Education Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th April 1957.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East 12:00 am, 5th April 1957

I beg to second the Motion.

I am sure that the whole House would wish me to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) for giving us the opportunity to discuss education today, because we have too few debates on education, a subject which, I believe, is nearer to the heart of most people than many other subjects. My hon. Friend has dealt specifically with training, and I want to deal specifically with the organisation of secondary education. Before I do that, however, I should like to develop to some extent the arguments of my hon. Friend about the changes in the finance of education which are envisaged by the Government.

It is often said that when we in this House discuss education we are much more concerned with buildings, equipment and things of that description, than with the content of education. Wherever we look in the field of education, and whatever improvements we wish to make, we always come back to the question of money, because nearly all our developments depend upon how much they will cost.

The noble Lord the Minister of Education made a speech a short time ago in which he said that we got education on the cheap. That is so, because we spend only 3 per cent. of our national income on education, which is much less than that spent by many other countries. It is quite clear that for the next few years, we shall have to spend far more money on education, for several reasons.

First, there are rising costs, and, secondly, the increased number of children in our secondary schools. Next year, it is estimated that there will be 150,000 more children in our secondary schools than the year before, and this increase in our secondary school population will continue until 1960 or 1961. Thus, as my hon. Friend pointed out, not only is an increase in the number of teachers needed, but also the three-year training, which is so important.

Apart from all these considerations, we also need a great many improvements and developments, because we have still far too many old school buildings. We have far too many schools which have not been reorganised, far too many with old equipment and without sufficient books, so that for all these reasons it is quite clear that over the next few years much more money will be needed for educational purposes.

It is quite clear that education is an expanding service, yet this is the time which the Government have chosen to treat education as a contracting service. This is the time which they have chosen to put the whole of our Exchequer grants to local authorities into the melting pot, and those most concerned with education fear that less money is to be available for education purposes under the block grant system than under the percentage grant system. On 19th February, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was announcing this proposal, he said: This should introduce a stabilising influence in the central Government's contribution to local expenditure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1957; Vol. 565, c. 210.] We must note those words "stabilising influence". We remember that the percentage system has always been abandoned in time of national crisis, or when the Government wanted to cut down expenditure. We also remember that both the Geddes and May Committees proposed a suspension of the percentage grant, and so it is that those who are most concerned with our education service—the Association of Education Committees and the National Union of Teachers—are seriously perturbed about this and view this change with great misgiving.

It is still uncertain what the level of the grant will be, but I think it is quite clear that the grant is not to be based on the amount spent by the most generous of our local authorities. There is a great fear that these grants will be based on the amount spent by the rather less generous authorities. If that does happen, it will mean that any educational advance by the local authorities will have to be met out of the rates, and we know how local authorities dislike putting up the rates very much.

It means that many of them will spend less on education rather than increase the rates, and I am afraid that this will lead to greater disparities in our education service as between one local authority and another, when these disparities are great at present. I hope that the Ministers are endeavouring to uphold the percentage grant in some form or other instead of its substitution by a block grant, because it would appear that with a block grant less money would be available than previously for educational purposes.

I wish now to say something about the organisation of secondary education. I need not remind the House of the present position. I do not believe that anybody is really happy about it. I do not believe that hon. Members opposite are happy about the way in which our secondary education is at present organised. Selection at 11 was never planned; it is an historical accident which has grown out of the Hadow Report of 1926. First, we had fee-paying in grammar schools, then we had part fees, and now there are no fees in our State grammar schools.

There is now no side-entry to the grammar school as there used to be when fees were paid. Many middle-class people, and, indeed, some working-class people, who, previously, would have been able to pay a certain amount of money to buy a place in a grammar school, are no longer able to do so. This means that the spotlight has been put on the 11-plus examination and selection at 11 far more since fees were abolished than before.

I hope that no one will misunderstand what I am saying. I agree wholeheartedly with the abolition of fees in our State schools, but my point is that the abolition of fees and the taking away of the backdoor entry has meant that everybody realises that entry to a grammar school is obtained by means of some test or other. We know of the uneasiness which exists about this problem, the uneasiness in the primary schools, when parents and children are thinking of selection. We know of the problem of "late developers" and we also know the very great differences which exist in the provision of grammar school places as between one area and another. Two or three weeks ago I asked the Parliamentary Secretary to give me the figures of the percentage of grammar school places available in all the local authority areas in the country. The hon. Gentleman sent me that list, and it is very disturbing. At the top there are two local authorities with 63 per cent. grammar school places for their children; at the bottom there is an authority with only 8 per cent. of grammar school places.

I know that these are, perhaps, extremes, but even among those who are not at the extremes there is a very wide disparity. There are 38 local authorities in the country with 15 per cent. or less grammar school places. There are 12 local authorities which have 30 per cent. or more and 29 have 25 per cent. or more. There are 82 with 20 per cent. or less. When we consider that the difference even between 20 per cent. and 21 per cent. of places may result in several hundreds of children either going to a grammar school or not, we can see that these wide disparities are very serious.

There is another point which is sometimes overlooked. It is that even following the abolition of fees in grammar schools there is still no real equality of opportunity. There is still a great difference between the percentage of working-class children going to grammar schools and the children of the middle classes. I do not know how many hon. Members have read a very interesting book which has just been published, entitled "Social Class and Educational Opportunity" by Floud, Halsey and Martin. These three people surveyed two areas, south-west Hertfordshire and Middlesbrough, to find out what changes in entry to grammar schools have taken place over the years, and particularly since the abolition of fees.

Over 1,000 parents were interviewed in each of these two places and the results were rather startling. In both areas, while the proportion of grammar school places given to children of working-class parents had gone up, there had been no great increase in the percentage of working-class children going to the grammar schools. In 1953, the position was that in Middlesbrough, while only one working-class boy in eight went to the grammar school, one in three of the sons of clerks went to the grammar school. While 68 per cent. of the children of the professional and managerial classes went to a grammar school, only 14 per cent. of the sons of skilled manual workers went to a grammar school.

Some other interesting facts were brought to light in this survey. One was that the children of small families seemed to stand a much greater chance of getting to a grammar school than the children of large families; and, also, that one of the great determining factors was the attitude of the parents towards their children's education. So it now seems that there are all kinds of influences brought to bear in determining what kind of secondary education a child shall have. To a certain extent there is ability. There is agility in intelligence tests. But, in addition, a great deal depends on the area where the child happens to live. It also seems that a great deal depends on the parents, so much so that the test at 11 appears to be as much a test of the parents as of the children.

What can we do to alter this position? There are, of course, different opinions about this. I deprecate too much stress being placed on what is called the 11-plus examination, because I think that there is a tendency to confuse two things: the 11-plus examination, on one hand, and the selection of different types of schools, on the other. It would be quite easy to get rid of the 11-plus examination and have selection by some other method. If we are to have selection for different types of schools, I think that there is perhaps more to be said for examination or a series of tests than any other method which has been put forward.

I think it unfair to the teachers in primary schools to put the whole of the onus on them to make recommendations. With the best will in the world it is difficult for a teacher in one school to have exactly the same standards as a teacher in another school. I think that we should stop talking too much about the 11-plus examination as such. I should like to end selection. I think that we should aim at abolishing selection and not only the 11-plus examination.

How is that to be done? I believe that there is only one satisfactory method, either the comprehensive school or a modification of it. I believe that there is still a great deal of political bias among hon. Members opposite about this. A short time ago I watched the noble Lord the Minister for Education being questioned on this subject in a television programme. While he said that he did not condemn the comprehensive school, the Minister spent the greater part of that programme arguing against it. One of the things which the noble Lord said was against the comprehensive school was its size. I think that that is a bogy. When we remember that the noble Lord went to Eton, where there are 1,200 boys in the school, I do not think that anyone can say that having been in a school of that size has cramped the individuality of the noble Lord to any extent.

I do not believe that comprehensive schools need be too big. But, even if they are, I would say that the balance of opportunity is much greater inside a big school than a small one, because in a big school there is a variety in the curriculum and in the courses that only a big staff of specialist teachers is able to give. Of course, we all know the difficulty of selection and we all know that something must be done to bring that to an end. It is sometimes argued that comprehensive schools will keep back the bright children, but the examination results of a school like Holyhead, where the comprehensive system has been in operation for some time, do not indicate that. Rather do they show the opposite.

Again, watching television—I hope that my hon. Friends do not think I am a television "fan"—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—I was interested a few months ago to see a programme which showed the inside of a girls' public school—Sherborne. It seemed an extremely good school. The girls entered the school and found their own level. If they were academically-minded, they took an academic course. They could, at the same time, take many practical courses.

Watching that television broadcast, I realised that with the exception that Sherborne was a boarding school and Kidbrooke was a day school, and Sherborne had much smaller classes than Kidbrooke, in effect the public school at Sherborne seemed to me to be very much like the girls' school at Kidbrooke in curriculum and the methods which were used.

All of us on this side of the House have been thinking seriously about this problem and many modifications have been suggested—for instance, the bilateral school, the modern school with the technical bias and the introduction of the General Certificate of Education examination inside the modern schools. All these may be good to a certain extent, but they seem to me to be wasteful of specialised manpower and womanpower in the teaching profession, because I do not believe that this method gives us the best possible use of our specialist teachers.

I am in favour of experiments with a modified system of comprehensive education, but I would prefer what I would call a horizontal rather than the vertical method of experiment. I do not want to see the two schools—the secondary modern and the technical school—existing side by side. I do not want to see a grammar school with a technical school existing by its side. If there have to be experiments of this kind, I would rather that the division were according to age.

My hon. Friends will remember that in 1953 the National Executive of our party issued the first "Challenge to Britain," in which we envisaged a comprehensive system divided into two parts, one to the age of 15 and the other beyond that age. In actual practice, some local authorities are working a modified scheme of that kind. In my own town, Leeds, the local education authority, faced with building a comprehensive school on a new housing estate, decided that it must make use of the existing school. To do that, all the boys from the age of 11 to 13 go to the existing school and the new comprehensive school has been built to accommodate boys from the age of 13 upwards.

I believe that there is room for a great many experiments of this kind. Some of my hon. Friends on this side did not like our original proposals in this respect, but since then a book has been published entitled, "Comprehensive education: a new approach," by Robin Pedley, who propounds a similar idea. Some of my hon. Friends who, in 1953, were critical of our approach to this matter are now not so critical when it is produced in a book by Robin Pedley. There is room for a great deal of experiment in this respect.

That raises the whole question of the age of 11. We seem somehow to be tied to that age. Why it should be 11 instead of 10 or 12 or 13, I simply do not know. I feel that there could be a rearrangement of the ages in our educational system. Why not have one school from the ages of 5 to 9, the next school for ages from 9 to 14, and then use our existing grammar schools for children from the age of 14 upwards? If we could get away from the bogy of 11 to which we are tied, we might be able to make progress.

I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to try to get us out of the rut that we have got into about the age of 11. I realise that in this business we cannot start from scratch and that we must build on the existing framework, but we ought not to be hidebound. We ought to have the courage to look at some new type of organisation.

I end as I began, by saying that improvements of any kind will mean the spending of more money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West said, if we are now entering the period when we spend less on defence, surely this is the time when we can spend more on education. I hope, therefore, that the Minister of Education and the Parliamentary Secretary will bring all their efforts to bear on the Government to ensure that more money is available for all the improvements that we need in our education system.