HL Deb 24 February 1972 vol 328 cc764-80

7.57 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the full consequences of the action by the Secretary of State for Education and Science in disapproving the proposal of Surrey County Council to cease to maintain Whyteleafe County School for Girls as a separatist establishment, a decision which is of much more than local interest and importance. It betokens a determination by the Secretary of State to interfere with local education authorities' plans for educational development to a point which threatens the very principles on which those plans are based. I am not at all sure who is going to reply to the debate. I notice that the Minister who replied to my Question last week is not present. I shall be addressing a number of quite specific points to him, and I hope I shall get some reply.

I am myself a member of the Surrey County Council and of its education committee; also I am a member of that authority's south eastern division education executive and chairman of that executive's development committee. Perhaps I should say that the County Council is overwhelmingly Conservative in its membership. At divisional level Party political affiliations are not so pronounced. I have a further general interest in that I seek for all children the educational opportunities such as the best and wisest parents desire for their own children, and I have no hesitation in saying that the maintenance of an élitist system based on selection and separatism is a denial of that aim. I sought in a Starred Question a week ago to get a simple answer to what I thought was a straightforward question. The Question then was to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend that Surrey County Council shall continue to select pupils for this school, having regard to the decision of the Secretary of State for Education and Science not to approve Surrey's proposal to cease to maintain it as a separatist establishment within a scheme for comprehensive reorganisation of secondary education. I have studied the replies given then pretty closely and there seems to me to be a need for further probing to ascertain whether the full implications of that disapproval are understood, and certainly to get more of the story on the record.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said in reply to a supplementary question from my noble friend Lord Shepherd: The arrangements for admissions to a voluntary school are entirely up to either the County Council or its managers or governors."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17/2/72, col. 306.] It is only a small point, but this is not a voluntary school, it is a State-maintained school. What I really found puzzling is that I had earlier been told by the Minister at col. 303: the effect of my right honourable friend's decision is that the Whyteleafe County School for Girls remains a school that admits pupils by reference to their ability. Can we have this discrepancy cleared up this evening? How can admission be made according to ability without some form of selection? Here it may be pertinent if I ask the Minister to state in quite unequivocal terms whether this Government believe in a system of selection for admission to secondary schools or not? Or is this a matter, will he tell us, that they intend should be left to the local authority? If this latter attitude obtains, how is the action of the Secretary of State defensible since Surrey propose to abolish selection in this part of the county, and that was one of the reasons for the Section 13 notice for Whyteleafe County School for Girls?

I now turn to the statement made by the Minister last week that out of 22 proposals submitted by the County Council for primary and secondary reorganisation in the area concerned—that is to say, Warlingham, Whyteleafe, Caterham and Oxted—on Plowden and comprehensive lines respectively, 21 had been approved. That left only one not approved, and it sounded so very reasonable. It gave no idea of the fact that the one proposal that was disapproved was an integral part of the whole scheme, and without it the scheme was placed in jeopardy.

First, the proposal to close Whyteleafe, which is a girls' grammar school, went hand in hand with a proposal to close De Stafford, a mixed bilateral secondary school. The resources of the two schools were to be combined in a new school in buildings already on the De Stafford site. Proceeding in this way meant that the staffs of the two schools would be given equal treatment and equal chances in the new situation. Indeed, the headmistress of the Whyteleafe School had been selected as head designate of the proposed new school, but disapproval of the proposal for Whyteleafe really means there is to be no new school, and the decision to approve the closure of De Stafford is therefore a pretty meaningless operation—unless it is thought that a mere change in the label on a school could be meaningful. The approvals for change in the character of Warlingham Secondary School and Oxted County School are also of little value if selection is to be continued in the area, and this accounts for four out of the 22 proposals. One was disapproved, and by that disapproval the approvals for the other three are quite meaningless. The other 18 proposals were for primary schools.

Here arises another serious consequence. The Whyteleafe school buildings are needed—and I am saying "are needed" not "were needed"—to accommodate a new middle school to serve Whyteleafe and North Caterham, to provide accommodation for over 400 children in the 8 to 12 age range. The disapproval of the proposal to combine Whyteleafe and De Stafford denies the local education authority the opportunity to use those buildings for that purpose. To build a new middle school to cater for such a number of children as I have mentioned would cost, shall we say, to build the building alone, a figure of somewhere between £150,000 to £200,000—and on a new site that has yet to be acquired. That means an addition to the building programme of that amount of money, or it means deferring some other very urgent work. The County Council has been quite unable to find an alternative site to date. Even if it could find one—and I am reliably informed that the prospects are very bleak indeed—and even if it got permission to increase its building programme, it could not build that new school in five minutes. The date set for Plowden reorganisation of primary education in that area is September 1973.

Progress to date, then, for the new middle school is no site, no approved figure in the building programme, no plans, and little prospect indeed of getting a site. Even if all could be secured, it is anybody's guess how long before the school could be ready for occupation—1974, 1975, 1976? Perhaps the Minister would care to give us his idea as to when we might expect to get something.

One gets the impression that the Secretary of State has not really looked at the proposals as a whole. It seems that she looks at each individual school and, in doing so in this case, she has not realised that each proposal fitted into an overall plan. I ask the Minister to tell us what consideration was given to the overall plan, and what attention was given to the integral importance of the Whyteleafe proposal. Further, will he say what the Secretary of State's attitude was to ending selection in the area, because the County Council sought, when it drew up these plans, to honour its 1967 declaration of intent to abolish selection, to end separatism and to reorganise on comprehensive lines? The Minister referred last week to what he thought, as he put it, were not very many refusals to approve proposals for a change in character, or for the establishment or closure of schools. I think I am right in saying that no Secretary of State for Education has ever before in a like period refused 35 proposals in respect of secondary schools. I think I am right in saying that the scale of refusal is unprecedented.

Reference was made a week ago by the Minister to 7,000 objections that were sent in in regard to the Section 13 notice for Whyteleafe. I think the figure was probably nearer 8,000. A very interesting campaign indeed was mounted to secure these signatures. I should like the Minister when he replies to tell us a little more about the stereotyped objections to which he referred—at least, if he did not refer to them, they have been referred to in correspondence from his Department. How many of these 7,000-odd objections were stereotyped? How many were like the copy I hold in my hand, which does not even mention the Whyteleafe School? If the Minister is unaware of what that is he can look at it. I should like him, when he replies this evening, to tell us how many of the objections submitted were in that form—a form which makes no reference at all to the Whyteleafe School.

Since Whyteleafe is only a two-form entry school—that is to say, 60 pupils are admitted a year—it is truly remarkable, is it not, that nearly 8,000 people are said to have objected? I should like to know how many of them were residents within the new Surrey, and how many of them were residents of Croydon, which has already decided to go comprehensive.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, I think he ought to know this. So far as we know, the objections which we took into account were from statutory objectors; that is, local government electors.


My Lords, I accept that from the noble Lord. I hope he will give me equally explicit and firm information with regard to the question which I addressed to him about stereotyped objections. I raised the point about Croydon residents, because I have very good reason to know that a very large proportion of the children at Whyteleafe are the children of Croydon residents. The County Council recently had difficulty with the Secretary of State in regard to a Section 13 notice at Merstham. I think there was then reference to a large number of objections. Perhaps many people would feel that the reactions locally to the Secretary of State's decision should have persuaded her that she had been badly misled in her assessment of the situation. Other local education authorities have had some difficulty with the Secretary of State; I think Worcestershire is a recent casualty.

The proposals which the Surrey County Council submitted for this part of the country were part of an overall plan which sought to make wise use of resources, meeting local needs and wishes. I am telling the Minister from my own experience, because I was involved in a great many of the meetings, that there was probably more local consultation in this area in regard to these proposals than in almost any other part of the country. I doubt whether so many meetings and consultations have been held in many other parts of the country. I ask: why should L.E.A.s be so treated and denied the greater freedom that was promised them in Circular 10/70? The Minister made some reference last week to Circular 10/65. When my right honourable friend Anthony Crosland sent out Circular 10/65, he had taken the precaution of consulting the appropriate organisations within the service of education and he sought to persuade. The present Secretary of State for Education and Science does not have an unblemished record in the matter of issuing circulars without consultation. She fulfils a boast by a diehard Tory supporter of hers in Surrey, when he declared, not only in my hearing but in the hearing of all the members of the Education Committee: She's the boss now and can do what she likes. That is how she seems to be behaving, and there is a great deal of unhappiness throughout the service of education.

A reading of the national and local Press shows that she is constantly under criticism because of the manner in which she is riding roughshod when she has made up her mind what she intends to happen. No, my Lords. I know that that kind of thing suits some people in Surrey, such as the individual who made the remark which I have quoted. But it would be a useful exercise—and I would urge this—to give attention to the statement made by the Chairman of Surrey Education Committee on February 4 at the last meeting of the County Education Committee. He is a very good Tory. He is one of the best Tories, with a very considerable interest in, and service to, the cause of education. This is how he concluded his statement to the Education Committee dealing with this matter. He said: In a matter which so directly affects the educational policy of the County Council, it is unfortunate that the Secretary of State was not able to hold discussions with the County Council before reaching her decision which seems to be inconsistent with Circular 10/70, in which an assurance was given that authorities would be freer to determine the shape of secondary provision in their areas. The decision is particularly unfortunate in that it has been taken in respect of an area adjoining the areas of three neighbouring authorities, all of which have introduced completely comprehensive arrangements in their maintained systems of education. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the issue involved here is of importance far beyond the County of Surrey, as evidenced by the attention that has been given to it in the Press, both nationally and locally.

8.16 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that I shall not detain your Lordships very long, having regard to the lateness of the hour, but there were certain remarks made on the occasion of the other Question being asked which might be expanded a little. For instance, at column 306 of Hansard for February 17, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in reply to some remarks of mine which were perhaps somewhat derogatory of the Minister, is quoted as saying that he thought on the figures that the Minister had been eminently reasonable. He referred to the fact that 3,700 proposals had been submitted and that she had refused only 57; that is, a ratio of one in 65. He went on to give us figures of 1,400 for secondary education, and said that 35 of the 57 refusals related to secondary education; that is, a ratio of one in 40. But the ratio of one in 40 for secondary education becomes one in 105 in the case of the remaining 2,300. In other words, it is apparently much easier for the Minister to approve proposals relating to primary education than it is for her to approve proposals for secondary education. In the case of the 35, it would he interesting to know in how many a grammar school of some form or other was involved.

My noble friend has already mentioned the 7,000 objections. It would be interesting to know how they were obtained. I live in the area; hence, my interest in this matter. Someone knocked at my door and asked me to sign a petition against the closing of Whyteleafe County School for Girls. I said that I would not do so, but I was not told why I was being asked to sign. Evidently, I was regarded as hostile and that person did not waste much time on me. But I probably knew more about the matter than the person who was trying to get my signature. I should like to know precisely how the Department deals with those 7,000 objections. I was a member of the Public Petitions Committee in another place, and for one period was Chairman of it. We examined petitions and threw out those signatures which did not appear to conform to the requirements of the petition, or to the law with relation to the submission of petitions.

The document which my noble friend mentioned states: In particular, I object to the fact that the poposals will have as a general objective that Caterham School (direct grant) … Caterham School, a direct grant school, has nothing at all to do with Section 13. It says that they believe in the special value of this type of school, but it is clear that the intention that pupils in that area will not be given the option of undergoing selection for a place in a grammar school will mean that local boys will no longer be able to obtain free county day places in Caterham. That, again, is not a statement of fact. This in turn will almost certainly lead to the loss of the school's direct grant status. What authority has anybody for saying that? Certainly they have not the authority of the school to say this. What authority has anybody to say this sort of thing and to put it up to the Minister as a valid objection to the closing of Whyteleafe Girls' Grammar School? As I say, the school is not even mentioned here. Now according to what the noble Lord said, the 7,000 objectors were on this particular aspect of the matter. If that is so, just how is this reconciled? Were there 7,000 other than these people who signed this form? Have all those that did not refer specifically to Whyteleafe Grammar School been rejected?

Another factor is this. How does the thing square up? I appreciate that every local government elector has a right. Let us put this against what the county council itself did. It sought meetings with parents, and it sought to explain the proposals to them. If one takes the opposite point of view, some 6,000 parents were opposed—parents, mark you; not the local government electors in general, who might be anybody. It might be me, for instance, and at my age I have no further interest in education from a personal point of view, or from the point of view of children or grandchildren or anything else. My interest, to say the least of it, would be academic. So there is to be set against this the wishes of 6,000 parents. And how many of the 7,000 were in fact parents, either of girls at the grammar school or potential pupils, those who might go to the grammar school? These are the people whose objections are valid, and I recognise them as being valid. But I do not recognise, generally speaking, that an overall objection to comprehensive education, which is the basis of this objection, should be used in this particular case in order to bolster the Minister's decision—a decision which she obviously likes to take—that a grammar school, irrespective of the merits of the case, shall be kept in operation. That I honestly believe is what she has done in this particular case, against the whole weight of evidence.

Now what does the Minister propose to do? How does the Minister propose that primary education shall be reorganised? Of course, this is now allowed to go by the board. The Minister did not call the county council into consultation and say to them, "Look, I have had many objections; I am not inclined to approve the whole of your proposals", and go into it with the county council as to what might be done as alternatives. Not in the least! It is just a plain, blank refusal under Section 13; and the effect of a refusal under this section really means that the whole scheme goes by the board. The reorganisation of Warlingham goes by the board because you really cannot organise comprehensive education so long as yon have selection, and so long as you maintain selection you do not get comprehensive schools. There used to be a phrase which we used in the education world years ago though we do not hear so much about it now. We called it "parity of esteem". Obviously, parity of esteem is of vital importance, and there will be no parity of esteem in this area so long as there is selection. That is the reason why comprehensive education has become so much more popular in the country as a whole. Once you get rid of the political bias on either one side or the other, it is accepted in most parts of the country now as being the means by which parity of esteem is obtained in secondary education.

There is another factor in this, too. It does not appear so very much at the moment, but it will. Take staffing ratios. Staffing ratios, on the unitary basis, give a higher staffing ratio to those schools which have a higher proportion of children above the age of 16. By the very nature of things, Whyteleafe Girls' Grammar School will be entitled to the extra benefit of that staffing ratio. I am not saying that the staffing ratio itself is wrong, but you see the effect of it when that school is used for a two-form entry grammar school. The staffing could be spread and employed much better and there could be more qualified teachers, both in the Warlingham and in the De Stafford schools, and a better balance provided. It is not even that there is much particular gain in this action by the Secretary of State, because, if I may mention this very briefly, at the Whyte- leafe Girls' School 20 "O" level courses are available and 16 "A" level courses. At the Stafford school, there are 30 "O" level courses available and 17 "A" level courses. Again, in the Warlingham School there are 22 "O" levels and 14 "A" levels. Consequently, the fact that it is a bigger school gives a wider variety of opportunities to all the children than could be obtained in a narrow two-form entry school.

This ought to be something which should weigh with the Minister. If she would put aside the prejudice which she has in favour of grammar schools at all costs and deal with this on its merits, something could be done; because unless this is done there is no question about any reorganisation of primary education. There is no reorganisation of primary education until a middle school can be provided; and now the middle school has to start de novo. It so happens that this school. Whyteleafe Girls' Grammar School fitted beautifully into the picture. It is just a shade larger than was required for the purposes of a middle school not too small, but just a shade larger—and that is not a bad fault, I should have thought. But now it has to start off de novo. It has to find a site, and get the planning authority to agree to it. I must say that in my experience of the local planning authority they will not very readily approve any sort of site with regard to the provision of a school. It will take quite some time to do this. In the meantime, education in this part of Surrey stands still, and it stands still purely because of the prejudice of the Minister.


My Lords, if the House will allow me, I should like to make a correction. I said that the Minister referred last week to Circular 10/65. He in point of fact referred to Circular 10/66. I am sorry that I made the mistake: I had no wish to do him an injustice.

8.27 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for not being in my place when the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, began speaking. It was extremely discourteous of me, and not intended; but I think I am right in saying that the noble Lord only spoke of something which I know very well, which is his position in the affairs of local government in Surrey. I would recognise at once that, although we do not agree on the subject of the noble Lord's Unstarred Question this evening, one thing on which we do agree (I know of it and recognise it) is the selfless work which the noble Lord does; and I know also of the great interest which the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter, takes in the affairs of the county in which those noble Lords live.

My Lords, may I turn immediately to the statutory proposals which were submitted to my right honourable friend for changes in the school provision in South East Surrey? These, under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944, as both noble Lords have said, provided for the establishment of three comprehensive schools—one at Caterham, one at Warlingham and one at Oxted—and a system of first and middle schools in the Caterham and Warlingham area. A system of this sort has already been established, I think, in the Oxted catchment area. There were, as the noble Lord said, twenty-two proposals, and twenty-one, including those for the three comprehensive schools, were approved on February 1. It was the proposed closure of Whyteleafe County School for Girls, a two-form entry grammar school, which was rejected.

I put it to the House that it is essential to emphasise at the very beginning of any discussion on this subject that any Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be, has a clear statutory responsibility to examine on its own merits and in the light of any objections each individual proposal which a local education authority submits. Of course individual proposals are frequently associated with others in the same area; and we examine very carefully the various aspects and implications of what may be called a set of proposals—in this case 22. But nothing can in any way diminish the statutory responsibility for an individual proposal, to which I have just referred.

Now in the case of the Whyteleafe School, objections to the closure were received, as the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, himself said, from about 7,000 people. That number did not include any objections (there were over 1,000, I think) which were put on the direct grant point. It was clear that there was a wide measure of opposition to the disappearance of this respected grammar school; and by "disappearance" I mean that the effect of the proposals was that for the existing pupils and existing age range, Whyteleafe School would have ceased to exist. My right honourable friend regards it as very important that parents should have as wide a choice as possible, and although she recognises that it may not always be possible to retain particular schools when reorganisation takes place, she concluded here, having very carefully considered all the evidence available to her, that there was no adequate reason why the Whyteleafe School should not continue in its present form. If it is the authority's wish, she would of course be ready to consider a proposal that the age of entry to the school should be changed to fit in with the arrangements elsewhere in the area.

My right honourable friend is aware that as the Whyteleafe School remains one which admits pupils by reference to ability, some method of selection will continue to be necessary. The form which this should take is entirely a matter for the authority. In the past the Government, in Opposition and in office, have made their view clear that 11-plus may well be too early to make final decisions about a pupil's educational future, and in this case I would point out that the approval of the three comprehensive schools means that there is no need for any girl to take part in selection procedures unless the parents so wish.


My Lords, may I intervene? There is at present no need for parents to subject their children to this selection procedure if they wish to opt out; so this involves no change at all. I should like to get this clear while the Minister is speaking. I assure him that within the county there is very great concern—I am probably in some danger—but there is no change likely to take place at Oxted, De Stafford or Warlingham. They are already taking and catering for children up to the age of 18. I want to be under no illusion. Is the Minister saying quite clearly that the Government recognise that selection will have to continue if Whyteleafe is maintained?


Yes, my Lords, that is so. I wonder whether I might cover the other points raised by the noble Lord in a moment. I will indicate when.

Last week in this House the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter, complained of my right honourable friend's decision on the grounds that there is no maintained grammar school for boys in the area. Of course this has been the case for a long time, and boys who qualify for grammar school places have been provided for outside the area. But it cannot logically be claimed that the absence of a local grammar school for boys justifies the closure of the girls' grammar school. Surely the noble Lord would not argue that because the boys do not enjoy this facility, it must be taken away from the girls.


My Lords the position was that there was provision for boys by arrangement between Surrey and the adjoining authorities; but the two adjoining authorities, East Sussex and Croydon, are now comprehensive and therefore the grammar school type of education which was formally available for boys, say at Purley, is no longer available. That is the difference.


My Lords, I understand that the authority have made arrangements, certainly for the forthcoming year, to continue to take up places in one of the schools the noble Lord mentioned. It is a direct grant school in which Surrey have taken up places in the past and my information is it will continue to take them up. I am glad of that. But here again, the approval of three comprehensive schools will mean that no boy, whatever his academic ability may be, will need to travel outside the area if his parents do not wish him to do so.

Noble Lords opposite have expressed themselves as perplexed. I join them. I do not understand why the two noble Lords hold that the presence of a small girls' grammar school in the same area as three comprehensive schools (which are going to consist of 1,200 pupils and will have sixth forms of the size indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Pargiter) should be something which cannot work. Before coming to the House this evening, I turned up the results of the 1969/70 G.C.E. "O" level passes obtained in Surrey. They make remarkable reading. I know that the noble Lords opposite will be proud of their county. What they also showed, if one looked broadly at the sort of level of selection that there has been over the last six or eight years in Surrey, is that about half the pupils who gain four or more G.C.E. "O" levels in Surrey schools do not come from grammar schools at all. For this reason I welcome this opportunity to point out that comprehensive and grammar schools can be run in the same locality, and particularly in Surrey where the population is reasonably concentrated and growing, and where the level of ability and the voluntary staying on rate are both above the national average.

One purely practical criticism of the decision is that the retention of the girls' grammar school will deny the authority the use of the buildings needed to house one of the middle schools. Approval has been given to the authority's proposal to establish a middle school to serve Whyteleafe and North Caterham; but it is true that, before this proposal can be implemented, it may well be necessary to wait for the inclusion of a project in a building programme. However, it is for the authority itself to review the situation in the light of my right honourable friend's decision to consider whether there are any alternative ways of proceeding. As I made it clear last week we, of course, are ready to consider any proposals or suggestions which the authority may formulate. I have indicated that although there must be regard to the implications of a "set" of proposals, nevertheless under Section 13(4) of the 1944 Act the Secretary of State's inescapable function is to accept or reject the individual proposals put forward by local authorities. It would be quite wrong to assume that a proposal must be approved regardless of merit, simply because rejection had implications elsewhere. I am certain that such a substantial and experienced authority as Surrey would not make this assumption, and that the noble Lord will appreciate that the factors which should weigh in Section 13 decisions are the merits or defects of each proposal.

In the case of Whyteleafe School the large volume of objectors put forward a variety of reasons, educational and social, why this school should remain. Bearing in mind the factors I have submitted to the House, and bearing in mind that the proposals would have destroyed the school and removed the pupils to a different location, the Department wrote to the authority on February 1, including these words: The Secretary of State has reached this decision after very careful consideration of all the relevant facts, the views expressed by local government electors and the authority's observations on the objections received. She has had regard to the desirability of preserving wherever possible existing opportunities open to parents and children. In her view the balance of educational advantage lies in enabling this school to continue to make its contribution to the provision available in the area". I respect the responsibility which Lord Garnsworthy feels towards the authority in which he holds an official position; but I must say that I am surprised that he can pitch his Question this evening as though my right honourable friend's decision does not command majority support when, in another place, the Member of Parliament for the constituency went out of his way at Question Time to welcome this decision. I am surprised that the noble Lord can demon-state that responsibility in an Unstarred Question of this nature against the background of his Party's record in secondary education over a period of six years, for it was, as the noble Lord was good enough to say, the Labour Party which sought to enforce its will by Circular 10/66 which made clear that no major allocation would be forthcoming for secondary projects incompatible with comprehensive schools. And in 1970 the Labour Party introduced the Bill threatening to do by legislation what it could not otherwise do namely, forbid maintained schools unless they were comprehensive. I put it to noble Lords that it is hardly surprising that this Government were able to claim in their Circular 10/70 that authorities would now be freer to determine the shape of secondary provision in their area. My right honourable friend has been true to that pledge.

I gave the figures to your Lordships' House last week: 1,400 proposals for secondary schools since July 1970 and only 35 refusals. In my opinion that is a record which speaks for itself, when authorities are not under any duress not to put forward proposals, or to put forward proposals. That is a situation very different from that in the previous six years. These decisions are taken after examining each case on its merits, which indeed, my Lords, is nothing more nor less than the requirements of the law. To make these judgments is the proper function of any Secretary of State, and this is what my right honourable friend will continue to do.



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