Orders of the Day — Comprehensive Schools
Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham Handsworth)
I am coming to the question of teachers. My hon. and learned Friend gives me an opportunity of saying that we in the South tend to forget that there are not all that many independent schools of high prestige in the North, and that direct grant schools play the part of the best known independent schools in the South.
Most people would surely feel that a school which provides opportunity, on merit, for the poorest, brings State education and private education closer together, and achieves true social mixing, is a type of school to foster. It must seem crazy to observers from overseas that it is these schools that the Secretary of State has described as having had a "warning shot across their bows". Of course, I am not against some measure of compromise. I should certainly advise a direct grant school to come to terms with a local education authority which preferred to take up places at 13 rather than 11. My impression of direct grant schools is that they are very ready to reach a reasonable settlement on their methods of entry.
But how can an outstanding academic school select without employing selection? And if a direct grant school feels that it cannot accept the terms of a local education authority obedient to the wishes of the Government, and decides to go independent, what possible social or educational purpose will the Government have served? Is it not obviously better that some children should get publicly-provided free places at these admittedly very good schools than that none should?
Anyway, as my hon. Friends and I shall make clear during the election campaign, we would far rather see a number of first-class independent schools become direct grant schools than the other way round. More generally, are we really to regard "choice" and "selection by merit" as dirty words? I know that relatively little choice exists at present for many parents, but why on earth should that be regarded as a reason for eliminating such choice as we now possess, can retain, and can extend? I expect that many Members have read a very interesting report on school selection in London, which appeared in yesterday's Guardian. It said:
Last summer the parents of all children transferring from primary to State secondary education in the Inner London area chose a school. Eighty-five per cent. of the children went to first-choice schools.
[Interruption.] I said in 1963 that I thought that the London decision had dealt the old-fashioned 11-plus examination a mortal blow.
Moreover, now that the scheme's ramifications have been studied in depth it is clear that comprehensive schools have not lost out at every turn to London's remaining grammar schools. The continuance of grammar schools does, of course, pose problems for administrators attempting to avoid the concentration of too much talent; but under free choice the comprehensives generally fared better than expected.
In that case, why should not London grammar schools and comprehensive schools be allowed to exist side by side? Many of us know both types of school. I have no time for anyone who wants to run down London comprehensive schools as a category. I have been honoured by being invited to present prizes in a number of them, and have visited a number of London grammar schools. They are different types of school. I warmly admire the work done by the London grammar schools. But I have been no less impressed—and no less attracted—by some of the finest comprehensive schools and I am thinking especially of some of the assessments of values I have heard made by the heads of these schools at speech days in their school reports.
I believe that there is room for both types of school in a city the size of London. I have little doubt that in 20 years' time we shall have considerably more comprehensive schools than exist today, and rightly, but that we should also be regretting any decision that had been taken earlier to limit the categories of school that can find a place in our system.
As for "selection by merit", I am impressed by the number of people I meet—sometimes supporters of the party opposite—who want to see rather more social equality in education than in the past, and yet, equally decidedly, do not want to see all the grammar schools disappear.
The fact is that we are short of educational resources. We need to use our existing resources as economically as possible and we need to attract first-class brains not just into teaching but into school teaching. It is no good revolutionising maths teaching and science teaching, as we are doing, unless schools can also recruit first-class staff who will want to spend at least some of their time teaching viable sixth form groups to the highest level. We simply cannot afford any let-up in the quality of our sixth form education, and the danger to sixth form standards is one of the most serious risks inherent in the drive to eliminate all selective schools.
It is for these reasons that we find the objective of the present Government—the complete elimination of all separate grammar and secondary modern schools—unacceptable. We fully agree that any pattern of secondary organisation must extend opportunity to every type of child and not just to a minority, but we do not believe that a totally comprehensive system, in which no other type of school is allowed is the only method of extending opportunity to those who should have more of it, and we think that it will positively reduce opportunity to many children who have hitherto enjoyed it. It is our view that a system of priorities in the education service, and of putting first things first, need not impair social justice nor forbid an expansion of good comprehensive schools; but not everywhere, and above all, not on the cheap.
It is for those reasons that we have asked for this debate this evening, and we find ourselves sharply differing from the policy of the Government as laid down in the preamble to their Circular 10/65.