HL Deb 11 March 1975 vol 358 cc163-70

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The Statement is as follows:

" The Government have decided that the time has come to implement the pledge in the Labour Party Election Manifesto to stop the present system of direct grant schools. My right honour-able and learned friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I are making this Statement to indicate the action we propose to take.

" Grants to schools which are un-willing to enter the maintained school system or which it is not practicable to absorb into the system will be phased out, starting in September 1976. Arrangements to safeguard the interests of pupils already in the schools will be made. Meanwhile, I do not propose to make any change in the level of grant.

" This decision follows necessarily from the Government's commitment to end all forms of selection for secondary education. The direct grant schools have made an important contribution to the national system of secondary education while that was organised on selective lines, and some of them pro- vided places needed by the local education authorities. I hope that as many of them as possible will accept that they can best continue to serve the public by making the adjustments necessary to become an integral part of the local system of comprehensive education as maintained schools. I hope also that local education authorities will recognise the advantages of such a solution and will do all they can to facilitate the transition for schools which are willing to make it.

" As a first step we will discuss the future arrangements in greater detail with the representatives of the direct grant schools and of the local education authorities. In particular we shall discuss, in relation to schools willing to become maintained, the problems of capital debt and sub-standard buildings; matters arising from the need to protect the salary and conditions of service of existing staff; and any special issues that might arise because of the existence of a boarding element at some of the schools. We shall also clarify with them the procedure for phasing out the grants and related features of the present system.

" Subsequently the two Departments will get in touch with individual schools, and their local education authorities, to enable decisions to be reached about their future as soon as possible. I believe that it would be generally agreed that from the point of view of all concerned it is now desirable to move as speedily as possible to avoid a protracted period of uncertainty. My aim will be to help the schools reach a decision in principle by the end of the summer term."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, while your Lordships will doubtless wish me to thank the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, for repeating that Statement, I do not think I can do so with any genuine warmth. Indeed I doubt whether noble Lords oppo-site are aware of quite the level of indignation that it will arouse. We are against it in principle because it enshrines a policy which denies freedom of choice of school to yet more parents and there are after all (even noble Lords opposite will admit) some bad maintained schools, and if they are to have catchment areas from which there is no escape other than into the private sector some parents will have children trapped in schools in which they are to be bullied or misled.

It is a feature of this policy that it reduces parental choice and thereby reduces parental involvement in the education process. Secondly, it proposes to destroy the last remaining institutional teaching links between the maintained and the independent systems. It is a feature of this policy that it sets the seal of finality upon the Socialist commitment to abolish both choice and independency in education, and, further, it widens the gap between the less well-off and those coming from more fortunate homes. Further-more, it denies access to schools with high academic traditions to those who otherwise could not afford it, schools in which those children would strive for new goals and reach them, and schools in which a link would be formed with the children of homes of a different sort.

May I remind the noble Lord of what he said in this Chamber on the 31st October? It is in the schools that disadvantaged children can be introduced to the possibility of new goals of achievement, and we must be most careful not to perpetuate, still worse to widen, the gap which separates them from those coming from more fortunate homes."— [Official Report, c. 267.] Therefore if the schools are to disappear they will be disadvantaged and if they are to be changed then the avenues of progress for those children will be diverted and may be closed. Finally, on general principles, it suspends the shadow of the axe over the last remaining source of reason-ably-priced boarding accommodation open to parents of no great wealth who are forced to travel and spend a long time away from home.

That is the general case against this policy but this Statement has two further features to which we cannot agree. The first is that, whereas the Statement says that its aim is to safeguard the interests of pupils already in the schools, in almost the same breath it says that there is no intention to increase the capitation grant, and in a time of galloping inflation freezing of a capitation grant is a sentence to financial starvation. Finally, the last paragraph says that it is thought that we should all agree that we should make progress as fast as possible to this end. My Lords, let us be very wary of haste. I have taught in one of these schools and how it is possible for headmasters to arrive at a reasonable decision on a subject of such complexity and importance as this by the end of this summer term I simply cannot understand.


My Lords, on behalf of my Party, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that Statement and to welcome the general decision. We have long realised that, although there may be sentimental and well-deserved regrets about this matter in certain areas, nevertheless one cannot have a fully comprehensive system without phasing out direct grants. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I am appalled at the last paragraph and the suggestion that decisions about the future of these schools should be made by the end of the summer term. I wish to ask the Government whether they will reconsider this matter. Of course it is essential that people should not be left in uncertainty. By this decision which has been made by the Government uncertainty is really indign as to the general future. But for schools to choose how best they may fit into the comprehensive system, or whether they should go independent, must take far longer than six months. This is a hopelessly ridiculous period. I hope that the Government will not be moved by unworthy political motives in the feeling that they must unscramble these eggs before another Government can get in to scramble them again; to do something which would be against the best interests of schools. This is a worthwhile step, but it must not be done at the expense of the individual schools.


My Lords, I would not be expected to reply in detail to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, particularly since there was not actually a question within the framework of his remarks. However, 1 would make the point that I recognise naturally the indignation which the noble Lord and his colleagues feel at the ending of another area of privilege in our national life. I am grateful also to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I would merely emphasise that the end of the Statement made by my right honourable friend in another place was intended to help schools reach a decision in principle by the end of the summer term, but obviously there was a certain amount of lee-way within that direction because discussions are under way with that objec-tive in view. I would stress that the whole concept of phasing out direct grant schools is one which will clearly take a period of years and this is in fact envisaged in the Statement.

Baroness BACON

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Statement he has made is long overdue and that it puts into operation one of the chief recommendations of the Second Report of the Public Schools Commission which re-ported prior to 1970? Is he further aware that, while the noble Lord opposite has talked about freedom of choice, there never has been freedom of choice for the majority of parents of children of this country? Is he further aware that it is impossible to have a system of comprehensive education and to bring an end to the 11-plus examination at the same time as local authorities would be expected to have a super 11-plus for entry to the direct grant schools?


My Lords, I am grateful for the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Bacon. I should like to assure her that we are all aware of all the points which she has so forcefully made.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that some of us at least who favour the comprehensive idea, and the notable experiments which have been made in comprehensive education in this country, will yet be saddened by the precipitancy of the policy which he has just announced? Speaking as one who has spent his life in education, I detest the 11-plus system. I am enthusiastic about the idea of comprehensive education, but I am not enthusiastic about the proposal to steamroller out ancient education institutions which have given educational opportunity to many people of humble extraction, and the maintenance of whose tradition is a matter of importance while we experiment with other ideas. If, as I believe, the comprehensive idea has much to recommend it and may well be the idea of the future, should not those who believe in it have sufficient courage to allow it to carry on side by side with old and tried institutions before obliterating excellence which we know already to exist?


My Lords, I have noted what the noble Lord has said, but I would emphasise that this is no precipitate announcement. This has been a matter of public discussion for a considerable time now and, though there have been divergent views which I recognise, this cannot be said to be a precipitate decision when a lot of people will regard it as being very over-due.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is really aware of the sorrow that springs neither from sentiment nor from love of privilege with which this final death sentence is greeted by a lot of people who have given the best of their lives to the English educational system? Does the noble Lord realise that this is not because we like privilege, but because we see this as forcing into an unwilling independence some of the best schools in England, schools that have hitherto been able to open the doors of opportunity to able boys from poor, working-class homes, as I have in my own life seen happen to hundreds of boys? I see the school that I once served being forced into an unwilling independence which will close those doors of opportunity to precisely the boys whom I went to Manchester to serve.


My Lords, I recognise that a number of people will regret the decision. Equally, however, I recognise that a very large number of people will applaud it.


But, my Lords, is not the difference that only dedicated members of the Labour Party support this, and that every other decent element in the community detests it?


My Lords, while deploring the Statement, may I ask three questions? First, will time be given to debate the Statement; secondly, does the Statement apply to Scotland ; thirdly, will legislation be required to implement the provisions?


My Lords, if I may reply to the noble Lord in regard to the matter of a debate, it seems very clear that this is a subject which we should debate. I shall certainly see, through the usual channels, that the first opportunity is provided for this subject to be debated. With regard to the question of legislation, my understanding is that legislation will not be required. If I am wrong, my noble friend can correct me and inform your Lordships, but I believe that I am right. I wonder whether, on the understanding that a debate will be arranged at an early date—

Several Noble Lords: Scotland!


My Lords, my noble friend says he will write to the noble Lord on this point.


My Lords, a separate Statement is being made in another place about the Scottish position and I was informed that, through the usual channels, the other side indicated that it did not wish this Statement to be repeated here.


My Lords, if that is so, could the Statement at least be reproduced in Hansard tomorrow, if there is a Hansard?


My Lords, I will so arrange it.

Following is the Statement referred to :

With permission I should like to make a statement about my proposals for the future of the grant to the grant-aided secondary schools in Scotland. I have decided that in 1975–76 the grant should be of the same amount as for 1974–75, subject, as has always been the case, to limitation to the actual amount of deficit in the case of any particular school. Phasing out will begin in 1976–77 and will extend over a period to be decided in the light of the circumstances revealed by discussion between my Department and the schools and the education authorities concerned. The decision to phase grant out represents the implementation of long standing Government policy. By delaying phasing out until the Beginning of the 1976–77 school session we are providing ample opportunity for discussion with the managers of the schools and with the education authorities concerned on the most appropriate arrangements to be made for the future. Discussions will be put in hand immediately. I expect that it will be necessary for separate meetings to take place with individual schools or groups of schools and that meetings with the schools will precede meetings with individual education authorities. My hope is that it will be found possible for the schools to be fully integrated in the public system of education as comprehensive schools but I have not made up my mind in advance on what the best arrangements might be.