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 Christopher Hollis Mr Christopher Hollis , Devizes 12:00 am, 17th April 1951

I should prefer to make my own speech and my own comments. The hon. Gentleman also said that I and my hon. Friends were concerned with the financial factor. The fact of the matter is, as we all realise, that unfortunately we are in a very difficult financial situation, and it is therefore common sense that we should give our minds to seeing in what way we can save money without sacrificing things of value and importance, because otherwise there will be a financial collapse and those things of value and importance will be sacrificed anyway.

The hon. Gentleman spoke again and again about the May Report. Perhaps he recollects that the May Committee came into existence during a time when a Socialist Government was in office, and the fact that drastic and, in many ways, unconsidered cuts had to be made later on was because reasonable economies were not made at an earlier time when the incompetent Socialist Government was in office. The hon. Gentleman also threatens that if the Conservatives return to power they would, as he says, go back on standards. I really do not quite understand what he means, because everybody knows that in point of fact the Socialist Government have gone back on standards in the sense that, very reasonably, recognising the state of affairs, they have introduced a variety of quite sensible economies in school building. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman objects to his own Government doing that. When he holds out the threat that the Conservatives may do what the Socialists are doing just that at this moment, I really cannot understand.

Hon. Members who have spoken in this very interesting debate have made a variety of contributions, as was most right and proper, about the difficulties of the situation and the solutions which they suggest to overcome those difficulties. In the very few minutes that I shall detain the House—because I know how our debate is unfairly truncated—I should like to direct my attention to certain observations about the extent to which the situation at the present moment should give us concern, in the hope that we shall get some wise observations on that topic from the right hon. Gentleman when he replies.

I bring the House back again to that handbook on reading ability for back benchers, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Ashton) referred, in trying to see what we can make out of it. That booklet has a preface by the right hon. Gentleman in which he truly and rightly points out how the war caused an inevitable interruption from which it can hardly be expected that education would not suffer to some extent. He then lays down the question to which he wishes to find an answer: to what extent have things improved since the war came to an end? On that point the answer which the expert committee gives is almost more disturbing than some of my hon. Friends have told the House. On page 45 we are told bluntly, We must conclude, therefore, that there is no evidence that backwardness exists only among older pupils whose education was upset by war-time conditions. It seems as marked throughout the primary schools as the secondary schools. That is a disturbing condition. If we turn back to page 40, we get some detailed statistics about the prevalance of illiteracy in different schools—primary schools and others too, but today we are chiefly concerned with the primary schools. We get some rather interesting conclusions. This is what the investigator, Mr. Watts-Vernon, says in regard to private preparatory schools, urban primary schools, rural primary schools and primary and secondary London schools. As regard illiteracy and semi-illiteracy, it is the conclusion that the London schools come out worst of all; worse than the rural schools.

When we get to the other end of the scale, the children who have superior reading capacity, it is the rural schools who not only do worst but do incomparably worse than the other schools, and the London schools come second to the primary private schools and above the urban primary schools. Has the right hon. Gentleman any idea why London is both best and worst in this respect? There is indeed a question of exactly how much reliance one ought to place on this sort of intelligence test statistics. I approach these intelligence tests of deficiency with a certain amount of diffidence and trepidation. I always wonder whether I shall be able to answer the questions myself.

I recollect that on one occasion I studied some statistics from the City of Sheffield where a surprisingly large number of children were apparently rated as mentally deficient. When I looked it up to see how they arrived at this conclusion, I read that 73 per cent. had not heard of the Minister of Education. I could have done that one anyway, but it did not seem altogether convincing as an evidence of mental defect. I may say that was not the present Minister of Education. It was Mr. Fisher. I suppose he was President of the Board of Education. The general conclusion seems to be serious, and, whatever the standard of literacy, it cannot have been unduly high, since we are told that 0.0 per cent. of public school boys of the age are semi-literate—a surprisingly optimistic judgment.

On page 14, a number of remedies are suggested which have figured in the speeches of one hon. Member or another in the course of this debate. Roughly speaking, it is suggested that there are five reasons which are likely to cause backwardness. Certain children are backward because of personal handicaps. That is to say, that so far as it can be remedied, it shows that there is a relationship between health and education. Then there is the all-important factor of home conditions. I am sure that no one who meditates on the matter can doubt that one of the great problems in education today is the growing weakness of family life which makes the problems of the schoolmaster, when the children come from broken homes, a great deal more difficult than they would otherwise be.

There is the obvious particular cause for the moment of interrupted schooling from which so many children suffered during the war, which inevitably made this period a few years ago a particularly difficult one. There we come back to the question of school conditions, smaller classes and so on, which hon. Members rightly, I think, have stressed in speech after speech. On top of these four points, there is a fifth and interesting point, which, I am inclined to think, is not sufficiently stressed. One reason for illiteracy, in the opinion of the author of this report, is "a premature introduction to printed matter." Although I think that it would be a great mistake that children should not go to school at five years of age, I would not in all cases rush them into reading immediately. In the case of the vast majority of children, I think that reading is a thing which comes to them naturally, and it is better to leave them to learn to read naturally than that definitely and positively they should be taught to read.

There are certain children who it is necessary to teach because they will not learn themselves, but most children more or less learn to read without knowing that they are doing so, just, as a few years earlier, they learn to speak without knowing that they are doing so. In connection with the treatment of individual children—one treated in one way and another in another—much depends on having small classes and an adequate number of competent teachers.

I do not want to detain the House longer. I should, however, be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if, in addition to his other observations, he would say something about what his view is upon the actual state of affairs, as well as who is responsible for that state of affairs and what is the remedy; whether he thinks that the situation is as serious as this report indicates or whether he has reason to think that it is less serious.