I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for North Bradford (Mrs. Nichol) that this has been a most interesting and fascinating Debate. I hope that for once hon. Members opposite will applaud the Opposition for having chosen these Estimates for discussion today. As more than one hon. Member has pointed out, we are discussing these matters under the shadow of impending economic crisis and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) said, in a witty and profound speech, if that economic crisis develops as it may develop, whatever views we may have here about the value of education, the people of the country may have some other priority.
I am sure no hon. Member on this side of the Committee would wish to abandon the road on which we set out when we passed the Butler Act of 1944. That is as true of this side of the Committee as it is of the other. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the economic outlook has changed very greatly since the passage of the Butler Act and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) said, we have to establish now not only a priority for education as against other social services, but to establish priorities in education itself. With the possible exception of the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes), I do not think any hon. Member would deny that proposition. If I understood his speech, the Minister does not deny it.
The Minister said that building costs did not loom very largely in the financial budget of education because they were amortised over a period of years and, from the financial aspect, that is true. But we are not dealing only with the financial aspect. From the point of view of manpower at our disposal which can be allocated to the building of schools as against houses, one cannot amortise that over a period of years but must bear it while the building is going on. The building programme could only be stepped up at the expense of housing, or some other social need just as great.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of ensuring that when a housing estate was built there was a school to accommodate the child population which would come to that housing estate. Each of us must agree with that objective. I understand, however, that in parts of Kent the L.C.C. have spread over their boundaries because they have not enough space, that they have built vast housing estates and then left it to the Kent education authorities to provide the schools. There is an obvious lack of liaison when one authority builds the estate and leaves another authority with the responsibility of providing the schools. I should like to know whether any machinery exists for ensuring that in the future that does not happen; and that when one authority is entering the educational area of another there is liaison between the two. I do not think that there always has been in the past.
We have to establish priorities in education itself. I do not know whether hon. Members opposite would agree—I think the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Pargiter) would—but I hold that in considering education as a whole the physical buildings are not all-important, not as important as teachers, for example. The Minister said that 70 per cent. of school buildings were more than 50 years old. I do not think that is necessarily a great disaster. Quite a lot of the independent schools, now doing good work, have buildings which certainly would not come up to the standard of amenities now considered necessary. If the educational budget becomes at all tight and the Minister is obliged in the future to cut his coat a bit finer in one direction or another, I hope he will do it at the expense of unnecessary new buildings rather than at the expense of the teachers.
We must agree with the Minister that it is vitally necessary to provide new school accommodation for the greatly increased school population which is to be expected in four or five years' time. It is also the case that that increase is likely to be a purely temporary phenomenon and that after 1953 the school population will tend to come down again. I am wondering whether the Department has considered all the possibilities of improvisation, so that this crisis can be met without building elaborate new buildings which will impose a demand on our resources at the present time, and which may be unnecessary after the crisis has passed. On the question of recruitment of teachers it is, clearly, vitally important that there should be an increase in the recruitment of women teachers. The right hon. Gentleman said that there was a virtual disappearance of the uncertificated teacher. That is obviously all to the good; but what I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us is whether those teachers have disappeared because they have abandoned teaching or because they have become certificated—if the latter, so much the better.
May I ask the Minister another question? Is there an age limit for the recruitment of women teachers at the present time? I am not sure whether there is or not. If there is, would it be possible to waive that limit and establish one particular college in which older women of intelligence could be trained? The Minister spoke, too, of the problem of finding places for handicapped children. I would like to know whether local education authorities are insisting that when these children are taken into the modern schools they shall be in special classes. If the handicapped children are put through the ordinary run of the mill, the effect on the development of the normal children is likely to be disastrous.
I could say a lot more, but it is more important that the Minister should have all the time that is left in which to reply. In conclusion, I assure him and the Committee that the interest of hon. Members on this side of the Committee in public education is quite as great, deep and genuine as that shown by hon. Members opposite.