Mrs Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
The Gracious Speech had this to say about education:
The substantial programme of replacement and improvement of primary school buildings will be continued. Steps will be taken to raise the school-leaving age to 16. Grants to direct grant schools will be increased. Provision for higher and further education will be improved and expanded.
I shall start by referring to school building. In August the Department published Report on Education No. 71 which set out the main facts and figures about school building since the war and also looked ahead over the next two or three years. Today I want to pick out some of the main points from those figures.
The major school building programme in England and Wales—leaving out minor works, on which I shall say something later—will be running this year and next at record levels. The total value of work to be started in each of these two years, £179 million, is about half as much again in real terms as the average for the second half of the 1960s.
Within the total there is, of course, first, the special programme of £125 million spread over three years for raising the school-leaving age which was authorised by the last Government and is now being carried out. Second, there is the programme for other basic needs; that is, the provision of new places to meet the increase in, and movement of, the school population. In some areas the number of pupils in primary schools is already falling, and over the country as a whole there will be no significant change between 1970 and 1975 in the number of children of primary school age. This means that the basic needs programme is being devoted increasingly to secondary schools.
The Government are continuing to give high priority to the improvement and replacement of old primary schools. The resources available for this purpose, nearly £190 million in the four years beginning in 1972–73, are very substantial. In those four years alone, it should be possible to replace or improve getting on for 2,000 old primary schools.
I know that there has been some criticism of our decision to concentrate on primary schools to the exclusion, in 1972– 73 and 1973–74, of the improvement of old secondary schools. There are two reasons for this. First, we believe that it is right to shift the emphasis in favour of the primary schools, the foundation on which all later education and training are built. Good school buildings are not everything. But if children at the age of 5 are given a chance in buildings properly designed and equipped for primary education, there must be lasting benefits.
Second, it is not generally realised how much more has been done for secondary schools than for primary schools since the war. By the end of 1970 the number of new secondary places provided since the war was equivalent to well over 80 per cent. of the secondary school population. The corresponding figure for primary schools was little more than 60 per cent.
Two more figures bring out the same point. One million—1 in 5—of our primary school children are in 19th century schools. This is true of only about 1 in 20 of our secondary school children. When we have made more progress with the replacement of the worst old primary schools, I hope that we shall be able to devote resources to the improvement of secondary schools.
Before I leave school building, I should like to mention three other points about minor works, nursery provision, and rural areas. I deal first with minor works.
From next April a minor project will be one costing up to £40,000. We are allocating well over £30 million a year for minor projects which local authorities can carry out at their discretion. A large part of this has to be devoted to the provision of extra places at schools where the numbers involved would not justify a major project, but many local authorities are able to carry out minor improvements of both primary and secondary schools from their allocations. This process will be speeded up by the Government's decision to allocate about £5 million extra spread over this year and the next for minor works by local authorities and voluntary bodies in areas of high unemployment.
Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State stated yesterday in an answer in this House, a further allocation of £1·2 million has been made for the provision of nursery places. This will be administered through the urban programme as part of the Government's plans to assist areas of special difficulty, and is in addition to the 5,000 places announced last January.
Thirdly, a word about the improvement of primary places in rural areas. Although the 1972–73 programme was weighted in favour of socially deprived urban areas, the improvements programme for 1973–74 includes many rural primary schools as well. I have asked the Inspectorate to let me have by the end of the year an assessment of the handicaps imposed on children in rural areas by bad school buildings, and, conversely, of the benefits which new buildings can bring.
Now I should like to say something about school milk. It is constantly being overlooked in public comment that milk is still supplied free to all pupils in special schools, to pupils up to the end of the school year in which they become 7 years of age, and to pupils between 7 and 12 years of age who have a health requirement and who are in primary or middle schools.
I realise that in the first term of operation school doctors had a difficult task initially in considering which children should be given free milk on medical grounds, but in subsequent terms the problems of examination and certification will be much easier. I am sure that doctors, as professional men and women, would not have wished the Department to tell them on what specific medical grounds children should be considered to need milk.
Meanwhile, plans have been made through the Chief Medical Officer's Sub-Committee on Nutritional Surveillance to monitor the position generally over the coming years. The new arrangements came into effect at the beginning of the autumn term. I shall not know till the results of the autumn census are complete how many local education authorities have yet been able to make arrangements to provide milk for sale to pupils under the new power conferred on them by the Act. They have not yet had long to consider whether to do so. Clearly, no local education authority will supply milk till it has assessed the extent of demand, and this may take a little time yet. I believe that many parents are quite willing to pay for the milk and would like it to be on sale in schools. As I said in the departmental circular of August, I hope authorities will be prepared to supply milk for sale where there is a sufficient demand to justify making the arrangements. Some authorities are already doing so.