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 Sir Richard Nugent Sir Richard Nugent , Guildford 12:00 am, 17th April 1951

If I gained a wrong impression from the hon. Member's remarks, I apologise, but I think that when he reads his speech he will find that he left the impression that he thought the main limitation was finance, and not building.

We all know that our main problem arises from the greatly increased birthrate in the post-war period, particularly immediately after the war, and rising to its peak in 1946–48. That is creating an increased school population which, as a bulge, is now passing through our schools and will continue to do so for the next 10 years. I shall have some comments to make also on the impact on the secondary schools in this respect.

The position as it affects the primary schools has not yet reached its peak. It will do so in the next year or so. The hon. Member for Itchen talked about classes in the past being overcrowded—of course they have been, we all know that; but what is concerning us on this side, and I hope we shall convince the Minister of it, is our concern that the overlarge size of classes is not decreasing, but is increasing, and that the number of children of school age who are out of school is also increasing. When a remark to this effect was made a short time ago, the Minister asked us to give the number of the children affected, but that is for him to say; he has the figures, and we have not.

As far as my county—Surrey—is concerned, if I may correct the impression which was left by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. S. Marshall), I do not think we have any children out of school who are over the age of 6½. We do not have many over 5½ who are out of school, but there are quite a few over the age of five who do not get into school for the first term when they become of school age. I am concerned at the possibility that that number will grow rather than diminish. The main purpose of this debate today is to try to get some idea of what the Minister has in mind to deal with this situation.

What seems to be happening in the country as a whole is that the number of places being provided is not much more than half the annual increase of children for whom places are required. To some extent that position is being met by the fact that children are not getting into school, and to some extent by the growing classes of 40 and 50 children. As far as a class of 50 children is concerned, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that try as a teacher may—and teachers try most gallantly to cope with the problem—a class of 50 children is really a superhuman task for a woman to cope with. When that class contains, perhaps, a child who is educationally sub-normal, the teacher's task becomes completely impossible. In the scale of priorities, therefore, we must still watch closely the provision of special schools. To those not closely acquainted with them, these schools may seem to be a refinement, but there is no doubt whatever that they are an essential part of the picture.

The next stage is that of the secondary school. The Minister will know that we have had a particular problem in Surrey. We have pressed him very hard on the provision of secondary schools, because we can see that the bulge will rise into the secondary schools in the next two or three years. Overcrowding of children who have reached this stage of their education cannot be dealt with by leaving them out of school and unless the extra schools can be built there is simply no solution of where they are to go to. As a result of our last application the Minister did, in fact, give way and allowed us to have two more schools. It seems particularly hard, however, in the county of Surrey that out or our total building quota, provision for three schools in each of the two L.C.C. estates at Sheerwater and Merstham should be included as part of the total capital provision for the county. The result is that in 1951 we have only about half the sum available in the previous year to provide the remaining schools in the county. This is a particularly serious handicap when all the time the tremendous problem of secondary school accommodation is growing.

On the particular problem of house building and schools, I should like to know whether there is any sort of co-ordination at the top level between the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister of Local Government and Planning as to the number of houses which are built in an area and, then, the school accommodation which is to be allowed. All over the county I see large numbers of new houses being built, yet we are not allowed to build further schools to provide the accommodation we require for the additional children. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will tell us what arrangement he has which will guard against the obvious difficulty which we are meeting in this respect.

Alongside the immediate problems of finding school places for children and of coping with the size of classes, we have the continuing problem of special equipment for children of 14 and 15 years of age in the secondary modern schools. If we are to have the confidence of parents and to give children a worthwhile extra year at school, it is essential that we should have this extra equipment and accommodation. We have a continuing problem of trying to provide them, along with the other problem of school places. We also have the problem of the reorganisation of full range schools, especially in rural areas, where we have a good many of these remaining, and I imagine that it is a common problem in the country as a whole.

It seems to me that local education authorities today have a superhuman task in trying to cope with this bulge which is now passing through our educational system, and that the obvious danger with which they are confronted is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide the quality of education which we would all like to see. The degree of illiteracy is quite sufficient already to make us worry, and what we should like to see is more care being taken to prevent it becoming worse. Quite obviously, there is a danger that, in the overcrowded conditions affecting the children now in the bulge, they are going to pass through their schooling period in the next 10 years in classes that are in an overcrowded state, so that they will receive a quality of education which is below the proper standard.

Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are sometimes rather apt to think that they are the only people intrinsically interested in education, and that it is only they who want to have the best possible educational provision. That is really a most old-fashioned idea. We are just as keen as they, and we would like to see all the things which they have promised and many which they have not. In particular, on the question of the raising of the school-leaving age, my hon. Friend who seconded the Amendment mentioned that it has now become decent to discuss that subject, since the Chancellor has mentioned it. As one interested in education, of course, I know the value of giving that extra year, and I realise that the difference between leaving school at 15 instead of 14 is just enormous.

The Minister, however, has to accept the fact that, while he takes the credit, and very great credit, for being able to raise the school-leaving age by a year, he must also accept the burden that, in doing so, he has greatly added to the problem of accommodating those children in the bulge now passing through the schools, and, to that extent, he must accept responsibility if there is a reduction in the quality and standard of the education provided. He cannot have it both ways. We have been told several times by hon. Gentlemen opposite that we could not have it both ways, and neither can the Minister. When he has taken the credit for raising the school-leaving age, it is now up to him to show how he will deal with this problem of accommodation so that there is not a serious reduction in the standard of education provided in the next 10 years, and, indeed, at the present time.

That is the burden of the comment that I wished to make. We have a double anxiety, and we all feel worried about it. It is up to us to see that the best possible education is provided for these children, and yet there is quite sufficient evidence at present to make us ask the Minister what provision he will make now to cope with this problem.