Orders of the Day — Educational Expenditure (Priorities)

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

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Photo of Mr Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Ealing South 12:00 am, 17th April 1951

I beg to second the Amendment.

Having for the first time been faced with this problem, I have come to the conclusion that to second an Amendment of this kind is one of the most intimidating tasks any hon. Member can be called upon to face. The hon. Member who moves the Amendment covers the ground and the seconder has not the satisfaction of any indiscretions from the benches opposite to enable him to develop an argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Ashton) in moving the Amendment has given a solid basis of facts and figures on which arguments can be developed and, if the House will bear with me, in view of the fact that other matters which are shortly to attract the attention of the House make this a lamentably short debate, I shall dance as lightly and as non-controversially as possible over the questions arising from the facts my hon. Friend has put forward.

No one, on either side of the House, can have anything but sympathy for the Minister of Education in present circumstances. He has decisions to make, many of them painful decisions, questions of advantage and disadvantage to balance, which might intimidate the most courageous. All we can say, and this he must feel to his comfort, is that the difficulties he has to face are at least matched by the magnitude of his opportunities for statesmanlike decisions and for great work in the social service field. We are now up against a problem which has been coming steadily more in front of the nation in the last 80 years. It is the question on the one hand of how we can produce an educational system on the cheap, and the answer is that we cannot produce an educational system on the cheap. On the other hand, it is a question of how are we to measure the priorities we must impose between the different social services and between conflicting claims inside the social services.

My hon. Friend quoted the remark of the Minister last year when he said that his first priority was to fulfil his statutory duty of ensuring that all children get a full time education between the ages of five and 15. But it must be obvious—and the Minister would be the first to admit it—that that statement really raises and begs more questions than it answers. These are not simply questions of quantity, of figures of children who are to be educated and teachers who are to educate them, but most serious questions of quality which are not susceptible to statistical measurement and on which in many cases one man's opinion may be as good or bad as another's.

In these questions of education the Minister has something of the same sort of problem as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been expounding in his own sphere in the debate on the Budget. The Chancellor has to decide what is to be the balance between present necessities and investment for the future. He sees, for example, that if he cuts so much investment now, it will help him to cure the problem of inflation now, but if he cuts that investment he is reducing the possibilities of increased production and productivity in the years to come. Those are very delicate decisions.

The Minister of Education has difficulties which are no less delicate and important; he has to decide on what to economise now and to ask himself how many of the economies he makes now, to get within one year's budget, are going to make his problem more difficult three, four, or even 10 years ahead. He must know whether he can afford to deal with certain problems on a rather hand to mouth basis now, and what are the problems in which he has to look further ahead in coming to a decision.

This question of priorities operates not merely inside the social services but between the social services, and I do not feel that when we discuss an education budget in any year we go as far as we might, as people who are interested in education, in deciding whether the balance of expenditure is right between, let us say, education and the National Health Service, or housing, or National Insurance, or whatever it may be. Those are questions which are left more or less in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to hold the balance between representations made to him by Departmental Ministers. These questions the House never discusses in a general way. The priorities between the social services would, I feel, at some time give us a very interesting and useful debate.

The problem inside each social service is, of course, much narrower, and slightly different. It is this: to what extent are we to try to do everything that is desirable somehow, and to what extent are we to try to do the most important things really well? Those decisions are the most delicate, the most difficult, and perhaps the most imponderable of all that the Minister has to make. I sometimes become extremely frightened when I foresee a danger, in this very difficult time, of an opposition to the social services—or to one particular social service—growing up in the country. This may in the future present a great difficulty which hon. Members on both sides of the House will have to face.

Every hon. Member on this side of the House who is interested in the social services, and believes in them, knows that among his supporters there are certain frictions, certain elements of opposition which we have to try to convert. That is undoubtedly so among the supporters of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and it may get worse. Last night the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education was very indignant about hon. Members on this side daring to talk about education and the social services. I understand his indignation, because nobody likes to have an Order prayed against that he was hoping to get away with: but I would ask the Minister to recognise that we on this side who come and talk in these debates are genuinely interested and passionately eager to make the service work and to get the support of the country for it. That, obviously, is also the motive which animates hon. Members opposite.

What are the dangers here? Sooner or later people will wake up to the fact that the vast majority of them are, directly or indirectly, ratepayers. My hon. Friend has said that the ratepayers will be faced with a bill which is mounting at an astronomical rate. When they discover just how much of that is attributable to education, and they can do that by looking at the back of the form, they will begin to ask some very searching questions. There has always been—although it is probably less now—a certain resistance on the part of parents to leaving children at school when they might be earning a living. It may be less now, but let us not imagine that if the standards of education at the ages of 14 and 15 were to fall below a certain level, that opposition would not once more increase. No sensible parents will willingly allow children to do something which they know is wasting time when the child might be making a good start in a useful job. That is a danger we must always bear in mind.

I have never had any doubt that the first priority in education should be the primary schools; because it seems to me that if the basis of primary education is inadequate we can have no hope that the secondary modern school—to some extent an experiment—will turn out to be successful. To be successful a secondary modern school must start on the basis of material which has been brought to a reasonably high basic standard in the primary school. Otherwise, I am sure that the teachers who are trying to plough what is very often a difficult furrow in the secondary modern school—because there is no doubt that the pressure to put children in grammar schools has been increasing and may go on increasing—will find their task even more thankless than it appeared to be after the Butler Act was passed.

The document to which my hon. Friend referred about illiteracy has some sobering passages in it. We were all shocked by the figures, revealed during the war, of the proportion of men coming into the Services who were illiterate. There is no doubt that the disorganisation of education in the primary and secondary schools during the war has led to perhaps a higher proportion of illiterates than would otherwise have been the case. But I do not get the impression from this document that illiteracy is now decreasing. In fact, I think there are suggestions that the proportion is at least being maintained, and that is a very sobering thought indeed.

Those who know anything about education know that even primary education—in fact, particularly primary education—cannot, and must not be simply a question of the three R's. We have got a long way beyond that. I think perhaps we have gone too far in some ways. But at least we know that though children must be taught to read and write and figure, there are many other things which they must get from their schooling if it is to be any use at all. Especially is the way in which these things are taught of supreme importance. It is not enough to set them dull exercises from a book or to writing essays.

Since we are talking about priorities I would make one point about the standards of building and equipment, a matter about which I feel very strongly. It has always seemed to me that the higher the intellectual calibre of the children, and the more intellectual and academic is the work being done in the school, the less elaborate and expensive need to be the buildings and equipment with which they are working.

It would seem to me that the sixth form in a grammar school, given a good teacher, will do its work quite adequately in the sort of classrooms in which those of us who went to the older public schools had to work, which I would have thought would have been condemned out of hand by any one of His Majesty's Inspectors. But the children who, regrettably, come from houses in the slums to primary schools deserve, and need above all things, light and beautiful surroundings, which will make education something beyond a drudgery that will inspire them with a hatred of education for the rest of their lives.