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 Dryden Brook Mr Dryden Brook , Halifax 12:00 am, 17th April 1951

The hon. Member for Ealing, South (Mr. A. Maude), who seconded the Amendment, both in the course of his speech and in reply to an interjection by my hon. Friend the Member for the Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Morley), asked that we should not go back into past history as we might get bogged and we might not see the whole picture clearly. Some of us on this side of the Committee have long memories of what has happened in the past, and certain hints have been dropped by the Opposition in the last two or three months which make us fear that history may repeat itself.

Some two months ago, the right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton), in a speech in this House, made reference to the possibility of economising on education. Yesterday, in this House, we had another hon. Gentleman opposite, who sits below the Gangway, making education one of the targets in his economy drive. Last night, too, we had the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) himself devoting a sentence or two to the same theme. This afternoon, both the mover and seconder of the Amendment have, in my judgment, brought us up against the fundamental difference between the two sides of this House on the education problem. Both stressed the importance of the financial factor, and said that there was a limit to the amount of money that could be drawn upon. It is that factor which, to me, illustrates the fundamental difference that exists between us. That difference concerns the size of the fund to be drawn upon, and between the two sides of the House there may be a very wide divergence indeed.

For example, when the hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment was speaking about the local rates problem, I felt that I could point out to him one aspect concerning local rates which would go a long way towards solving this particular difficulty. Why not restore the 75 per cent. in industrial assessments which was made many years ago and in entirely different circumstances, but which industry could very well bear today? I am a member of a local authority and of a local education authority at the present time. I have in my constituency and in the course of council elections fought the issue on the education problem, and I have never yet found an audience which, when educational costs were explained to it, did not react at once in demanding that a proper education service should be provided.

On the question of the supply of teachers and of the number of scholars per class, the speeches of hon. Gentlemen opposite have referred to this problem as if it was a new problem entirely unconnected with the past. I believe I am right in saying that "Education," the Journal of the Association of Education Committees, about two years ago analysed the figures for the previous few years, and I believe I am also right in saying that the number of scholars per class, both in primary and in secondary education, is fewer at the present time than it was in the immediate pre-war days.

As regards children of five being found places in schools, I believe I am also right—and I hope the Minister will correct me if not—in saying that there is a larger proportion of children of five in our schools today than there has been before. When the hon. Gentleman who opened this discussion was speaking about the cuts in education that we might make, he placed first priority on primary education, but I would rather agree with another hon. Member opposite, and with some of my hon. Friends on this side, in saying that education must be looked upon as a whole. If we place all our emphasis on primary education, and we provide it not merely in quantity but also in quality, and if we then divorce primary education from secondary education, we shall leave our boys and girls in an atmosphere of doubt, and shall, as it were, leave them in the air in respect of their future development.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about cinemas and the provision of community centres as if the fact that we had cinemas was an adequate compensation for the lack of community centres. A community centre is not merely a place of entertainment, but a place where the people of a locality can make use of every faculty which they possess in order to develop their full characteristics. That is the kind of provision which we have to make today.

As to the size of classes, I would say that it really depends upon buildings and the supply of teachers. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent), stressed the fact that the building factor not the financial factor was the key to the situation. How different it might have been if in the years that have gone by, proper provision had been made. Hon. Members opposite are now enthusiastic about reducing the size of classes. My interest in education goes back to the days of the First World War, and I can remember the Fisher Act of 1918 and what followed and the Geddes Report and the May Report. What we on this side of the House are afraid of from the way the wind is blowing, is that at any rate some hon. Members opposite may be paving the way for something similar to what happened in the 'thirties.

In pre-war days we not only had extraordinarily large classes, but for many years many of those classes had to be held in condemned schools—the "black holes." I have seen them myself, not only in my own town but in other towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire. That is something which the Opposition, with all the opportunities they had in those days for building schools, ought to be able to answer for and face up to at the present time, when they are showing such a great interest in the provision of further school accommodation and in reducing the size of classes.

I do not want to take up much time because I am a believer in short speeches and many of them, but there is one aspect of what the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden said last night to which I should like to devote a few moments. It is not the aspect mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell). Towards the end of his speech the right hon. Gentleman said: I further think that many of the standards are too high for the times in which we live and that we had much better get on with the practical job in education of reducing the size of classes and re-establishing the relationship between teacher and taught, than with some of the fineries and snobberies that have been brought into the education service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April, 1951; Vol. 486, c. 1582.] I like the phrase "re-establishing the relationship between teacher and taught," because if I remember history aright, and if I know education aright, in the days prior to the war there was very little of that relationship between teacher and taught; it was less even than it is today.

This afternoon one hon. Gentleman opposite said that he wanted to see more freedom for local authorities from the central authority, and in the local authority more freedom for the head teacher and his staff inside the schools. Is that not what every good local education authority is doing at present? I have been a member of a local education authority for many years and what I have noticed growing up in the educational world is what I would like to see in all democratic spheres, and that is a relationship between the central and the local education authorities which has tended to give the local education authority control in its own sphere, and at the same time in the relationship between the local education authority and the schools a growing amount of freedom given to head teachers and staffs in the schools. Without doubt, in the schools of today the freedom of the head teacher and the staff is greater and more beneficial than it has ever been before.

When the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden talks about re-establishing the relationship between teacher and taught, which according to him must have existed at some time in the past, I wonder when that past was. When he goes on to talk about the standards being too high for the times, I wonder who set those standards. Surely it was the 1944 Act which set the standards for schools, new buildings, accommodation and playing areas. Are we now to go back on those standards? When he talks about fineries and snobberies, does he want to eliminate the grammar school and to concentrate on the comprehensive school? After all, if we are thinking of fineries and snobberies in education, the grammar school is one of those fineries and snobberies, at any rate in one aspect.

We should like answers to these questions, because we are concerned about education and afraid of what the Conservative Party might do. I have referred to what they did under the May Report. In 1944, when education was a very popular subject, when every society in the country was issuing its views on education, the Conservative Party issued a pamphlet in which it said—and I think I am accurate in this quotation from memory—that education, instead of being the first subject of economy in periods of stress, should be the last. I commend that idea to the hon. Member for Chelmsford who moved this Amendment, in respect both to local finance and to national finance.