Orders of the Day — Secondary Education, Rochford
Mr Bernard Braine (Essex South East)
I am most grateful for having been given the opportunity to raise a matter tonight which touches on the interests of a very large number of my constituents. It is my purpose to draw attention to two matters: first, the serious lack of provision for secondary education in Rochford; and, secondly, the inadequacy of present proposals to remedy that situation in the future.
I do this with some regret because the Essex local education authority has a justifiable reputation. It can point with pride to the large number of new schools completed since the end of the war, schools which are well designed, well equipped and well staffed. Indeed, I would say that at Thundersley in my constituency there is one of the finest secondary modern schools in the country. But at Rochford, unfortunately, we have a secondary school operating under such conditions—I shall not mince my words—that more than 600 children are not receiving a secondary education at all, and unless something is done quickly they will not receive a proper secondary education for some time to come.
Part of the problem arises from the quite phenomenal expansion of population in the south-east corner of Essex. Hon. Members will recall that since 1945 there have been three constituency redistributions in this area. My own electorate increased by 25 per cent. during the lifetime of the last Parliament. In fact, since 1945, the population in the south-east corner of the county has doubled, and the school population has more than doubled. Yet the provision of new school places has consistently lagged behind the increase in population. Where there are changes in the pattern of the population that is not unusual, but my constituents feel that the provision lags much further behind in south-east Essex than elsewhere in the country and further behind than is necessary. They are justified, in my view, since they see that next door in the neighbouring new town of Basildon and in new municipal development elsewhere in the county the authority is making adequate provision in advance of the new population coming in.
My constituents consider that the authority has failed signally to appreciate the quite exceptional rate of private building development which is taking place in our area. In fact, I think I may claim that it is the highest rate of private building development in the country. This complaint is true not only of Rochford but of places like Rayleigh and Canvey Island. For the education authority has failed consistently to take account of the fact that a large number of young families with children approaching school age are moving into these districts.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that against this background the Rochford secondary school should have been overcrowded for a long time. In fact it has been using overflow halls for the last six years. Moreover, the number of school children is increasing all the time. It increased in September; it will increase next September. An easement of this unhappy situation might have been obtained but for the fact that the main school is within 800 yards of the north-east—south-west runway of Southend Airport. This means that the school is within what the Ministry of Aviation calls the approach funnel to the airport or the public safety zone. It means also that every fifteen minutes of the school's working day an aircraft takes off or comes in directly over the school building, making teaching difficult and sometimes intolerable for both staff and pupils. I know this myself, because I have attempted to speak in the school at such a time with aircraft overhead.
This situation will worsen, because the number of plane movements in and out of the airport in 1957 was 18,739, last year it was 22,500, and next year I understand it will be in the region of 25,000. Thus the nuisance will rapidly worsen. One would have thought that all this would have been foreseen, since the airport has not just suddenly started to expand. But by some strange myopia the local education authority failed to foresee what would happen and—I am sorry to say this to my hon. Friend—the previous Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education did not know that noise was a factor to be taken into account until I told him about it last August.
Provision had been made for the expansion of the school in 1958. Then came the first blow. I quote from a letter from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation which I received last July, in which he said:
The Essex County Education Committee consulted us in 1958 about a proposed extension of the Rochford County Secondary School. In our view the approach to a busy runway is a most inappropriate place for school development involving, as it does, a high concentration of children in a small area. We, therefore, felt bound to advise against extending the school within the Public Safety Zone.
Everything then came to a standstill. Since then the authority has merely tinkered with the problem. When it finally settled on a site for a new building, the proposal was for a two-form entry school only. That would have meant the ridiculous situation of having half the children and staff in a new building enjoying decent conditions while the other half remained in an area which everyone admits is both dangerous and noisy.
I say bluntly to my hon. Friend and the House that if airport expansion is necessary—and in these modern times it is—that price must be paid. At the moment the price is being paid by the children of my constituents. That is something we should not tolerate. The price clearly must be the provision of an entirely new school. On this, I assure my hon. Friend, the Divisional Education Executive, the Rochford Rural District Council, the school governors, many hundreds of parents in this area and I see absolutely eye to eye.
There is only one solution then, the provision of a new school. But the question does not end there. It is not only a matter of providing a new school, but providing it quickly for children who have already suffered from the delay in providing the additional accommodation which, but for the airport, they would have had by now. I have mentioned that throughout the period of frustration it has been necessary to use
outside halls. That is a situation not unknown elsewhere, but elsewhere it is tolerable for a period of time provided that the headmaster can exercise effective control. That is not the position at Rochford. This question of control to ensure that a school has a distinct, corporate existence of its own where the headmaster and staff can exercise control over the school as a whole, is surely fundamental to education. My hon. Friend will know that the Ministry's own pamphlet The New Secondary Education, No. 9, proudly asserts on page 17 that:
All secondary schools will have equal opportunities of fostering a healthy social life. Every pupil must be encouraged to form sound personal and social relationships. Through a school's normal day-to-day activities, whether in or out of school time, there must run a strong sense that it is a body of people living together, helping and learning from one another.
Those equal opportunities do not obtain at Rochford. At the moment, one-third of the pupils are taught in outside halls. The first is the Oxford Social Club, and those taught in that hall get no instruction at all in the main school. They take little part in its extracurricular activities, and are isolated from the rest. They receive no practical instruction. Science lessons are restricted to those which need no equipment. There is no non-fiction or reference library.
As for the children accommodated at the British Legion Hall they have to vacate that place on Friday afternoons in order to allow the old-age pensioners to hold their weekly meeting. My hon. Friend will appreciate that it is precisely because these halls are used for other purposes that it is impossible to keep equipment in them or to display the children's handiwork. In such an environment a feeling of belonging to a school and a sense of pride in achievement, which the Ministry, in its publications, says are essential to a proper secondary education, cannot be developed. Is it any wonder that teachers are despondent and feel frustrated and that the numbers of them leaving the school are high?
It is not merely that teaching and control are made difficult because so many of the pupils are accommodated in outside halls. It is also a fact that the halls themselves are utterly unsuitable. The Congregational Church Hall, for example, has been used as a classroom since last January. It is quite unsuitable for adults, let alone children. How any education authority can permit children to use it passes my comprehension. It is like a slum school out of Dickens.
May I describe it to the House? The outside of the building is dirty and dilapidated and rubbish is piled against one wall. Inside, the atmosphere is dingy and miserable. There are no wall windows and lighting and ventilation come from frosted skylights. In the hot weather, during the summer, the atmosphere was indescribable, although I must say that now winter is approaching two electric fans have been installed. The playground is a dirt yard adjoining an undertaker's premises. Some fifty-five children, boys and girls, have the use of two water closets.
I am told that the Rochford Rural District Council has never approved planning permission being given for the use of this hall. The clerk told me only this morning that planning permission has never been granted under the Town and Country Planning Regulations, 1951. Although this hall has been in use since January, the authority was not consulted about planning permission until 26th August last.
The Essex County Council is not only a local education authority but is also a planning authority. Here it seems to me to be breaking the law. I want to know more about this. I do not expect the Minister to answer this question tonight, but I should like to know by what right this authority condemns our children to occupy a hall for which no local authority has yet given planning permission. Who authorised this? I beg my hon. Friend to send an inspector to this school tomorrow—not next week but tomorrow—to condemn the use of these miserable, squalid buildings as a school building.
I must tell the House frankly that the present proposals to meet this unhappy situation are quite inadequate. I understand that Ministerial approval has been given to the erection on the Oxford Club site of a new, two-form entry school. This would merely perpetuate the division of what ought to be one school. It merely nibbles at the problem. What is more—and the local education authority does not seem to be facing this eventuality—it creates a further problem because part of the proposals envisage taking over part of the Hawkwell Holt Primary School. This primary school is already overcrowded, for the same reasons as those which apply in the secondary school. Parents have told me that they are so concerned that their children, coming up to primary school age, will not get the education to enable them to qualify for grammar school entrance, that they are thinking of moving out of the district. In other words, this problem bedevils not only secondary education in Rochford but primary education also. Worse still, I understand that the land upon which the education authority proposes to erect the new but quite inadequate two-form entry school, has not yet been acquired. The negotiations for this land have been going on for a long time. Will my hon. Friend say something about what is holding them up.
The whole situation is so chaotic, is in such a muddle and is so obviously damaging to educational standards that I must ask the Minister to institute an immediate inquiry. In doing so, I must make it plain that nothing short of a drastic recasting of present plans will suffice. It seems to me—and this accords with the views of all those interested locally—that the minimum requirements are, first, the provision of a new four-form entry school capable of expansion to a six-form entry school later, and, secondly, the immediate erection of two demountable classrooms with adequate sanitary accommodation on a suitable site.
The attitude of the authority up to now has been that this is a serious problem but not capable of a quick solution. The National Association of Schoolmasters has been told, for example, by the authority:
it is unreasonable to think that a quick solution can be found
That is an attitude I reject utterly. I hope that the Minister, seeing how endangered educational standards are at Rochford, will reject it too, because if a solution is not found quickly quite clearly hundreds of children in my constituency are not going to have that educational opportunity which is their most precious right and which all of us
in the House are passionately determined they should have. I am asking my hon. Friend tonight to treat this unhappy situation as one of exceptional urgency calling for quite exceptional measures.