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 Commander Sir John Maitland Commander Sir John Maitland , Horncastle 12:00 am, 17th April 1951

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) for having put me out of my agony by giving me time to wind up the debate for this side of the House. I find myself in considerable agreement with what he has said. The House will agree that we have been doubly fortunate in that we have not only had this opportunity to debate this subject, but that the Motion has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Ashton). Few hon. Members have greater knowledge of educational administration than my hon. Friend. He has put the case we are trying to make in great detail, and his remarks will be well worth studying.

I want to deal with the subject from a rather wider aspect in order to reinforce, in general, what my hon. Friend has said in particular. This has, of course, been a ratepayers' debate; indeed, one might almost say it has been an Essex ratepayers' debate. I am pleased about this, because before the war I served as chairman of a remote sub-committee of the Essex Education Committee. It seems to me that the great problem facing us is how to convince the people of the country that they are getting value for their money. I think I shall have the agreement of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West, when I say that I cannot see any chance of saving money on education, but rather that we have to face an increasing charge to maintain our present standard. The bulge in the birth-rate has decided that, and we have to face that fact. That is the background to our financial approach to this subject.

It is a tremendous burden that has been placed on the ratepayers by the pressure of educational expense. It is inevitable, but that pressure is being felt. It is a sad thing that this pressure should be at a time when prices are rising and taxation is as heavy as it is. Therefore, we ought, I believe, to try to do something to help the ratepayer. I wish I knew what that something was and could advance suggestions from this side, but the fact remains that unless we can do something, we shall have examples all over the country of the wrong sort of economies being made, with the result that while we apparently have an efficient educational system on paper, we may be turning out inefficient children who are below even present-day standards. That would indeed be getting the worst of both worlds, and it is something that must be avoided at all costs.

I ask the Minister, therefore, seriously to consider the proposal put up by the National Union of Teachers, and also by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) in a Question the other day, namely, whether it would not be advisable to appoint a Royal Commission or to get the best brains in the country to advise us on this very difficult and apparently nearly insoluble problem. I see all the difficulties involved, local autonomy and such like issues. The matter is so acute, it presses on educational development to such an extent, that I think we should be justified in having a Commission or use some other method to get the best advice which we can possibly get.

If it is considered that the educational side is in itself too small, the examination should extend to the whole of local government expenditure, and the bearing of the rates on the ratepayer. Let us face it, but do not let us say that the thing is impracticable because it would have to extend over the whole field of local government. I would ask the Minister, in his reply tonight, to devote some of his time to the general considerations of the pressure on the ratepayers which is being felt so much today. It is an important matter and justifies the anxiety of the ratepayer. I think he has every reason to be anxious when he consults the report which has been referred to so often today.

This report on illiteracy has given rise to some concern. I should like to put forward one point which strikes me. Hon. Members have chosen things from it which have appealed to them, but I was very much struck by the number of what are called "backward readers" among children of 15 years throughout the whole country. It seems to me that these figures are worse than those for complete illiteracy, which are admittedly small. It should be noted that 30 per cent. of the children who are aged 15 are designated as "backward readers" today as compared with 10 per cent. in the years before the war.

A "backward reader," incidentally, is a child with the reading ability of between 9 and 12 years, which is rather serious when we devote so much of our time to the further development of our children. I hope that the Minister, in his report on education—which, I hope, is coming out soon; perhaps he can tell us tonight when it will be coming out—will deal with this question of literacy and illiteracy. It is a difficult subject I know, but it is something about which the country should have full knowledge.

The next question concerns overcrowding, and I want to know what is the position today about the provision of new schools to deal with the bulge in the birthrate. I was not very satisfied with the answer of the Minister when we last had a debate on this subject. It seemed to us to be a little too optimistic. In regard to the London area he pointed out that three years of the building plan were still to go, and, of course, anything could happen during those three years. The right hon. Gentleman got away with that explanation, but I should like to remind him tonight that one year of that time has gone and there are only two years left.

Is he satisfied that in the London schools, places will be found for the children who will be coming to school for the first time in 1952 and 1953? Will they be able to find places for them under existing circumstances, or will conditions of overcrowding improve or get worse? Those are questions about which many are anxious and worried. From what I can hear from the local authorities with whom I am in contact, I gather that they are not as optimistic as the Government were last year.

The question of teachers follows from that of school buildings, and I hope the Minister will tell us tonight something about the situation. Can we hope to have the proper number of teachers to be able to conserve the existing standard or must we expect reduced standards? Can we possibly hope to get better standards, and how many temporary teachers shall we require, to deal adequately with the numbers. We should all very much like to know the answers to those questions.

Technological education has been mentioned in this debate. We had a short debate recently on this subject, and we are very anxious that the Minister should go further, if he can, than the Parliamentary Secretary did before the Recess. Time is passing and this problem does not get any less acute. The need gets greater as time goes by, and we think a decision on this matter should be made as soon as possible.

The subject of new schools in the new towns has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent). One would have thought that the provision of schools in the new towns would have been one of the first things the planners would have considered very carefully. Yet we know of several cases of anxiety about schools in the new towns, particularly in Crawley. Let me take Crawley as an example. The facts I have may not be correct, and if that is so, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will correct me. We complain, first, on the ground that in Crawley there is to be no council school until the end of the year, when there will be 1,500 families in that town. That does not seem to us to be very good planning.

The second complaint is one of over expensive planning. We understand that the schools there are being sited in the centre of blocks. It is very nice to have green spaces in the centre of blocks and easier for the children to get to school, but it entails building the schools so that they are not on the edge of blocks. I understand that as a result of this, the cost of building in those new towns is going up by £2,000 an acre. That seems to us to be tremendous expenditure. No economies are nice; all are unpleasant, but is not this an economy that we ought to make at this time. It means sacrificing an open space and it means that the children may have to walk further to school, but in these days of stringency we should examine with very great care such matters as this.

I promised the right hon. Gentleman I would give him as much time as possible because we want answers to these questions. We, on this side of the House, put forward these suggestions without malice, hatred or any uncharitableness. We hope the answers will be given in the same spirit, because these are things of great concern to the parents of children at school and to the local education authorities. I have devoted much of my time to putting these questions to the Minister and now I will give him the opportunity to answer them.