Orders of the Day — Educational Expenditure (Priorities)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th April 1951.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir Hubert Ashton Sir Hubert Ashton , Chelmsford 12:00 am, 17th April 1951

I beg to move to leave out from "That," to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: this House views with concern the overcrowding in primary schools, and urges His Majesty's Government to apply a system of priorities which will ensure that the most urgent needs in education are adequately met. The Amendment is drawn widely, first, to allow hon. Members an opportunity of ranging fairly widely and, second, to give the Minister the opportunity of replying to the questions which may be put to him. Possibly after four days of a test match on the subject of the Budget it is something of a relief to the House to turn to the subject of education, but it seems to me a pity that not more interest is taken in it, because even in the lives of right hon. Gentlemen opposite—even of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—it is necessary to devote part of the time to education.

On the subject of overcrowding, it has been laid down that the "high-water mark" for primary schools should be 40 in a class and for secondary schools 30. There is a lot of rather diverse information on the situation existing today, but the only really concrete facts on which J can put my hands at the moment are in the Education Report for 1949. I believe that that for 1950 will be a Festival edition and will therefore be rather longer delayed than is usually the case. In paragraph 22 on page 14 of that publication we learnt that during 1948 the total number of senior classes with over 30 pupils rose from 31,131 to 34,518, while that of junior and infant classes with over 40 pupils slightly increased from 31,693 to 31,933. During the same period there was a reduction from 2,118 to 1,782 in the number of classes with over 50 pupils. My information about my county of Essex, and especially London, is that, so far from improving, the situation has deteriorated somewhat.

I want to dwell for a moment on a situation in my county not 20 miles from here on the Harold Hill estate, an L.C.C. housing estate. When the building was undertaken, my county made representations to all the Ministries concerned impressing upon them the vital importance of putting up schools concurrently with housing. However, the emphasis was upon the housing, and what we warned the Ministries was likely to happen has now happened. The situation today is that there are some 1,300 children on the new housing estate, where one school has just been opened, but they are transported daily by 26 buses, at a cost of £10,000 per annum, to Romford, with the result that the classes there are normally 45 and very often 50 and 55.

As regards London, some facts have been given in the House recently, and I believe that there is considerable concern in the matter all over the country. I would draw the attention of the House to the priority resolution of the National Union of Teachers at Llandudno on 26th March. It referred to the position in the primary schools and asked that classes should be reduced to 30. I also have a letter from the National Council of Women of Great Britain on the subject. They are entitled to their views because they introduce the children into the world; at least so I understand the position, though it does not apply in the case of spinsters.

I want to put a question to the Minister at this point. There are in Romford a number of children for whom school places would normally be available at the age of five, but at present there are no places for them. How many children of five are not going to school there today owing to lack of places? Also, will the Minister give us the up-to-date figures of overcrowding in 1951—I quoted figures for some years back—and some estimate of what is likely to happen during the "battle of the bulge" which I believe will come in 1953?

We may ask ourselves, "Could this situation have been avoided?" In view of the marriage rate after the war and the increase in the population, the answer is definitely "No," but if we put to ourselves the question, "Could this have been alleviated?" I think the answer is "Yes." In Essex we have over 2,000 public spirited people who serve on the various education committees and on the governing bodies of various schools. For the last five years I have sat on many of these committees in different parts of the county and have read many of the minutes. I can recall so often, when there was a suggestion of some form of economy, the comment made, "But can we afford to do without it?" I feel the Government must bear some of the responsibility for the fact that after the war there was created the atmosphere, centrally and locally, that the sinews of Government for education and other purposes were quite inexhaustible.

We have travelled a little distance since then and, of course, events may have overtaken us to some extent. Indeed, we have learned that the maximum cost of a place per primary school has come down steadily from £195 to £170 and now to £140. In secondary schools it has come down from £320 to £290 and now to £240. It is just as well to bear in mind that these costs, very considerable still even on the lower figures, do not include anything either for playing fields or for the land, both of which are considerable costs today.

In the debate on this Report the Minister referred to the fact that some excellent buildings have been put up below this cost and, furthermore, that schemes in Hertfordshire will result in certain reductions. At the same time, if the present more realistic view of the accommodation appropriate for primary and secondary schools had been adopted several years earlier, the same amount of capital expenditure would have provided many more places. In all these things it is capital expenditure which is the bottleneck.

Now what is the necessity for priorities? I am sure any hon. Members who have been listening to what has been said during the four days of the Budget debate will have no doubt of the necessity for priorities having regard to the financial resources available. The Chancellor himself in his speech said that costs of education were rising. So did his predecessor. The right hon. Gentleman said that the figures this year are £251 million against £243 million last year. I understand that this figure refers to the net Exchequer expenditure on England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

If I may come more specifically to finance, I shall refer to page 9 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Ministry of Education Estimates. There is shown the net expenditure from the Exchequer and rates for the financial year 1950–51 in respect of England and Wales. I must give these figures to deploy my argument. The total—that is Exchequer and rate-borne expenditure—is £318,416,000. That is split between the Exchequer, which takes £204,697,000, and the rates, which bear £113,719,000.

The rather interesting figure here is that the increase this year as compared with last year, borne by the Exchequer is only 3.29 per cent., while that which comes on the rates shows an increase of 15.22 per cent. I appreciate that these figures may be a little out of line owing to the incidence of the recent results of the Burnham Award. Also, of course, the Ministry have saved £4 million in the running down of the scheme for ex-Service men and also on the emergency training scheme for teachers which is not at its peak at present. But I think those figures are significant, and I want to refer to the matter of the rates in regard to education. I am sure that all hon. Members who are members of local authorities have heard murmurings about this throughout the country.

I must also refer for a moment to capital expenditure, which is the forerunner of additional revenue charges to be incurred. Again from the Explanatory Memorandum I quote as follows: capital expenditure in 1948–49 was £29,440,000. In 1949–50 it was £69,683,000 and, for the nine months to 31st December, 1950, the figure has dropped to £38,790,000. I put a question on this matter to the Minister on 5th December. I asked him what was the capital expenditure allocated for primary and secondary schools only during the calendar years 1949, 1950 and 1951. In reply I was told that in 1949 it was £16.5 million, in 1950 it was £30 million, in 1951 it was £37 million. That shows a rise, although it is a little difficult to make the figures tally.

A year ago, on 21st March, when I gave the Committee the benefit of my first profound observations in a Budget debate, I drew attention to the amount of loans to local authorities on which the then Chancellor of the Exchequer dwelt for some time. He indicated that we had been rather naughty boys the year before by borrowing at too great a rate. He reduced the figure of loans to local authorities below the line to £279 million and, in the course of the debate, it came out that no less than £220 million of that sum was to be allocated for housing, leaving a mere £59 million for education, etc. I had the temerity to suggest that this amount might not be quite sufficient and, in the figures published recently, that £279 million had risen to £313 million, an increase of £34 million. I have not been able to find from the Budget statement what are the estimated loans to local authorities for the present financial year. Could the Minister let us have that figure, and tell us how much of that total is the quantum allocated for educational purposes, if possible broken down, but anyhow for primary and secondary schools?

If the Committee will bear with me, I want to return to the matter of rates. It is important and is creating a good deal of concern throughout the country. Coming to Essex, where I have the advantage of being able to consult closely the county treasurer, the chief education officers and the county clerk, I want to illustrate what this increase has been of recent years. Take, for example, 1945–46. The total expenditure on education, that is Exchequer and rate-borne, was £5 million. The estimate for the present year is £11¼ million. That is an increase of 125 per cent. or, put in another way, the expenditure today is two and a quarter times as great as it was in 1945–46.

But what the ratepayers are more directly interested to know is how this is reflected in the rates. The position is that the rate in the £ required for education in 1945–46 was 4s. 5¼d. and today it is 8s. 2d. Hon. Members may say that in 1945–46 we had hardly got under way because the war was only just over. But if we accept that, and look at the 1947–48 figure, we find that the rate required for education was 5s. 11¾d. compared with 8s. 2d. today, or an increase of 34 per cent. in four years.

As we have been told that we should not budget merely for one year, but for a longer period, we have had a look at the development plan—which has not yet been passed I agree—to find out what is to happen in the next 10 years. On the figures for capital expenditure which I have quoted, obviously the curve must decline but it will still go on. There are all these authorities with development plans to fulfil. We have taken the most conservative estimate and we find that unquestionably, in respect only of primary and secondary education, we shall have to spend between £450,000 and half a million pounds for each of the next 10 years. That, split, means 4½d. on the rates.

We arrive at these figures for 1961–62 whereby the rate for education alone is exactly the same—namely 141d. or 11s. 9d.—as the total general county rate for 1948–49. I appreciate that there may be something to be set off through increased rateable value or, indeed, the effect of the Exchequer equalisation grant, but I am taking here only primary and secondary school costs and I have made no allowances whatever for any increased costs in respect of labour and material with which we may be confronted.

I suggest in all seriousness that the figures I have quoted are likely to be conservative and that the burden of the education rate, not only in Essex but throughout the country, will be very high indeed. No doubt we have special problems in Essex with regard to new housing estates and also new towns. We seem to have rather more than our fair share of these. I can speak only with the full authority of my own county, but if we halved the figures I have quoted then the reflection on the education rate in the country would still be very high.

I apologise for this rather lengthy exercise in statistics—I very nearly said on a rather technical matter—but I feel it is important that we should get these facts fairly well into our minds. I have refreshed my memory of the debates we have had on education, so now, having established the vital need for priorities, I turn to the question—what are they to be? I do not think any of us would quarrel with what the Minister said on 4th May: We have had to recognise that the first claim on our resources must be the meeting of our statutory obligation to provide full-time schooling for all children between the ages of five and 15."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1932.] It seems to me that education is a process which continues all through one's life. It goes on to the grave. It also seems to me that unless we catch the young in these formative years in their lives we may miss an opportunity which will not return. Could I give the perfectly good simile of what is happening on the land? We have missed a month or two on the land because of the weather. God arranges the weather and we shall not get that time back again, but here we are dealing with a human problem and I hope we shall grasp the opportunity and not let it slip through our fingers never to return.

In my view the priorities are primary and secondary education, in that order, but some of us are concerned whether that is being achieved in practice. On Sunday I was speaking to the headmaster of a large direct-grant school near where I live. He said he had last week been to a conference of U.N.E.S.C.O. in Paris and there had spoken to a number of teachers from secondary modern schools who told him, one after the other, that the material coming to them from the primary schools was not sufficiently strong in writing and reading for the children to obtain real benefit from their secondary education. I feel that I have now established that there must be priorities. We have to cut our cloth according to them, and I should have thought, as the Minister himself has said, that quite clearly the priorities are the primary and secondary schools. Where we must be satisfied is that these priorities are being dealt with adequately.

May I now refer to some schools which do not cost the country so much money and which are sometimes the subject of controversy? By that I mean the independent public schools and the direct-grant grammar and public schools. Some of the fees in these schools are paid fully by the parents while in others they are partly borne by the parents and partly by the State. A great many hon. Members on both sides of the House have had such an education and I know they are making sacrifices to provide it for their own children. Many parents throughout the land are doing so; they are perhaps foregoing buying a motor car and instead are investing the money in the education of their children. On top of that, they are paying the full rates and taxes to provide education elsewhere.

The Minister himself has said that his object is to bring his own standards up to those of these private schools, so it is rather hypocritical to shoot at these private schools and thus to remove the target at which the Minister himself is aiming—to remove the matrix, as it were. After all, if these people were not paying fees places would have to be found for their children elsewhere. In any case, these schools are the envy of the world and I maintain that they should be given every consideration. I do not suggest that they are not given such consideration from the Minister himself, but I have heard comments elsewhere which, in the light of the background of those concerned, are hypocritical.