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Orders of the Day — Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st July 1947.

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Photo of Mr R.A. Butler Mr R.A. Butler , Saffron Walden 12:00 am, 31st July 1947

I am sure the Committee would like me to express our gratitude to the Minister for his review of the position. He conducted it in the style we associate with him, and we are grateful to him for that. He said at the beginning of his speech that he hoped he would not drop any bricks, and I can assure him that he has managed to avoid doing so; but, if he is looking for a few bricks to pick up, let me refer him to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, who stated in the Debate on 28th July—only three days ago—— We are having to close down in certain bricykards because they cannot get orders."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th July, 1947; Vol 441. c. 89.] My advice to the Minister is to make immediate application to the Minister of Health to obtain some bricks, and to build a few more buildings, and all of us in the world of education will be extremely grateful to him. I think there is a moral in that illustration, because if there are brickyards closing down because they cannot get orders, surely we in the world of education should be the first to have a chance to use those bricks which are available.

The 1944 Act was an act of faith. At the time, those of us who were responsible for it—and we were a very large team, including the right hon. Gentleman who is at present His Majesty's Home Secretary—realised that it was an act of faith. We realised, I think, the history that had followed upon the 1918 Act; we realised the lags in the education services that were bound to occur after the war; and I think we all realised the economic difficulties which would follow the war period. It has been satisfactory to the world of education that we have retained a certain priority in the midst of the extreme difficulties which the country has been facing. Certain actions have been taken which have illustrated that we in the world of education still command a great deal of public notice, and that the subject to which we are devoted is still in the forefront of people's minds.

But I must say that we are now facing a far greater economic storm than even the language of the Minister of Education revealed to the Committee today; and we are facing what is going to be a great crisis of postwar education in the immediate future. Nothing that I say today will be designed to make the task of those responsible, in the authorities or in the Ministry, more difficult; but I must put it to them that unless they grip essentials, and have hard and certain priorities, and unless the Minister can obtain from his own Government the priorities he and his subject deserve, the country must be made aware that we cannot carry out all these essential reforms as quickly as we should like. I think there are bound to be disappointments. I must say that, because I was so largely responsible for the reforms. I can only hope that the Government will bring to this matter in the months that lie immediately ahead some of the energy and drive which they have used in changing the economic order. I hope they will do that. I think it will be done only by sticking to essentials.

That is why I ask the Government to devote their utmost attention to the administrative problem of actually running the Department, in conjunction with the authorities—getting buildings up and getting teachers into the right places. That is why I am not going to say anything today about the projects which are near my heart, such as U.N.E.S.C.O. or other matters, because I do not believe that energy should be diverted at the present moment to any channel other than that of actually making the educational machine work and providing as many opportunities as possible for the children. The Minister himself, at the end of his remarks, mentioned U.N.E.S.C.O. I would only say that with the shortage of clerical assistance I now have, and the shortage of transport, I was unable to bring with me all the documents sent me from the U.N.E.S.C.O. offices, and from their representatives in London. In fact, I have not even been able so far to go through all of them. The remarkable fact is that they contain far more sense than I imagined they would when I first started perusing them. I am obliged to the Minister for giving me the opportunity to serve on the National Committee. But even in that international venture let us stick to the simple points people can understand, and then the real worth of the venture will become more readily appreciable to our own citizens and to this Committee. Meanwhile, I wish those responsible for it well, in pursuing their work and in clarifying their objects.

The Minister concluded with some remarks with which I am entirely in agreement—that character is the essential need in the content of what is taught. I appeal to him to link education, as I believe he would like to do, with the practical side of living in this country. There are two aspects—one of which he mentioned, and the other of which I will mention—of that linking, to which I want to refer. First, I am convinced that in this country there is an immense body of people who are devoted to the cause of education. What in America, where I have just been, would be described as the "education lobby" is a very large one. Those who are devoting their lives to education, whether as administrators, teachers, parents, whoever they may be, cherish the ideal which was, I think, born in the period when we were passing the 1944 Act, that we should create in England a system of education which, for the first time in the history of the world, would prove that a mass system was a possibility and could be a working success. That has never yet been proved, and it is up to our small country to prove it. Unless we can prove it, I do not believe that Britain's social experiment, in which so many of us on both sides of the Committee are involved, can possibly succeed. Therefore, on the psychological and the social side, I consider education is the most important matter in England today.

The second aspect was referred to by the Minister. It is the practical contribution that education can make to our economic recovery. I claim—and, I believe, without the possibility of contradiction—that many of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues, and certainly many of my own, and many on all sides who are not here today swelling our ranks, may feel that a day on education is a convenient occasion for some to spout their views and enjoy themselves on their own pet subject. But, in fact, do they realise that the educative process lies at the very basis of our recovery or non-recovery from the present crisis, and that unless we encourage skills in the industries, we cannot possibly produce those products which will make our balance of payments a great deal healthier than it is at the present time? In industry generally, I believe that skills will be the absolute test of whether or not Britain resumes her proud industrial position in the world. Therefore, I believe that our subject, far from being an academic subject, is the most practical in the world, and absolutely vital to present discussions on the economic crisis. I think it is socially, psychologically and practically imperative that the Minister should retain a large degree of priority in his work.

I do not want to apply a sort of machine-made generalisation to the content of education itself, for I do not believe the Minister did. Recently I met an economic planner—I hasten to say he was not the chief planner—who said to me: One value I can see in your education "—of which he obviously had a very low opinion—" is that you can gradually produce in the schools children who are planning conscious, who will themselves be so accustomed to linking each other's lives together that they will never be sundered as they leave the schools. Thus, our children can start planning from the schools themselves." That is exactly contrary to the view which we on this side of the Committee hold, and which is, I trust, held throughout the ranks of the Committee this afternoon. The vital thing is to produce individual character in children. If children are strong enough they will survive even the operations of economic planners, and, as a result, they may in the end even produce a good plan. But if they are not strong, they will never coalesce and form a team out of which we can build the unity of this country and ensure its success in the years to come.

What the Minister said in the concluding part of his speech was once summed up by Matthew Arnold in the words: "In education information is really the least part." If that be the case, let us concentrate, as far as we can in our present difficulties, on the right content in the schools. In this connection I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to what extent His Majesty's Inspectorate has been enlarged; to what extent its terms of employment have been improved; and to what extent its inspectors are at present able to visit schools, revert to their proper duty, and report on the content? I do not believe that the inspectorate is an ideal piece of machinery for use as a sort of delegated administration from Whitehall. Although through out the war years, inspectors, with great agility, and sometimes great concealment of their incapacity to do the job, undertook tasks which were quite unknown to them—such as the fixing of stove pipes and similar matters—I do not believe they were chosen for that purpose. Their object is to go into the schools, to help the teachers, and to present reports to the Minister so that the content of education can be improved the country over.

While I am dealing with the content, let me deal also with the physical welfare of the children. The Minister referred to the meals and milk service. My information, from what I can pick up from authorities, is that there has been a slight recession in the milk consumption since the maximum figure which the Minister quoted. If that be the case, I should like confirmation of it. There are also considerable advances to be made in the provision of meals. I believe there are some 25 authorities feeding less than 30 per cent. of their pupils at the present time, 73 authorities feeding between 30 and 50 per cent., and six or seven who have reached the 70 per cent. level. I should like an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that the priority given to school meals and milk by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor will be maintained, because in the difficulties we shall encounter in the next few months we shall have a position similar to that which I had to face during the war. If we can get the right priorities from the Minister of Food, it is certain that the children will get at least their midday meal at school and not have to eat their fathers' or mothers' rations. That will be just as important in the months that lie ahead of us as it was during wartime.

I now want to touch, quite briefly, on the different types of school and on the development plans. Just as I hope the Minister will chase up those authorities who have not had great success over their meals plan, so I hope he will also produce from the 17 local education authorities the development plans, of which a draft has been submitted, without undue delay. There are only one or two things which strike me as being possibly wrong in the development plans—which again I have had to obtain by hearsay from the authorities. First, it appears that certain authorities have gone rather mad on the multilateral idea, and have decided that something in the nature of factory schools must be established with an indefinite number of pupils. I want to make clear that I am not against the multilateral principle as an educational principle. Many of the best schools in this country have, for some years, been multilateral, until their discovery by the official side. Therefore, when the multilateral principle is put into force and approved in plans by the Ministry, I hope that it will be approved in cases where the school is able to retain a life and a personality of its own, with a contact between teachers and taught.

I am not against the large school in itself, but I am in favour of the retention of as many small schools as possible. I am not in favour, and I do not think any hon. Member on this side of the Committee is in favour, of the retention of, for example, small, disused, unhealthy village one-teacher schools. I do not want to stand for that. So in what I want to say now about the Church schools I hope the Committee will be patient with me, because there are two technical matters to which I want to refer. As the Committee probably realise, the negotiation of what was known as the religious settlement took a very long time—some two or two and a half years—and I hope that it has, in the end, done away with one of the most grievous religious and political subjects in our public life. If that be the case, I am most anxious to see it working in the way its authors intended, and I want to draw attention to two difficulties which have arisen in regard to what I call the religious settlement.

The first arises through the development plan. There are certain county authorities who have decided not to include in their development plan a large number of Church schools. They have decided this, I believe, under the fear of economic difficulty, because of teacher supply, access to buildings, and so forth. Some of them may have done it from prejudice, but I am not claiming that in every case, or in very many cases. Whatever be the reason, the fact is that if a large proportion of the two-teacher and bigger Church schools are not included in the development plan at all, the whole object of the religious settlement, which was to give to these schools the option between aided and controlled status, is removed at birth, and a sort of massacre of the innocents takes place. Here, I do not want to deny a word of the settlement—and I believe the controlled status was one of the great discoveries of the Act—nor do I want to stop the small schools to which I have referred, which we never thought should be stopped. I merely want to appeal to the Minister, when he is examining the development plans of county authorities which have decided to mutilate at birth the old option of Church schools, to give proper consideration to the retention of such voluntary schools as he thinks are sound and suitable for their district, and then to give them the option which we intended under what I have described as the religious settlement. To the managers and governors I say that I hope they will take the opportunity, under the requisite Section of the Act, of making their case known now, throughout the length and breadth of the country, so that a fair decision may be reached by the Ministry.

Secondly, the Anglican community, at any rate, is very distressed about something in the Act, for which I must accept full responsibility, namely, the need for voluntary schools to opt between aided and controlled status within a six months' period after the approval of the development plan. That puts the managers and the community in a very difficult position, because, although it is quite clear that with the priority already given to building by the Government, these schools cannot be altered or rebuilt, or new schools provided, for many years ahead, this choice has to be made now, when there is no certainty what the building costs will be 10 or 15 years ahead. I know the difficulties of amending legislation, but if there were any such suggestion, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it would receive very sympathetic consideration from Members on this side, and that we should endeavour to bring to bear on any suggestion made, the attention it deserved, in the spirit in which most of us approached the religious question during the discussions on the Act.

I want to refer next to the plight of the primary schools. Sometimes I think that many of us are apt to spend too much time on the magic formula of a free secondary education for all, and to forget that a real crisis is arising in our primary schools, apparently because the Minister has recruited some four men teachers to each woman teacher. I do not believe many of these gallant male recruits to the teaching profession will be particularly useful in the primary sphere, or that women in the secondary sphere will want to go back to primary status. There seems a real danger of shortage among women teachers, and a real danger of crisis in our primary schools. There was one phrase in the Minister's speech which I think was too optimistic. He said that there was no question of a shortage of teachers preventing the carrying out of the Act as a whole. I believe that for some years ahead the Minister will have considerable difficulty, and I should like a further reply on what views the Interim Committee have about the bigger recruitment of women teachers, and the possibility of setting aside some of the existing colleges for girls waiting to do their two years' course, and taking active steps to recruit more women for the teaching profession.

For goodness sake do not lose any of the men, because there are plenty of jobs for them all. When looking at the size of classes, we realise how many teachers are required, and that the Minister has a great problem to solve in this connection. I am informed—and these are optimistic figures—that there are still over 2,000 classes of over 50, and nearly 3,000 with more than 40 pupils over 11. I know of many cases, especially in some of our great cities, where classes are so large that the fundamental educational conception of the relationship between teacher and taught simply does not exist. Until we can get over that, we shall never have real educational reform.

The last point about primary schools is this. I have been informed by primary school teachers that some rather startling literature is apt to be circulated in these schools. I do not want to give the name of the periodical I have in my hand, because one is rather nervous at the moment about any contacts with these matters; nor do I want to give this document any spurious publicity. I notice it claims on the outside to have educational features, but inside I can find only an extreme precocity in the art of love-making and other such activities, which seem to me to be rather unsuitable for children of seven. At a time when the newsprint question is so serious, the right hon. Gentleman might examine whether schoolbooks might not have more paper, and some of these documents, however cheerful—I do not want to spoil the fun—a little less paper.

In the secondary sphere, I want to ask the Minister one or two questions on a danger which is arising, namely, that of administrative interference in the lives of some of our aided schools. It was always the intention under the Act—and I am reading from the White Paper—that aided secondary schools should be: ensured, under the Act of an independence hardly, if at all, less than they enjoy at present. Under the articles of government as they have been considered, amended or approved, I must confess that certain authorities, and notably the L.C.C., seem to us to be interpreting these sentiments in a way not intended at the time. We do not feel it is right to reduce the governing bodies virtually to a state of im- potence, with the payment of teachers' salaries being made from the central office, with school supplies being obtained centrally, taking away the initiative from the teachers and governing bodies, and with holidays being regulated from the central office. I appeal, therefore, for some assurance that liberty will be left to these aided schools in their struggle to preserve a real school life for themselves.

On the subject of the Burnham Award, I agree that it would be unwise, while it is sub judice, for us to press the matter. Those who have been speaking about the difficulties of staffing secondary schools should realise that the salary scale is not the only difficulty they have to face. I am convinced that there is a great leakage of teachers into industry with its higher rewards, particularly in the realms of science. Let us take at its face value the statement of the Minister that he is offering encouragement to the grammar schools. Academic excellence is at the basis of all good education. It is by no means the only education, as the Minister said, but it is vital if you are to develop your brain to the best of its ability and encourage the highest standards among all the pupils. That has been the tradition of the grammar schools, and I confidently hope that when the Burnham Committee reports, we may find that grammar schools especially will be able to recruit their staff more easily.

On building, I wish to say this. I was responsible for approving the building regulations, but in my opinion some of these regulations are too severe in present times and in the present emergency. I notice that at least one major authority has made representations on this subject in a published statement. I hope it may be possible for the Minister to re-examine the standards laid down, not with a view to letting shoddy and second-class buildings pass through, but with the view to showing a little commonsense about the use of certain classrooms existing at present, not built to those standards we laid down. I was not particularly anxious at the time to reduce the standard of the building regulations, because I realised they formed part and parcel of the general understanding with the religious denominations. Even those who have to administer the Act, and those who are most keen to see the regulations as stiff as possible, are now making representations to the Minister that a little more common sense is necessary. Therefore, as I have stood in a white sheet, I hope the Minister will pay attention to this matter, and enable buildings to be passed which, on grounds of common sense, are healthy and proper for schoolchildren.

The Minister made some interesting and valuable remarks on the subject of relationship between school and work. He referred to the efforts of certain industries to help, and I should like to say—having had some contact with education in industry as an occupation in leisure moments, and having done my best to encourage it—that I have been extremely gratified by the spirit which prevails in industry on the subject of education. There is hardly a big firm which has not appointed an education officer and started an education department. That all the big firms know where they are going I would not like to say, because it is difficult to know where all this will lead. But in the economic crisis we are now facing I believe that the Minister can get some first-class assistance from industry. I would not, however, like him to be inspired by some of the language in this pink document I have here, which is entitled "School and Life." In it there is this curious piece of English: The object of education is men and women, industry aims at producing coal and textiles breakfast cereals and cinema films, newspapers and cosmetics, and other economic goods. In industry the worker is part of a process ending in goods; in education he is an end in himself This means that industrial organisation, of which a worker forms a part, will not be concerned with the claims of the whole man, which education develops, and it would be surprising if industry could ever supply a full education. Leaving aside that somewhat staccato English, I do not agree with these sentiments. I think it would be wrong for anybody connected with industry, whether nationalised or private enterprise, to regard men or women, or adolescents in industry, as not being whole. I think we must bring education and industry much closer together, and not have in the minds of educationists the sort of idea that anything organised anywhere near a works is something wicked which bloated capitalists will exploit for their own ends. Most industries I have had contact with would be ready, if only there were enough Government inspectors of schools, to put the whole of the content of any schools they might undertake under the control of those inspectors. They also wish that the teachers should come from the general teachers' pool. I believe that you have here a partner who will become invaluable in the years to come. Make sure that the motives are right, and that there are the right controls, and I am convinced that here is an opportunity of carrying out part of the objects of the Education Act.

I agree, however, with the latter portion of the document from which I have just quoted, which says: Works' schools are no actual substitute for county colleges. A lot of us have been trying to release young people and give them an opportunity of starting the continuation idea before the Government introduce their national scheme, and I hope that those schemes which have been started in industry will be encouraged. Remember that Fisher in his Act included the same provisions as we put into the 1944 Act. They broke down because some districts were allowed to start, and others lagged behind. We cannot face the shame, however great the economic crisis might be, of letting the continuation portion of this Act break down again. Let us use every device for starting it off. If the crisis is too difficult to enable us to provide immediate buildings, let us use every device and every element of compromise to get children used to the idea of proper daytime release. In this connection, I was glad to hear from the Minister of the 127,000 releases which are taking place.

I want to stress, finally, what I said at the beginning, the importance of associating educationists, education, and school with everyday working life. This can happen in the case of nursery schools, to which women will be only too glad to have the chance of sending their children so that they can have leisure time for themselves. It will happen in all other spheres, the adult sphere, the further educational sphere, some of the colleges which are beginning to be opened for adult education, and further education generally. We shall get Lilliputian links between school, further education, and life. The success of the Act depends upon how closely these links with life become. If education remains remote academic exercises, it will go down. If it becomes a practical inspiration in our national life, then educationists will lead the country. It is the only great activity in which these words can be used, It scattereth, yet increases, and that is the thought we ought to have in our minds.