Education (School-Building)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st July 1953.

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Photo of Dame Florence Horsbrugh Dame Florence Horsbrugh , Manchester Moss Side 12:00 am, 1st July 1953

I quite agree. The gap has not been entirely closed, because there was a big gap before. When we start with a big gap it is very difficult to close it in future years, but I think we are getting nearer to doing so. The difficulty has been that housing has had an overriding priority. My predecessor, the late Mr. Tomlinson, made this statement: It is surprising how many housing estates are started without anyone's seeming to realise, until the houses have been built, that schools will be needed to serve the children living on the estates."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th July, 1949; Vol. 466, c. 1980.] That has nothing to do with our expanding housing policy. The gap was there. Let me quote again from what Mr. Tomlinson said: Looking at the country as a whole, therefore, I think there should be no great difference between the number of school places available and the number of children to be taught. But in individual areas there may well be temporary shortages of accommodation. This will largely be due to the fact that in some areas the rate of housing development has not been sufficiently clearly foreseen, with the result that school building has lagged behind house building."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1933.] It is clear and can be proved, and there is no need to dispute it.

I am not saying that it was wrong that house building went on more quickly than school building. In the last two years since we have been in office we have tried to get them very much nearer together, but we have not been able to close the gap. My predecessor spoke of the lag between the building of schools and houses in some of the housing areas. I can find no evidence to justify the word "most "but perhaps "many" or "some" can be used. More care should be taken to say that this took place in the early years and not in the later years since the housing programme expanded. I apologise to the Committee for taking this time, but we have to get the facts.

I come to the far more difficult part of the subject, the problem of the old schools. This problem has been clearly known for many years, but sometimes I think there are people who believe that I found these schools and suddenly put them down in the country. Minister after Minister has described these schools, and no one in more lurid terms than the late Mr. Tomlinson. We know, and hon. Gentlemen opposite knew, about them and Annual Reports of the Ministry of Education give the facts, which are now known by everybody. It is not a party matter. Sometimes the facts came out with the development plans. Let us remember that every local authority is taking, or has taken, a survey of its area for its development plan. I do not want to see too many surveys, because the skilled officials should be getting on with that work, but my predecessor referred on 5th July, 1949 to this matter. After emphasising, as he always did, the policy that he had followed since 1947, and which I have carried on, to provide places for children of statutory school age, he went on: It is impossible at the same time to carry out the vast programme of improvement and replacement which will be necessary in order to bring many, if not most, of our existing schools up to a reasonable standard."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th July, 1949; Vol. 466, c. 1980.] The next reference was in 1950 when the then Parliamentary Secretary was replying to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) who put much the same questions to the Minister then as he has often put to me. The reply was: The plain fact is that we are already meeting the most urgent needs of the day to the very limit of our capacity. There are literally no further steps we can take in order to deal specifically with the conditions to which my hon. Friend has called attention unless we divert manpower and materials at present devoted to providing school accommodation for housing estates, to meet the increased birthrate, and to meet the imperative needs of technical education."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th May, 1950; Vol.474, c. 1866.] It was made clear at the beginning that this was an urgent problem. I quite agree that it accumulated with the years. The decision was taken but the problem was not tackled.

On the subject of repairs and maintenance, I agree with the right hon. Member for South Shields that the particular difficulty was with schools that were voluntary schools and are now becoming controlled schools. Hon. Members opposite know the number of circulars that went out, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman does also, dealing with the subject of improvements. Different changes were made, so much more money being allocated here and so much less there. I ask hon. Gentlemen to bear in mind that repair and maintenance of schools is a local authority responsibility and is a charge on the local estimates in the usual way. What are called "minor works" are for improvements and additions and are quite separate. One is on capital account and comes under the control of the Ministry's building programme and the other is a matter for the local authority's estimates.

I quite agree with what has been said about the appalling condition of these schools, and if the local authority in any particular case is not doing its duty—I believe that the enormous majority are, in the matter of repair and maintenance—I shall not hesitate to take action. Hon. Gentlemen must remember that I have been in office only for 18 months, and if local authorities were not doing repairs before that time it must have been the result of economy in the last Government. I can assure hon. Gentlemen that I have never asked a local authority to reduce money spent on repair and maintenance, nor has a local authority asked me for more money and I have refused.

The second part relates to minor works, a capital cost which is under the control of the Ministry, and called "improvements." The last Government made a change at the time of the financial crisis but later some more was given. Then in September, 1951, only a couple of months before I took office, there was a further change when it was said that the plain fact was that the Government could not give as much as they had been giving and that the policy was still to devote the greater part of their building programme to new schools.

I looked into the arrangements whereby 9s. per head was paid and I made certain small improvements. Where there were particular difficulties I allocated sums of money in addition to the 9s. per head. It has been said that it was a matter of luck whether an authority received that or not, but surely hon. Members do not think that a local authority were told that they would receive extra money and then they made a claim. Discussions took place and allocations were made for specific purposes. Stress was laid on improvements that would result in more places being provided. But now, as a result of the extra money which I am providing for extensions, a greater proportion of the 9s. allowance can be used for repairs other than those designed to increase the number of places, use being made of the extra allowance for the latter purpose.

Hon. Members may ask why we do not increase the main grant rather than adopt this method. That is a matter of opinion on which I shall be glad to hear the views of hon. Members, but the last Government stated clearly that if that were done there would not be room in the schools for children of statutory school age and they decided to put all their efforts into providing new places.

A further change which I made was to increase from £5,000 to £6,500 the amount which could be expended by the authority on a project without their being required to provide the Ministry with details. A few months later I changed the formula slightly for the rural areas. There are a large number of small schools in the rural areas and therefore improvements in those areas cost more money. I have tried to help them. I agree that there are some schools and some houses which we should all like to get rid of.

In the past seven years—and here I am defending my predecessors just as much as myself—about £22 million has been spent on minor works. About £3 million were spent in 1950 and a little over £3 million in 1951. I increased the amount and it is £4 million for 1952. I am glad to say that it will be rather more for this year. We are moving in the right direction. I want to make rapid progress, but if I took money from the main grant in order to carry out these improvements, it would be said that I was keeping children of statutory school age out of school.

It was announced by my predecessor that a Committee had been set up to examine the question of the number of school teachers required. The Committee examined staffing for 1950 and they suggested that we would need to recruit 4,000 more a year to maintain the necessary number. They also said that in the difficult years between 1950 and 1960 we would have to recruit 4,000 more a year to keep up the 1950 level of staffing and that, even so, in the middle period the level might be below the 1950 level.

I am glad to say that we have had two record years of improvement in which we have added not 4,000 but 5,000 more to the number of teachers. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the teachers who have come back to the schools to help us in these difficult times and also the teachers who have stayed on. Never before have we increased the number by 5,000 and I am confident that we shall do as well this year. Because of this progress we shall have more teachers than the maximum originally suggested.

As regards the suggested survey of bad schools, I do not think that if we had a survey now it would make the slightest difference. We have the surveys of the development plans and I believe that we would be wasting manpower to have another survey now. If I had the money and the material we could get to work on these schools straight away. That is not the difficulty. The difficulty is to take our present resources which are being devoted to one plan, that is to the provision of new schools and the bringing of children of school age into them, and devote those resources to replacing the old schools. [An HON. MEMBER: "More money."] I was speaking of what we could do with the resources which we have now, which fortunately are more than any Minister had under a Labour Government.

The late Miss Wilkinson is reported in HANSARD of 1st July, 1946, as saying that that was the first year that the Estimates of the Ministry of Education were above £100 million. My Estimates this year amount to £227 million. Whatever we think about the recommendations in the Select Committee's Report, I think we are all agreed upon the background of what we have to do and we all agree with paragraphs 6 and 7 of the Report. I agree with the majority of the minor recommendations, but at the same time I do not think that they would make a tremendous difference to solving our problem. We have to face two questions. The first is whether the resources available could have solved our problem if they had been used to the best advantage. The second is whether these resources could have been larger. I have shown that the present Government have incurred more capital expenditure than has ever been incurred before and I have shown that we have obtained better value for our money.