to "Beaumont of Whitley", whereas he changes his from Miles "Fitzalan-Howard" to "Beaumont". It is not a fair world. I hope that the noble Lord will take a considerable part in our debates, and I warmly welcome him as I am sure the rest of your Lordships will.

I welcome the terms of this Motion, since it seems to me to be admirably worded, in that it puts education where it belongs, fairly and squarely in the middle of politics. I hope that not many of your Lordships will protest that it does not belong there and that we must take politics out of education: From the number of things that we say from time to time that we want to take out of politics, you would think that we were the Hampstead Debating Society instead of a House of the Legislature of the nation. The type of education that we give to our children depends on the kind of society that we want to see. Therefore, it is firmly in the midst of politics, and always will be. It is not only those who want change who bring politics into education; it is also those who do not want to change, since maintenance of the status quois in itself a profoundly political act. It is only if you have no interest in education at all that you can keep politics out of it, and then you have no education. In a recent debate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London (I am sorry that he is not taking part in this debate to-day, because we should all have learned from his wisdom in these matters), quoted T. S. Eliot's dictum that the teacher sits on the horns of a dilemma educating children for a society of twenty years hence without much idea of what that society will be like. To a certain extent, what that society will be like will be what we make it. Our view of the kind of education which is fitted for that society will depend upon what we make of that society.

The two Parties which sit on this side of the House believe strongly in equality of opportunity. The Party opposite says officially that it does; but I think people must be judged by their actions, and I become more and more dubious about it. If you believe in equality of opportunity, you have to work to see that people have that opportunity. At the moment there is no equality of opportunity in this country, and enormous changes are needed before there can be. I do not know whether I need in this House to defend the concept of equality of opportunity. I hope not. Let me say briefly that it is the whole basis of any moral behaviour which makes any sense at all that we treat other people as being of equal worth as ourselves: and it is the basis of Christian moral behaviour that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. On another plane, it is the only way in which a modern society can survive when it educates all its members to their highest potential, a step which pays off in terms of civilised behaviour, in terms of economics, in terms of almost any practical measurement that one can imagine.

I repeat that we have no equal opportunity at the moment, and equality of opportunity is not, so far as we can see, increasing. A fairly good yardstick is that the proportion of the university population which comes from the working class has not changed in 25 years. The slum child—and there are still plenty of slums, as we have been reminded by the noble Baroness—starts off deprived in his mother's womb. And that is not a figure of speech. He is deprived in the environment in which he grows up; spite of the best efforts of teachers, he is deprived in the kind of school he goes to; he is deprived in the nourishment that he gets; he is deprived in the kind of home that he comes from, and he does not stand much of a chance against the well-fed child from the intelligent, articulate middle-class home.

We must do our best both in educational and other fields to eliminate these deprivations. There is one thing that we must all realise, which some noble Lords who sit on this side of the House do realise; that is, that you will not get equality of opportunity without positive discrimination. You not only have to see that poorer children get as good an education as richer ones; you have to see that they get a better education, because they need it more. You have to see that the resources are put into the places where they are needed. And still the opposite occurs. Still the number of teachers and the pay of a headmaster are determined by Burnham Scale points, which ensure that the schools of middle-class children from middle-class areas get greater resources than those of poor areas with poor children. We must start to help the deprived: first, the handicapped, whose educational standards and schools are still overall absymally inadequate; secondly, the immigrant children, who need special care and education if we are not to develop them into being second-class citizens; and thirdly, the children from the multi-deprivation areas of this country.

How are we to do this? I will start in this brief review at the top end of the scale, the least influential part. At university and adult levels we must leave open all the loopholes possible; we must see that there are opportunities, like the Open University—and it is splendid to know that the noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge, will be speaking later in the debate—opportunities such as Sussex University pioneered with its unqualified entrants. We must see that there is plenty of adult education freely available to all at the lowest possible charge. This may pick up some of those who have lost out on the system but who are still capable of retrieving lost ground. Many of those who have lost out are not so capable.

At secondary school level we must press ahead with comprehensive and, I believe, non-streamed education. The battle for comprehensive schools has been more or less won. Even Mrs. Thatcher is more engaged in fighting the educational authorities of her own Party than those of the Opposition. The time for non-streaming will come. In non-selection we have realised that the comprehensive school can produce as good an academic record as a selective system, even for the brightest child, and that it produces a far better social education. And education is not just about academic subjects: it is education for life. I think that we have got to the stage where it would be right to make comprehensive schools compulsory and I, for one, would have gone into the Lobby with the Labour Party to support Mr. Short's ill-fated Education Bill.

The battle for non-streaming will follow, but I do not believe that it has yet reached the stage where there is any point in thinking of it from a legislative point of view. Still a matter for debate among educationalists is the persuasion of teachers, because one thing that we must accept is that while it is true, as I said earlier, that its place is in politics and while it is true that children respond to the expectations of their teachers, it is also true that school systems respond to the belief or otherwise of the teachers in the efficacy of the system in which they are working.

We must see that resources go into the right areas. I have already spoken of the iniquities of the Burnham scale. This must be altered. The concept of educational priority areas must be refined and improved. An educational priority area should not be measured by a school catchment area, easy though this is to do. In fact we must try to get such a social mix in neighbourhood schools that in many cases there will be an educational priority area which cuts right across a school catchment area. I think that more work is needed on this aspect.

We must do as much as we can within the educational system to see that children are properly nourished so that they can take advantage of the education they are being given. Rather than cut back on school milk and meals, I believe that we should extend free school milk and meals to the whole of the school population. It would not be a very complex administrative job to reclaim the money from those who can afford it; it could be offset against children's personal allowances in the income tax system. My honourable friend in another place, Mr. Pardoe, has already outlined in detail the way in which that could be done.

We must experiment in schooling in areas where the present educational system seems to have broken down and truancy is rife. I was up in Liverpool a fortnight ago, looking at the Free School there. Liberal and Labour members of the City Council were responsible for seeing that a recommendation from the school's sub-committee that the Free School should not be helped in any way was turned down. The Free School there is doing a valuable job of work, one which is not only rescuing human beings (which is the most important thing) but is also, for those who think these things matter as much, saving society vast quantities of money in terms of vandalism and future delinquency. It may be that such schools must always work outside the State system, though in a liberal society I doubt whether this is essential. But while they remain outside there are methods of helping them. If Mrs. Thatcher is going, as I suspect she is, to reopen the list for those spoiled darlings, the direct grant schools, perhaps she would consider that such experiments as the free school may be exactly the right kind of school to be added to the list. I doubt that she would, but she might ponder it.

We might, I think, even take a little of the money which is earmarked for the rebuilding of primary schools—much as that is needed—to see that the working conditions in existing schools are improved. I have come across nothing in the educational world recently to make my blood pressure rise as much—and my blood pressure has risen quite a lot recently—as the Secretary of State's refusal to enforce regulations on working conditions in schools. Such working conditions would not be tolerated in offices, shops and factories in this country.

I think, also, that we ought to take a look at the whole problem of the public school system, because I believe that there are resources there which should be more evenly shared. I personally thought that the two Reports of the Public Schools Commission were admirable and it was unfortunate that the Labour Party gave way to their own Left Wing on this matter (which was one of the very first of a considerable number of similar actions) instead of taking the half loaf which was offered by the Commission, which was not only better than no bread but in this case better than the whole loaf itself. The schemes for integration of the independent schools, not for abolition of the private schools, which they put forward seemed to be very worthwhile; If the question was one of money, again Mr. Pardoe and myself put up a scheme which the late Sir John Newsom was kind enough to say was the most intelligent reaction at that time to the Commission's Report. (He also said it was the only intelligent reaction.)

Lastly, I turn to nursery schools. The need is appreciated for nursery schools and play groups wherever we can have them. This is one of the areas in which we can most effectively start making some impact on deprivation. In spite of the views of Mr. Stanbrook, who recently said that we should not encourage nursery schoo!s because this encouraged women to go out to work when they should be looking after their children at home, I believe that we are getting general agreement on this matter. I wonder whether Mr. Stanbrook has ever been in some of the homes where he is suggesting that children would get a better education and a better upbringing than in the nursery school. The fact that he represents a middle-class suburb may be one explanation; but the last Member for Orpington would not have made such a mistake, and I suspect that the next Member for Orpington will not do so. It is much to the credit of the Conservative Party that he was soundly rebuked by one of his own colleagues. As Mr. Miscampbell said on that occasion, "environment can give a 20 per cent. better chance in life"; and it is in the nursery schools that one can have some effect on the environment. The experiments held in Illinois and Pittsburg have shown this, and I welcome the action of the Department of Education and Science in seeing that more resources are available in this area.

This brings me, finally, to the most important point of all. While applauding the Labour Party's initiative to-day in bring this Motion forward, I still find them lacking. It is right that we should put our resources into trying to compensate for the deprivation of underprivileged children; but it is an extremely expensive way of working, and there is an immense use of resources in doing it. For every experiment which has been successful in giving children advantages which they would otherwise have lacked, there is another one that has failed. I hear a murmur behind me of "Not true". But it is true. There are many, many recorded experiments in which this kind of help has not had any effect. Let me take as an example the experiment in New York City in the 1960s. of 400 girls from a delinquent-producing culture who were given every kind of special attention by the educational system and who achieved no better results in the end than their fellows, since they merely reverted to the kind of culture that produced delinquents.

It has been said that the mind of the slum child will show the effect of the slum as long as he lives. I have mentioned before that it is also true that his mind and body will show the signs of physical deprivation caused in his early youth and even within the womb. It is almost impossible to combat the inability to learn caused by housing conditions where a child can do no homework and where he cannot even get to sleep before his parents do because of the over-crowding in that house. It is to the root cause that we must turn our attention. In the words of Jean Jacques Servan Schreiber: Since the initial environment is the strategic place from the point of view of human accomplishment, it is there that everything must be done. Only ignorance, routine and timidity would be the explanation, were political leaders to declare themselves powerless in face of the annihilation of the first chance. It is not enough to give children a second chance; this, in many cases, is almost certainly too late. It is the first chance that we need, and it is this first chance that has been neglected by all Governments since 1950. There has been virtually no increase in equality of wealth. There has been little annihilation of poverty among large families, and the sad thing is that this is not just the responsibility of the Government on one side of the House; it is the responsibility of both Governments that have been in power. I have heard taunts from members of the Labour party in debates in this House when they have chided the Liberals for being able to stand up for what they believe in because they do not have the responsibility of power. It is much more shameful to be in power and not to use it. My Lords, it is absolutely right that we should do everything we can to see that the Government produce, in the words of this admirable Motion: … educational policies which pay full regard to the requirements of social equality But do not let us kid ourselves that this is going to be anything but a palliative until we have a great deal more social equality, a great deal more social justice and the abolition of poverty. Only then will our educational system, our teachers and schools, be able to perform the function for which they are intended.