The total number of oversize classes was 341 greater this year than in January, 1949. On the other hand, the total number of classes of all kinds had also increased by January, 1950, so that the proportion of oversize classes was less than in the previous year. In other words, although there were more classes, the proportion was less because of the larger number of children who had come in.
We all know of the school accommodation problem and how it has arisen. During the war there was virtually a cessation of school building. For five years there was scarcely a school built in the country. More than 5,000 school buildings suffered war damage, and much classroom accommodation was thereby lost. In the post-war years two additional factors have intensified this problem, both of which have been referred to. One was the steep, if erratic rise in the birth rate, and the other was the large movement of population to new housing estates which has developed latterly. In addition, the raising of the compulsory school age from 14 to 15 brought with it accommodation difficulties which had to be resolved largely by a programme of hutted school buildings. That problem was met at the time it arose and those 8,000 Horsa huts, as we call them, housed the 14 to 15 age group.
Altogether we estimate that between January, 1947, and 1953 1,150,000 new school places will be needed, and most of these will be places in primary schools. In other words, we are dealing with a rise in the school population itself. This is illustrated by the fact that the total number of pupils in maintained and assisted primary and secondary schools has risen from little more than five million in January, 1946, to 5,651,000 in January, 1950. In 1949 the population in these schools increased by 123,000 and the number of children aged five was 636,000. We estimate that this last figure will rise this year to 714,000 and next year to 780,000. In January, 1950, rather more than 91 per cent. of the five-year-old group were in infant classes in maintained and assisted schools. That was a higher percentage than in any other post-war year. I think it can be claimed that no material number of children failed to secure admission to school on or about their fifth birthday.
Our main problem has thus been to provide sufficient accommodation for these increasing numbers, and this problem will continue to be with us for some time to come. We have had to deal with it during a period when various other difficulties faced us. We dealt with it by introducing what are in effect priorities, although not claimed as such. We concentrated the annual building programme of local education authorities on three main classes: those intended to provide accommodation for additional children coming into the school as a result of the rise in the birth rate; those intended to make school provision for new housing development; and those that were intended for the extension of facilities for technical education. All those things could not be neglected.
When I tell the House that at the moment it is estimated that at the end of March, 1951, over 1,000 schools were under construction, providing 420,000 places, I wonder if anyone realises just what the addition of a million children to the school population means in terms of building alone? When one thinks in terms of a school, it is a pretty large school if it houses 500 children. We need not be very good at mathematics to know that 500 into a million means at least 2,000 schools of average type. When those are added to all the requirements needed to meet some of the difficulties mentioned, one begins to realise something of this problem.
The same thing applies to the number of teachers. We must have a teacher if we are to have a class. With regard to the question of literacy, I would not take the figures or the test mentioned by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis)—I will not say too seriously, but I would not take it as tragic if some expert pointed out that the youngsters of today were not quite as good readers as children were 10 years ago. If they are not quite so literate in that scholastic sense, maybe in other directions they are far more capable of entering into the world.
Not for a moment would I seek to belittle the necessity for reading, writing and arithmetic. I am still old-fashioned enough, and still new-fashioned enough, to believe that those are essentials. Particularly would I say that with regard to reading. The value of reading is not only in its educational content, in that it enables one to understand. I prize the ability to read, and the desire to teach reading, because once an individual has learnt to read and to understand what he is reading, he has solved the problem of loneliness for all time, particularly in a place like London.