HL Deb 17 July 1979 vol 401 cc1287-93

3.30 p.m.

Standing Order No. 43 having been dispensed with pursuant to Resolution:


My Lords, before moving that this Bill be now read a second time, I should like to express my apologies to the House. I can assure your Lordships that absolutely no discourtesy was intended. I came over early, as I thought—because I am somebody who likes to get to things in good time—only to find that I had mistimed it. I hope the House will accept my apologies on this occasion.

This is a short but important Bill, and it gives me pleasure to move its Second Reading today. I am well aware that its contents have been debated many times, both here and in another place; but that does not make this debate any less important. My only regret is that my noble friend Lord Butler of Saffron Walden is not in your Lordships' House today, for this Second Reading debate provides an opportunity to pay tribute to his Education Act of 1944. This must surely stand as one of the most remarkable pieces of legislation of our century. Although it has had a number of amendments, its structure remains the same; and the great changes that we have had in education have been achieved within that structure, which allowed for the evolutionary development of education while maintaining the important balance between central and local government, and county and voluntary schools.

The Act also laid down a number of general principles, one of the most important being that education for each child was to be according to his "age, aptitude and ability". But, to achieve this, the Act does not refer to particular types of school organisation. This afternoon we are here to discuss the responsible exercise of powers and duties by local education authorities. We are not here to discuss the relative merits, or otherwise, of any particular system of education, which will vary according to local circumstances. The great majority of pupils now attend comprehensive schools, and this will remain the pattern for the future. We have every confidence that, in deciding upon the pattern of provision in their areas, local education authorities will continue to act responsibly and responsively in the interests of all the children in their areas—and I stress this, my Lords, because we would not want anyone to doubt our commitment to this. In doing so, they will take account both of the need to improve educational opportunities and of the wishes of local electors. Our concern is the existence of their right to exercise such choice, free from the direction of central Government.

The Government believe that local people are the best judges of the right system of education in their area. We say this, first, on grounds of principle. The education service is a partnership in which responsibilities are assigned to both central Government and local auth- orities, and the 1976 Act upset this delicate balance. We do not consider that it is right that central Government should force change on an area where there is no local will for that change to take place. We do not consider that authorities should be compelled to remove good schools, both grammar and secondary modern, if local people are not convinced that the change is for the better. On purely practical grounds, establishing new kinds of schools, with inadequate time for planning, can place severe strains on staff and pupils, and cannot do the comprehensive cause any good.

Many authorities have decided not to have any selective schools. That is their right. Others may wish to continue with reorganisation. That, too, is their right. But some may wish to retain selection, if only in some areas, and we believe that this is also their right. I can understand that parents would wish to see an end to selection where the choice was between good grammar schools and bad secondary modern schools. But is this still a choice? Surely the choice is more likely to he between good schools of various kinds which meet the needs of parents and pupils and have their support, The Government do not believe in the destruction of good schools simply to satisfy a principle.

The Conservative Party has always been in favour of a variety of types of school and freedom of choice in education. In 1958 we published a White Paper entitled Secondary Education for All: A New Drive, which, among other matters, outlined the grounds for the establishment of comprehensive schools by those authorities which wished to do so. Indeed, my own authority, the City of Oxford, was one of the authorities to consider such schools and by 1968 we had agreed to adopt a middle school pattern for the City—a pattern made possible by legislation passed by a Conservative Government in 1964. Many noble Lords, including my noble and learned friend Lord Hail-sham and my noble friends Lord Eccles and Lord Boyle, will recall this measure and the encouragement given to local education authorities during the late 1950s and early 1960s to experiment with patterns of educational provision. It is ironic indeed to think that, without the experience gained from these types of school, the Education Act 1976, which was founded on that experience, would never have been introduced.

Today, therefore, we have before us a Bill to enable this freedom to continue. No more, but no less. It has only one aim: to restore to local authorities the freedom they had before the passage of the 1976 Education Act to determine for themselves the best pattern of secondary provision for their own area. It does not seek to put the clock back or to reintroduce selection in those areas where it has already been abolished. Nor does it prevent those authorities who wish to do so from continuing to reorganise their secondary schools. It simply restores the status quo as laid down in the 1944 Education Act.

I turn now to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 repeals Sections 1 to 3 of the Education Act 1976. These deal with the requirement laid on local education authorities to have regard to the comprehensive principle in their provision for secondary education, and to submit proposals, if so required by the Secretary of State, for reorganisation on those lines. The clause also contains transitory provisions rel[...]ting to proposals submitted in response to those requirements and which had either been approved or are awaiting decision following the expiry of the two-month period for objections. I shall outline each subsection in detail.

Subsection (1) repeals Sections 1, 2 and 3 of the 1976 Act. There will accordingly be no legal duty on local education authorities to have regard to the comprehensive principle in the exercise of their functions relating to secondary education. The Secretary of State will be unable to place requirements on authorities, or the managers or governors of voluntary schools, to submit reorganisation proposals. Nor will he be empowered to direct that proposals submitted under compulsion under the 1976 Act be treated as if submitted voluntarily for the purposes of Section 13 of the 1944 Act. As stated in subsection (2), the remaining subsections of the Bill are concerned with proposals submitted in accordance with the requirements of the previous Secretary of State, which had been found satisfactory and which the authority and voluntary bodies concerned had been directed to treat as though they had been submitted under Section 13 of the 1944 Act. In effect, this means two categories of proposal: those which the Secretary of State had approved under Section 13 and those where public notice had been given under that section but no decision has been taken.

Subsection (3) provides that, where proposals had been approved under Section 13 (4) of the 1944 Act, the Secretary of State may revoke the approval on the application of a local education authority or managers or governors of a voluntary school who had submitted the original proposal. Without this subsection it would not he possible to relieve any authority or governing body of their duty to implement the approved proposals—proposals which had been submitted under duress. Subsection (4) provides that, where public notice of proposals has been given by a local education authority or voluntary school governors but no decision has been taken on them by the Secretary of State, these bodies may elect that their respective proposals should continue to be treated as though they had been submitted voluntarily under Section 13. For such an election to be valid, it has to be made by the local education authority or governors, as the case might be, in writing before 31st December 1979. Where no election is made, the particular proposal will automatically lapse. Clause 2 covers the customary provisions relating to the citation, construction and extent of the Bill.

Our policy of removing compulsion to reorganise has been described as a threat to comprehensive schools and one which will serve only to increase educational inequality. I reject this absolutely. Local education authorities are concerned with the educational well-being of all their children. It is for them to decide whether the educational interests of their children are best served by changing their existing pattern or leaving the schools as they are. This decision will no longer be subject to central direction. It will be a matter for local consultation and, I hope, local consensus. Consensus is at the heart of educational change. Where there is consensus, change can take place in harmony and in an atmosphere of constructive co-operation.


My Lords, I apologise for not being in the House when the noble Baroness opened her speech. That was due to the furtive manner in which we were disbanded. May I ask the noble Baroness, when she uses that word "consensus" whether she is aware that in Section 2 of the Bill—and I have just been looking at it in comparison with the 1976 Acts—a governor of a school by application to the Secretary of State, can revoke the entire organisation of the local education authority. Here we have a revolutionary bit of power given into the hands of governors. If the noble Baroness knows how governors are appointed in county council areas—

Several noble Lords: Order, Order!


My Lords, the noble Baroness was kind enough to give way. I am not impinging on her courtesy; but noble Lords are impinging on mine. That is the point. Noble Lords have ruined the speech of the noble Baroness by their crude interruptions.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, it seems quite clear we are not going to get any consensus on the Bill this afternoon. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, the point about subsection (2) of the clause is that the governors of voluntary schools have always had the right to determine their own policies. What we are doing in this Bill is to return that right to them. We are not altering the situation as it was under the 1944 Act.

In the past we have been fortunate in having been able to secure change in this spirit. The 1976 Act was out of step with this spirit. It attempted to compel in an area where compulsion does not work because it destroys the essential consensus on which change must be based. Grammar schools have been providing for a diminishing proportion of secondary pupils and in many areas they are recruiting from a far wider geographical area than hitherto. I do not believe that they are a threat to comprehensive schools. My Lords, what we are aiming to do is to restore to local authorities the freedom they had before the 1976 Act to decide for themselves the variety of provision they should make for all their pupils.

All the administrative actions we have taken and our legislative proposals form part of a coherent and liberating policy for secondary education. Local authorities will be able to promote the best educational policies for their areas without the unnecessary fetters of central Government directives. This Bill is a fundamental part of our policy and one which we believe commands a wide measure of support. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Young.)