HL Deb 18 November 1976 vol 377 cc1515-38

1 Clause 1, page 1, line 6, at beginning insert: Without prejudice to the general principle that pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents as provided for in section 76 of the Education Act 1944 and subject to the duty of local education authorities to secure provision of secondary schools sufficient in number, character and equipment to afford for all pupils opportunities for education, offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes as provided for in section 8 of the Education Act 1944 and

The Commons disagreed to this Amendment for the following Reason:

2 Because the Commons consider that the words added by the Amendment are without operative effect.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist upon their Amendment No. 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 2. This Amendment has been discussed at great length both here and in another place. Only last week the House of Commons spent 2½ hours on it, and then rejected it by a majority (large as things go now) of 16 votes. Up to date, we have rejected this Amendment on grounds which I shall come to in a moment, but we have now reached the last stage of consideration, and I must point out something I think noble Lords opposite have never denied, that the drafting will not do at all. What it says, in a most confusing way, is that local authorities, in carrying out their duties under Section 8, must have regard to Section 8. This is not very helpful, and we really cannot allow this sort of thing to get on to the Statute Book.

The Opposition's next step is not clear. Noble Lords will not wish to put nonsense on the Statute Book, and if I am asked to redraft the Amendment they can hardly expect me to accept because we reject the whole of the Amendment. Like the Commons, we consider it to be without operative effect. Secondly, in so far as the Amendment has any meaning, it adds nothing to the Bill which is to be construed, through the last clause, with the Education Acts. The reference to Section 8 is, as I have shown, tautological; the reference to Section 76 is not likely to make any difference to the way in which local authorities discharge their functions. In these debates we have heard much, and rightly about the rights of parents. This Amendment will in no way strengthen them since Section 76 is not affected by the Bill. I ask your Lordships not to insist on the Amendment.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on the said Amendment to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason numbered 2.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, I rise with a certain amount of diffidence to intervene at this stage of the Bill but I have become increasingly concerned as this week has progressed upon how this House has been considering the Amendments in each of the Bills which have been returned to us by the other place. I should like, if I may, to pass a few observations directly related to this and to every Amendment now before us. I have become concerned because I have been reading the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 and setting these against the pretty strong allegations made upon those of us who have not been happy about the Bills and who have displayed our unhappiness, when we thought it right (I certainly have voted with the Government and against the Government) by voting for Amendments in the Division Lobby. I have in mind such allegations against this House as "wrecking the Bill" which I think was an allegation made by the Secretary of State in the Commons, "mutilating Bills" and "challenging the elected Government".

This House has not the power, even if it had the intention, to do these things. The Parliament Acts simply do not permit us. All that the Parliament Acts—and it was a Labour Government who passed the last Parliament Act—allow us to do is to impose a minimum period of delay to enable the Commons to have more reflection. This delay is not for a year, not for six months or for any other general fixed period. Let us test it, if we may, upon this Bill. Let us see exactly where we stand on this Amendment upon this Bill.

If we insist on this Amendment and return the Bill with the Amendment still incorporated, we shall be deemed to have rejected the Bill within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the Parliament Act 1911. Then two critical dates come into play: the date when this Bill was sent in this Session to us by the Commons, which I am told by the Public Bill Office was July 22nd of this year; and the date when the Second Reading took place in the Commons, which I am told was on 4th February this year. It is not complicated. It becomes easy because the first date complies with the requirement that the Bill should be sent to us one month before the end of the Session. Indeed my calculation (if the date on my watch, of 18th November, is correct) is that the Bill was sent to us nearly four months ago.

Then we have only to turn to the second date—4th February 1976—and we know by turning to that date that the Commons are entitled to begin to invoke the Parliament Act on the next day, namely, 5th February, after the year has passed which, in fact, is a Saturday, so that they will have a frustrated wait until the following Monday, the 7th February, 1977. Having invoked the Parliament Act the Commons are entitled to process the whole Bill on one day and then to send it straight back here. It must be noted that this is precisely the procedure that the Commons followed on this Bill when they considered it earlier this week. Then, if it is a straight issue between the two Houses of Parliament, this House rejects it again and on its rejection it becomes law. Alternatively, we come to some agreement. The point is: either way the Commons without disruption of their legislation can have this Bill on the Statute Book on their own terms before March, as the old saying goes, "comes in like a lion" or certainly before it "goes out like a lamb".

Some may see this in terms of drama. It is not a drama. It is not dramatic, and it is not the stuff which should create a constitutional crisis. Anyway, how can the House of Lords be creating a constitutional crisis when it is acting within the Constitution? It seems to me that this House should not let any of these Amendments be withdrawn if we believe it right that they should be in the Bill. A great deal more could be said but the important thing is now to settle down; listen to the arguments and vote according to the merits. That is what I ask your Lordships to do now.

6.6 p.m.

Viscount ECCLES

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord who has just spoken will not expect me to continue with the lecture on the Constitutional position. It would be better for the House if I returned to the Amendment itself. It is a very curious thing that the Government say that the Amendment is without operative effect; yet we pressed it and they resisted it stubbornly. There must be something in it beyond what is put on our Marshalled List. I agree that from the aspect of law it does not add anything new, because whether or not they are put into Clause 1 of the Bill, Sections 8 and 76 would still be lurking in the recesses of the 1944 Act.

That is a fact. But life is rather different and this Amendment would, I think, in a broader sense have a salutary effect. Feeling is running high among parents that they should have a greater say in how their children are educated. Are their children well taught, or are they taught at all, the subjects which the parents think they should be taught? What effect will the reorganisation of secondary education have on the standards of teaching? Those are legitimate questions. Parents are entitled to ask them and, within the comprehensive system, to find the best school for their child. In my belief, this Amendment could be a definite help in making the comprehensive system more widely acceptable to parents and more easily workable by local education authorities. That is a view I venture to ask your Lordships to look at with some care.

My Lords, I begin by referring to what the Ministers themselves have said about this Amendment. The Government have not claimed that it would destroy the principle of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, on 6th October said, in col. 1303 of the Official Report: this is not a wrecking Amendment". In similar style, the Secretary of State began her speech against the Amendment by saying that it was unnecessary. Sections 8 and 76 were kept alive by Clause 12 of this Bill. In other words, whether those sections are left in the background or are brought forward into Clause 1, parents will not have any new rights to opt out of the comprehensive system.

Therefore what was the problem? What is it that the Government consider the Amendment might do to upset their policy? In both Houses when it became clear that the Opposition were going to press this Amendment to a Division, Ministers changed their ground. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson (at column 1322 of the Official Report) told us this: of course, the meaning in Sections 8 and 76 will be different after the passing of this Bill because something has been added to it". What has been added to the meaning of these sections is the principle of non-selection as defined in Clause 1. We accept that because we did not vote against the Second Reading. It means that after the Bill becomes law, the scope for parents to make sure that their wishes are effective will be changed. It will be reduced in one direction—no more grammar schools, for instance—but it could be much increased in another, and used to make the comprehensive system work better. It is this latter possibility which gives the Amendment an important meaning.

Parents know and care more about education than they did. They will search out the comprehensives which teach well and offer courses in which their child is interested—not just at 6th form level, but all the way to the 6th form. Would they be wrong to believe that unless Section 76 is reaffirmed in the Bill, it will be more difficult to make known and respected their preference for one comprehensive school rather than another? We have to be clear about this. Whatever the Department or LEAs may do, parents are going to express their preference on educational grounds between comprehensive schools just as much as they will express their preference on grounds of religion or sex.

Parents, as well as the Secretary of State, have their suspicions and both need to be set at rest if this new system is to have a chance. Parents think that Clause 1 can be interpreted to deny them any right to express a preference between comprehensive schools. The Secretary of State, on the other hand, ended her case in another place against the Amendment with these words: …we are bound to conclude that the Opposition are supporting this Amendment not on the ground that they have suggested—namely, their concern for comprehensive education—but on the ground that they would do everything possible to water it down. That is at column 270 of Hansard of the other place for 9th November.

So there you have it. Mrs. Williams abandons her original position that the Amendment has no effect or meaning and comes out with a different and, I hope to show, mistaken argument. She opposes it because she believes that it may have a practical effect and be used to undermine the basic principle of non-selection. After that admission, it is extremely difficult to see how the Government could say that that Amendment would have no operative effect.

Be that as it may, there remains a very difficult problem in the solution of which the Amendment could be useful. That is the concept of neighbourhood schools. It is true that in Clause 2 (6) the Government have already made a grudging exception to neighbourhood schools in favour of intake by banding. This method will certainly be in direct conflict with many parents' wishes. Banding is a form of selection by ability carried out against the spirit of Section 76 in order to achieve a balanced intake in schools with different backgrounds. Children will be directed away from their neighbourhood comprehensive because the area in which they live contains too many or too few able boys and girls. Quite a number of parents are going to be furious when the comprehensive in their area is closed to them in order that their child shall be drafted to another comprehensive school which they have every reason to think is inferior. They will ask: what has happened to Section 76? Supposing they are told that the Labour Government refused to reaffirm it in this Bill, is that going to help to make the new schools a success?

That is one reason for putting our Amendment in the Bill; but the case is just as strong if the Government's original intention is insisted upon and all comprehensives become strictly neighbourhood schools. The essence of the neighbourhood school is that parents' choice counts for nothing. The place where you live decides where your child is to go to school. If you consider your neighbourhood school unsatisfactory, your only escape is to move house to an area in which the school meets your wishes. Somehow the Government must come to terms with the educational problems raised by neighbourhood schools, or they will face a row with parents that will do great damage to their comprehensive system. One sensible step to head off this row is to reaffirm Section 76 in the body of the Bill and then have an open debate on how to organise medium-sized comprehensive schools to give the best possible education to children and the greatest satisfaction to parents.

In most areas LEAs will want to develop a group of medium-sized comprehensive schools within which there will be considerable specialisation, one school making a reputation in some subjects and another in other subjects. There is no other way of offering children as good, let alone better, teaching than they get now. The Secretary of State says the comprehensive system can teach as well as when the grammar schools existed. It does not now. If she intends that to come about—and we are all with her on that—then the necessary arrangements must be made for the intake into comprehensives which can only offer a few special subjects and features. Under these arrangements, parents can be given a real chance to express a preference between the schools. I beg leave to doubt whether, unless this Amendment is put into the Bill, parents will be able to get their choice.

I turn now to the other aspect of the Amendment which has a great and urgent social significance. During the Committee stage of the Bill the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, at col. 1320, of the Official Report of 6th October, reminded us that Section 76 does not talk about the choice of schools but simply says that parents' wishes must be respected where resources and conditions make it reasonable to do so. This reminder is extremely important.

No one can understand the tensions in the education system today who does not realise that the area in which parents' wishes cry out to be respected has grown enormously since 1944. In 1976 parents want to have much more information about and more influence on what happens in the school which their child is attending. What matters to the thoughtful parent is whether the values they believe in are taught in the school and how successfully the curriculum and the standards of teaching fit the child for the career he or she hopes to follow—not in the fantasy do-as-you-please world, but in the real world of holding down a good job. Mrs. Williams recognises this. She has said so plainly in speeches and on television.

Her words are sympathetic and reasonable but words alone will not calm the parents who are now on the warpath. How can they be reassured and be persuaded to give the schools the considerable time needed to put their house in order? When the 1944 Act was planned, the management of the maintained schools was organised as a partnership between the Government, the LEAs, and the teachers. Society has greatly changed since then.

Parents have emerged as a big factor in education. It is high time they were formally taken in as the fourth partner. The Prime Minister spoke in this sense; the Secretary of State agrees. In this atmosphere of understanding and good will, not to put this Amendment into the Bill would be construed as a slap in the face for parents. They would see it as a repudiation in an Act of Parliament of the fair words which Ministers have recently used about them.

I say with all the emphasis I can that to reject the Amendment would make Section 76 an ongoing subject of acute controversy. That would be bad for the schools. The schools are in deep trouble and, for the sake of the children, the two sides of the House should come together and in this modest gesture show that we are equally mindful of parents' wishes. The difference between the Government and this side, after all, is not great. They think we may be trying to put parents against the comprehensive system. I hope I have shown that such a suspicion is without foundation. We think they underrate the justifiable anxiety of many parents and therefore it would be wise to give this symbolically important sign that in this Bill parents' wishes are not forgotten. That would help to make a system of medium-sized comprehensives workable.

I very much hope that the Government will change their minds and accept the Amendment in the constructive spirit in which I am putting it forward. If they cannot see their way to do this, my noble friends will have to make a choice either to vote on it this evening or to let the Government take the odium—which I think would be extremely bad for their system of education—and then on this side of the House I feel sure we shall have to prepare to repeal a large proportion of this Bill. That, my Lords, would be a pity. It does not do our schools any good to change the nature of the ogranisation every time there is a change of Party in Office.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount raised a magnificent edifice on a rather minor Amendment, and although I agree to a certain extent with a lot of what he said—and he produced a lot of wisdom on the subject of comprehensive schools, their size and what they are going to have to do about selection and about specialisation in certain subjects—I hardly think this Amendment really bears the weight of a threat to repeal quite a lot of the Bill at a later stage.

I shall confine myself to two short points which arise merely from this particular stage. First of all, I do not know what gremlin at the last moment persuaded the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, to raise the point about drafting, but my noble friend beside me and I have looked through his speech two or three times and we fail to see any substance whatever in the point. We fail to see that it is badly drafted or tautological. But that is by the way, because I do want to make one point before advising your Lordships' House not to insist on this Amendment, which is that I think it is a very great pity that the Government have not been more eirenic about it.

I think the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, about the public relations effect of putting in Section 76 and re-emphasising it could well have been met by the Secretary of State—particularly since the argument being put forward by another place is that it is without operative effect—with a little more good will. That would have done nothing but good. Perhaps it may well be that we had a change of Secretary of State a little too late in the proceedings of this Bill for that to happen. I see no reason why they should not have assisted the House in its evident wish to have a reference to Section 76 put in. I think it is a great pity and I fear they will regret it. However, I agree with another place that this Amendment is without operative effect. I do not believe it would be a suitable Amendment to send back to another place, and therefore I shall be advising my noble friends—and I would also advise your Lordships—not to insist on this Amendment but to agree with the Commons Reason.


My Lords, I find great difficulty on this Amendment. I think we have to recognise the problem which will face the local education authority in the operation of this Bill. To say that it denies selection is really meaningless because selection is inevitable. They can select territorially by having neighbourhood schools: that is still selection. They can select on other grounds. My worry is that, while I wholly support the principle of parental choice within the limits provided by Section 76, I recognise the difficulty of 500 parents choosing one school where there are only 100 places, because that could drive the authority into deciding which were the 100 to be admitted and which were the 400 who could not be admitted. In other words, they would be driven to selection of some kind.

I am also worried because the concept of neighbourhood schools has no status in law, so far as I can see. I have suffered for 30 years from the inevitable parent who refused to accept the definition of catchment areas which a local authority had found it necessary to operate; and indeed, if there is a place in another school the parent must win. The only grounds on which an authority could win was if there was no available place in that school. I would have been happier myself if Amendment No. 9 has been praised not as a duty but as a power, because I believe that it is probably the most effective solution to the problem. It would retain section 1, which would in fact enable the local authority to have regard to the wishes of parents, so far as practicable, as to the admission of pupils with particular needs, without having to ascertain the particular needs of all the pupils. In other words, if a pupil would normally have been allocated to the neighbourhood school but if the authority had said: "This child has a need which we do not think this school could adequately meet", they could say "Here is another school which could meet that need and they could go there" That would not offend Section 1 in any way as regards meeting the needs of a particular pupil. I can think of many cases where it would be effective. Unfortunately, as I said on an earlier point, it raises an entirely different issue, because it would place an obligation on an authority to ascertain the particular needs of all the children.

I do not think the issue of the first Amendment is one that necessarily solves the problem. The authority would still have problems if too many parents chose a particular school. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge which takes precedence: is Section 1 overriding Sec tions 8 and 76? It is true they still remain in the 1944 Act, but do they take precedence or does Section 1 take precedence? It seems to me that by accepting this Amendment a balanced picture would be provided in which we should be saying in effect: "We accept Section 8; we are concerned to meet the individual needs of children, and we accept that those needs vary very substantially". Certainly that is accepted by the Government. The concept that all children are the same is not accepted by any of us. They differ very greatly. They differ in the colour of their hair, in the colour of their eyes, in their height, in their weight and in every human attribute. This is fact.

The Government are saying, "We believe that these variations can be met within the school, rather than by having to send them to different schools." This is the basic principle. I do not reject that, and I accept it. But I also have to accept, having administered at local authority level, that in the nature of things there will be children, who would normally on a territorial basis attend a certain school, who would be much better served by another school, and I want the means of doing that. The Minister may say that this could be done without this Amendment. I think it would be easier with this Amendment. There would be a basis for doing it.

I think, also—and this is not unimportant—that banding as a solution of this problem will not work. This is a certainty. If I, as a parent, feel that the neighbourhood school which my child would attend is not what I would wish for, and I take the trouble to buy a house in another area, can your Lordships imagine how I would feel if I were to be told that my child was to be bussed back to the area from which I had come, and would be forced to go to that school which I had been trying desperately to avoid? This is a very difficult situation. I doubt, therefore, whether banding can succeed. Inevitably, we are moving, and will move, in general, towards the concept of the neighbourhood school, and I merely seek a measure of flexibility which will enable the operation of the principle that the reasonable wishes of parents could be met, if they were practical, within the provision which an authority can make.

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may comment on the observations which the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, has just made and follow, however inadequately, the speech which the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, has made. I wonder whether I can do that in a rather odd way, by considering my own education. I was born in a very small village populated almost entirely by colliers and by railwaymen, and I wonder what would have happened if I had gone to a neighbourhood comprehensive school which was appropriate to a place like that, instead of being fortunate, as I was, to pass the 11-plus examination and go to a grammar school, from which I was able to get to Cambridge. I do not believe, in the circumstances, that I would have had any chance at all of getting to one of the greater universities, had I been restricted to a small neighbourhood comprehensive school in a village some distance from a town. So the principle for which I plead, which has already been made by the other speakers, is that there should be flexibility in moving children from place to place, so that when there are facilities in a school which are better than those elsewhere, and when they are needed by individual children, those children should be able to travel from one school to the other.

How far this point is covered in this Amendment, I cannot be sure. But it is extremely important because I believe that it does great harm to children not to allow them to exploit their abilities to the full, and we risk great dangers if we gear our whole educational system to the slow developer and fail to give the young, precocious, hard-working little swot the opportunities which, in the old days, he had.

I was extraordinarily fortunate. My parents never had to spend a penny on my education and I was able to get to Cambridge. I spoke this week to a dozen academics, whose names I must not mention but all of whom are well-known in this House. I asked them "If you as a child had had to go to your neighbourhood comprehensive school, would your career have been as distinguished as it has been? Would you have gone to London, Cambridge or wherever it was?" They all said "No". They all came from very small schools in remote districts, in which it is inconceivable that the opportunities could have been as good as they were in the grammar schools to which they were able to go.

It is my belief that the best of the comprehensive schools will be able to give to the brighter children the opportunities which they seek, but it is also my belief that small ones in isolated districts, and in the centres of cities, too, will become intellectual ghettos, as some neighbourhood comprehensives have become in the United States. It is a terrible prospect that able children will in future be denied opportunities which they have today, and this will happen unless there is a fair mobility as between schools which will enable children to move to where opportunities exist.

I make one more point before I sit down. At this moment in time, we have a three-year university course, and the final degree standard is as high as is to be found anywhere else in the world after a four-year course. The reason why other countries need a four-year course is that, almost invariably, they have neighbourhood comprehensive schools. May I warn the Government that, unless something is done to make it possible for the brighter children to be taught by the ablest teachers, they, too, will have to introduce a four-year course if the standard of the honours degree is not to fall. Nowhere else in the world do they achieve the standards that we achieve in three years. I think it true to say that in most other countries the first year, and sometimes even the second year, of the university course is devoted to teaching subjects which are taught in schools here. Once we lose this, we have to insist on a four-year course if our degrees are to remain as they now are—acceptable in all countries of the world.

The problems of negotiations with the French, who have a very much more elaborate system that we have, have been difficult hitherto. They will become impossible in future. They have the most highly selective system of education anywhere in the world. They glory in it, and it works extremely well. The Americans have neighbourhood comprehensives schools, some of which are good and some of which are very bad, and they have a four-year course. But many students have no hope at all of getting to the university of their choice.

We are faced today with a very real problem, and it is this. How are we to retain our acedemic standards? How are our universities to continue giving a good honours degree in three years, unless the students are better taught than they are likely to be in the average neighbourhood comprehensive school? How far this first Amendment covers this point, I do not know. But I believe very strongly indeed that there should be an opportunity for children to migrate to those schools which are accessible to them in the district, and, if necessary, away from what has made the neighbourhood comprehensive school into a term of abuse, in many countries. I cannot understand how far this Amendment will cover that problem, but I pose it to the Government, and I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to reply how this problem will be resolved.

6.38 p.m.


My Lords, I think it is fair of me to claim that while this Bill has been going through the House noble Lords on the Liberal Benches, on these Benches and on the Cross-Benches have all been trying to bring home to the Government that what is objectionable about it is its insistence on a totally uniform system of education. I assure noble Lords on the Government Front Bench that we on these Benches want to see comprehensive schools established and flourishing. But the Government—and it is the Government alone who are guilty in this respect—do not appear to realise that, if they insist on forcing non-selective education down everyone's throats, they will be rendering a disservice to the cause of comprehensive schools. Local authorities must have some discretion about how and when they will reorganise; there must be sufficient resources to do the job properly, and there must be a right for parents to have some say in how their children are to be brought up and educated. Yet the fact of the matter is that, through all the stages of this Bill, Amendments directed to these points—indeed, Amendments directed to the principle of comprehensive education—have all been resisted by the Government.

If I may call in aid the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, this Amendment is not confusing; it is a simple re-statement of two of the most important sections of the Education Act 1944; Section 76, which provides that, when possible, the hopes and wishes of parents for their children shall be taken into account, and Section 8 which lays a duty on authorities to match their schools and the education given to the different ages, abilities and aptitudes of the pupils.

As we understand it from the Marshalled List, the Government are resisting their case on the ground that the Amendment is unnecessary. In effect, in another place the Secretary of State has said that within a system of totally non-selective schools each comprehensive school should be suitable to all children and, therefore, acceptable to all parents. How right my noble friend Lord Eccles was to point out that this is not what happens in reality. Indeed, it is probably not what local education authorities are going to want to happen as the years go by.

Today, increasingly, parents want the very best start in life for their sons and daughters, and in many cases they are just not prepared to be directed to the nearest neighbourhood school. After all, has not the Prime Minister himself said that today our country needs, as never before, boys and girls whose education fits them to make their way in the world? Parents have listened to that Oxford speech and have taken it very much to heart.

What I am putting to the Government is that in the real world parents will want their children to go to the school which they believe is best for them. It may be because the school has a very strong science department, or because the language teaching is good, or because it has a very good remedial teacher, since their son or daughter is rather backward, or because the school is small, or because it is a single-sex school, or because the parents happen to like the headmaster or the headmistress, or just because, in a free society, the parents happen to like the school. They will want to choose in this way between different comprehensive schools. The noble Lord, Lord Bowden, said that he was not certain that the Amendment would cover what he wished to see; namely, the opportunities that he had to go to a school which gave him the opportunity to reach his academic position in. life.

As I understand it, under the law as it stands parents have no absolute right of choice. What Section 8 (which is included in this Amendment) of the 1944 Education Act does is to lay a duty on authorities to provide a variety of education. Although the school which is then chosen by parents may be full, unsuitable or too far away, nevertheless the duty on authorities to try to match provision to needs is provided for in Section 8. This is the practical application of the principle of parental choice which is contained in Section 76. The Government may protest when the noble Lord replies—as, indeed, the Secretary of State protested in another place—that comprehensive education is its own Section 8; that each comprehensive school must provide all the necessary variety. In a system of totally comprehensive schools, particularly at a time of scarce resources, I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.

Yet what do we find? At the moment, the Department of Education and Science is busy preparing a new circular which I assume it would like to send out as an accompanying document to the passage of this Bill. I have quoted before paragraph 8 of that circular as it stands in draft form, and I make no apology for quoting it again. Paragraph 8 says this: Questions of a school's suitability to the aptitude and ability of a child are not expected to remain of practical significance for much longer, as they should not normally arise in the case of admissions to a comprehensive school". Those words run directly counter to the wise and moderate advice which has been given to the House this evening by my noble friend Lord Eccles. Freedom of choice in a comprehensive system is going to be increasingly important to parents.

Those words also run counter to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, in his speech, when he pointed out that it is the law of the land that a parent can always choose another school under Section 76, provided, of course, that it is suitable and provided also that there is room in the school. I must say that if those words in the draft circular of the Department of Education and Science represent the way in which the Government intend to interpret Clause 1 of the Bill, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that Section 76 and Section 8 remain operative.

When the noble Lord in his few remarks explained why the Government are standing against the Amendment he said that, if written into the Bill, Section 8 would be tautological and Section 76 would not be of much effect. I should like to ask the noble Lord when he replies for the Government to give an assurance that the House may take it that the Government are absolutely genuine in their view that to write Section 76 and Section 8 into the Bill would be unnecessary because those two sections continue to stand, whatever other things this Bill may say. That is the way in which I interpret the words which are on our Marshalled List.

May I refer to one other matter. My noble friend Lord Eccles pointed out that when the Secretary of State was speaking in another place on the consideration of these Amndments she appeared suddenly to change her ground and to give it as her opinion that this is also intended in some way to be a wrecking Amendment. That suggestion was made in col. 269. Let us remember that in a debate on parental rights in this House two years ago no less a person than the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, told your Lordships that it was he personally who drafted Section 76. I remember that the noble Lord admitted that Section 76 is only a general principle because it is impossible to assure every single parent of absolute choice of school. The noble Lord came back to this House a year later for a debate on direct grant schools in which he returned to the same subject and said this: Section 76 has, alas, been forgotten not only by many of your Lordships but by the country as a whole, and the sooner we get back to remembering that that was the original idea, backed by a Coalition Government, by myself, by Mr. Chuter Ede, by noble Lords I have mentioned and by others in the Labour movement, the better". I put it to the Government that if they really do believe that Section 76 would wreck the intentions of the Bill they should reflect very seriously on the wisdom of the Bill itself. But of course the Amendment is not a wrecking Amendment. It simply states, in the simple words which were used by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, and Mr. Chuter Ede over 30 years ago, one of the oldest principles in the world, that parents really count for something and that no major Education Bill ought to be allowed to omit mention of them. The Amendment adds one of the most firmly based principles of our education service, that the service is a partnership between local and central Government, involving teachers, governors and parents, a partnership which needs every ounce of mutual understanding in these very difficult times.

At a time when local government expenditure is again bound to come under such heavy pressure it is unrealistic of the Government to lay down that each comprehensive school is going to be all things to all pupils. Only today the newspapers carry reports of the Secretary of State's consideration of a new examination which there may be for school leavers. In the reports I have read, constantly one finds a reference to the shortage of teachers in mathematics, in languages and in English.

Individual comprehensive schools are going to have their strength and their weaknesses and this Amendment would write into the Bill, alongside the comprehensive principle, recognition of the simple, human and educational factor which my noble friend Lord Eccles explained so clearly, that in a comprehensive system parents will go on wanting, and wanting more and more, their children to go to one school but perhaps not to another. Therefore I hope that the Secretary of State will at least alter her mind that this Amendment would, to use her words, "bury the comprehensive principle under Section 76 and Section 8 of the Education Act". It was an expression of opinion, I thought, which would bring dismay to many people—people who believe in comprehensive education but who realise that unless local education authorities and parents feel really committed to the schools in their area those schools will never really be a success.

For this reason, we on these Benches believe in the rights of parents and the responsibilities of local education authorities. Because the Bill, taken as a whole reduces those rights in many ways and diminishes those responsibilities, I should like to repeat the undertaking which was given on Second Reading in another place by Mr. St. John-Stevas, that when the moment comes, a future Conservative Government will feel impelled to repeal the objectionable clauses in what we feel is in so many ways an irrelevant Bill.


My Lords, I should like to begin by making three things very clear which have not been clear in the widespread but extremely interesting speeches we have had. What we are discussing is not whether Section 8 and Section 76 are good things or bad things—and a number of speeches have suggested that the Government, by not accepting this Amendment, are undermining those principles. Let it be perfectly clear that the reason why the Government are rejecting this Amendment is because those principles are firmly established in the Bill.

The second thing the noble Lord asked me was to give him an assurance that those two sections from the 1944 Act are firmly established in the Bill. I give that assurance and I give it readily. Thirdly, we had such an interesting discussion that I think even though it is really not my business to reply to a Second Reading debate—which is largely what we have had—I should like to make one or two comments.

I agree with most of the things that the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said about the importance of giving confidence to parents. This is not a view which is held only on one side of the House; it is held by everybody who has the faintest interest in education. But the way it was put suggested that the noble Viscount and his colleagues are interested in it and we are not. I simply cannot let that pass, because it is not the case. The noble Viscount knows very well that it is not the case. It will not do. Our position is just the same as that held by others: there are very difficult problems connected with neighbourhood schools, of course, and although I think the experience of my noble friend Lord Bowden is interesting, I would point out to him—because I think it is worth saying—that at the present moment comprehensive schools in catchment areas of the kind he was speaking about, where there are no grammar schools taking from the same catchment area, are producing high level results. I could go into this at greater detail or, if the noble Lord wanted me to, I could write to him about it. If the grammar school was not there, the comprehensive school would be different and would include the wider talents, and I think that is an entirely separate situation.

I think it is important in discussing an Amendment such as this, and having had a good "run around", that we should stick to the Amendment. The Amendment is that two sections which the Government believe in implicitly should be written into the Bill. The Government say that they are already fully covered by the Bill, particularly in Clause 12, and that to write them in would be a possible source of confusion for the future. I will not argue the case of drafting because if the Opposition press this Motion it will be their problem and not mine, but I hope the Opposition will not find it necessary to press it. The argument has been on the Bill as a whole and not on this Amendment, but at this stage we must return to the Amendment. I ask your Lordships not to persist in this because basically there is nothing between us on this Amendment and I think I have said all I need to make that clear.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


3 Page 1, line 11, leave out "or partly"

The Commons disagreed to this Amendment for the following Reason:

4 Because the Commons do not consider that the provision of secondary education in schools where the admission arrangements are partly based on selection can be justified.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist upon their Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 4. The other place spent two hours in discussion on this Amendment last Tuesday, having previously considered the Amendment for one and a half hours in Committee. The Commons as a whole have now disagreed to it because they do not consider that the provision of secondary education in schools where the admission arrangements are based partly on selection can be justified.

Moved, that this House doth not insist upon the said Amendment to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 4.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)


My Lords, the intention of this Amendment, of course, was not to wreck the principle of the Bill but to try to open the door to some flexibility in putting comprehensive education into effect. I should just like to say one thing on the Amendment. Since the Amendment was passed by your Lordships, the Government have remained inactive in the matter. They have apparently been content to wait and then to disagree with this Amendment in the other place. But the difficulty that this will put the education service into is that there will be very little flexibility about admission arrangements in the Bill. I would go so far as to assert that there will be no opportunity to send a backward child to a school with particularly good remedial teaching or to enter a very gifted child for a school which would seem to meet their needs better than another one, or to allow a boy or girl to go to a particular school because the maths or the science or the language teaching suit the pupil.

My own apprehension is that in fact these sensible admission arrangements will continue—I heard the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, saying that this is the sort of thing that is sensible—and the Bill will be breached until the time comes when a parent takes the case to appeal under Section 68 because he is suddenly denied admission for a child on the same grounds as other people have been able to gain admission. Finally he may even take it to law. I think it is a pity because in essence it leaves the drafting of the Bill obscure and we shall have to await the outcome of events to see the exact meaning of Clause 1. With that regret, I would not stand in the way of the Commons insistence in regard to this particular Amendment.


My Lords, never having taken part in an education debate of this kind, I am not really in a position to make good observations, but what rather worries me with regard to parental interest in children's education in future is this. I want to know from somebody how children with parents who have not really got a knowledge of what school their children ought to go to or what their children's capacity is, are to be advised. In other words, children with parents who are not quite qualified to give advice because they have no real knowledge of the educational opportunities for their children, need to be protected. Where parental advice is given to local education authorities or to head teachers, there will then be parental control. The parents will have the knowledge and can keep on asking for their children to go to special schools where they will receive specialist teaching in relation to their capacity.

I know only too well from the time when I was in the House of Commons that if one went on and on sometimes one won a battle which perhaps one should not have won. But on the other hand, what is going to happen to children who are in a position where the parents cannot go on and on, or do not know how to go on and on? I can see that some children will then miss their opportunity. Where parents do not know how to make representations, and cannot go on arguing and do not know how to argue, I should like to know how those children are going to be protected so that they will not miss the opportunity of getting the benefit of whatever school they want to go to.

I am very worried about that, because those children need protection from somebody or other. I am afraid I have not put it very well because, as I say, I am not really very knowledgeable about all this, but I want to be quite sure that all children are going to have the same opportunity of going forward in whatever school they attend, even if they do not have parents who can argue with the local authorities, or argue with head teachers, or whoever they have to argue with.


My Lords, I find it a little difficult to relate the noble Baroness's remarks to the Amendment, but I shall try to answer her. The normal recourse of a parent worried about where the child shall go is the head of the primary school. This, as a general rule, is fully observed. I think that the advice—of course there may be bad advice occasionally—is very good, and I think that the primary school head consults individual teachers, matrons, and everybody else. In the present state of society, I think this is about as far as you can go, and is not really half bad.

On Question, Motion agreed to.