Orders of the Day — Independent Schools (Registration)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd July 1957.

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Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth 12:00 am, 23rd July 1957

No, Sir. That would be asking too much. It would not be fair to the schools themselves to indulge in any generalisations. I want to be cautious about this. The most I am prepared to say tonight is that some of the residue of 200 schools, though by no means all, may turn out to be unsatisfactory and my noble Friend may have to serve a notice of complaint; but any further generalisations about the schools would be unfair.

I want now to say a word about the inspectorate, about which the hon. Member for Fulham asked me. The introduction of Part III will be by no means the only source of additional responsibility for inspectors in the near future. For example, in connection with the growth of technical education and in connection with such matters as the change-over to a three-year course in training colleges, the inspectorate will have a very important contribution to make.

The point I want to make is that I believe growth in responsibility has been shown by both teachers and schools since the war and, as a result the real value and importance of the inspectorate lies more and more in its advisory functions. It needs these days to give less time to some of its more routine duties, particularly formal visits leading to a full inspection report, and it has become clear that an appreciable saving in manpower in the inspectorate can be made and that we can adjust its duties to new developments without impairing its advisory value. Under the new organisation of the inspectorate I have every hope that that will prove to be so more and more in years to come.

The decision has, therefore, been taken to carry out inspections under Part III without actually recruiting additional inspectors for the purpose. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken very considerable thought before making that decision. I would remind the House that the inspections will admittedly entail a good deal of consequential work, but the most exacting part of the operation will be compressed mainly into the relatively short period during which the register is being compiled. This work, in its main bulk, will be of a once-for-all kind.

I have looked into this carefully in the light of the letter which the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to send me and I believe that the inspectors will be able to take this extra work in their stride by giving it reasonable priority during this period without neglecting other important sides of their work. Many of the schools to be inspected under Part III are already known to the inspectors. The most difficult cases will be dealt with by a small team which has been making a special study of Part Ill from the inspectorate's point of view. This small section will give a large part of its time to the work during next year, and I do not think the weight falling on the rest of the inspectorate will prove to be unduly heavy.

I come now to the highly important question of standards and here I think it important for the House to be realistic. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden)spoke helpfully on this matter. We cannot be too precise and too categorical in advance. After all, independent schools range very widely, from small schools catering for a dozen or so small children to fairly large boarding schools taking children throughout most of the compulsory school age range. They are housed in all kinds of premises very few of which were built specifically as schools in the first place.

It is not practicable to lay down standards and, indeed, my noble Friend is not empowered to lay down precise standards of the kind laid down in the Ministry's building regulations for maintained schools. To give an example, regulations for maintained schools require that a class room for 40 primary children should have a minimum area of 520 square feet, that is to say 13 square feet per child. When one is building a new school that is a perfectly sensible and proper requirement, but if we tried to apply similar standards to a class of children meeting in the drawing room of a large Victorian house, it would not make very much sense.

One has to know the shape of the room, the size and disposition of the windows, the degree of ventilation and height, and so on. All our old schools have rooms which would be open to be condemned by modern standards. I am thinking of some of the older schools in the country and I cannot believe that Lower School at Eton College would be regarded as a particularly enlightened school room by modern standards, although I think it would be a great pity to suggest that no children should be taught there. I attribute my own in different eyesight to having studied the Greek Testament for School Certificate in a badly lighted room.

One has to know whether the child is using a sensible desk or working at furniture not really resigned for school use. Similar considerations apply to other aspects of the school and I put it to the House that there is no question at all of my noble Friend applying, as it were, an unfair standard of leniency to independent schools. If an independent school is to be complained about, it will not be because it has failed to meet one particular standard in one detailed aspect, but because taking into account the premises, the accommodation and the teaching staff and what they are doing, it has manifestly failed to provide adequate or suitable instruction.

There again, judgment can be formed only on the spot on the merits of each individual case. My noble Friend will be guided in his reports by inspectors specially chosen for their knowledge of independent schools. I would make the point that in no case will the decision to serve a notice rest on the advice of one single inspector. Ultimately, of course, standards will emerge from the decisions of the independent schools tribunals on cases brought before them. I agree that the curriculum is important; for example, how many subjects a master has to teach and whether certain subjects are available. But I think it would be wrong for the House to be categorical on the matter in advance.

My noble Friend hopes that most schools will welcome constructive criticism from the inspectorate and carry out essential improvements without there being any need to raise a formal notice of complaint. It is in the highest degree unlikely that so many schools will be closed that the children displaced will throw a noticeably heavy burden on the local education authorities. In fact, I think it possible that the Minister will need to seek the complete closure of only quite a small number of schools and there is every reason to think that local education authorities will be able to give such small degree of help as may be needed.

Before I deal with Scotland, I want to say a word about teachers. I am glad that the hon. Member for Fulham said that he was keen to put this in due proportion. Before the introduction of Part III was announced there was, of course, a danger that teachers declared unsuitable for service in maintained and grant-aided schools would increasingly try to find refuge in the independent schools. Some unsavoury cases have come to light. In the last three years, however, we have carried out a thorough checking process on a voluntary basis. Practically every known independent school has sent in at least one complete return of its teaching staff and nearly all have sent in three returns, and, as expected, the results have shown that most schools are above criticism in respect of unsuitable teachers.

In the 1954–55 check, 31 teachers were found whose names were on the Ministry's list of unsuitable teachers, and only in a very few cases was it necessary to exert any pressure at all to get the proprietor to take appropriate action. Nine more teachers of this kind were found in 1955–56 and another eight in 1956–57. We thought very hard about this problem, because, as my hon. Friend said, one or two bad cases give a wholly disproportionate picture to the country, but I believe that the figures which I have given reveal that the problem is down to insignificant proportions.

After September of this year, when Part III comes into force, we shall have the necessary legal power, subject to their right of appeal to the tribunal, to deal with both unsuitable teachers and unsuitable proprietors. I think it is important to realise, however, that no device for dealing with them can produce absolutely 100 per cent. safety, if only because there will always be the problem of the person whose first act of misconduct occurs when he is a teacher or a proprietor.

Under the Regulations, a proprietor will be required each January to furnish details of changes, and in this way we shall he able to make an annual check on the entry of undesirable teachers into the independent schools. I do not think that it would be reasonable or practicable to try to undertake more than this. Perhaps it is worth remembering that any change in proprietorship, which might well be a source of greater danger to the pupils and parents, will have to be notified at once.

I come, finally, to Scotland. I thought that it might be convenient for the House if I replied to Scottish questions, too, but my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will fill in any gaps, if it seems that there are some. There is not very much difference in effect between the Scottish registration Regulations and the English Regulations. In the form of application for registration the Scots are asking for slightly more detail. For example, they wish to know whether any part of the premises is situated away from the main part, whereas England would expect the inspector to find that out for himself.

Again, the Scots wish to know the exact legal status of the governing body where the proprietor is an incorporated or an unincorporated body. Again, they also wish to know the full names and addresses of the members directly responsible for the management of the school. There is no great significance in this, but it may be of satisfaction to you, Mr. Speaker, to know that the Scots are dealing in slightly greater detail than the English with these matters, and perhaps as they are dealing with only 160 schools as compared with 3,300, they can reasonably handle rather more detail than can we in England and Wales.

It is, of course, true that pressure for the introduction of Part V of the Education (Scotland)Act, 1946, began earlier than the corresponding pressure for the introduction of Part III of the 1944 Act, and some of the circumstances were slightly different. As the hon. Lady said, at a Press Conference in October, 1951 the late Mr. Hector McNeil announced his intention of bringing Part V of the Act into operation. On the other hand, whenever there is an Election in the offing a good deal of legislation is talked about. There was, however, a particular reason why at that time Mr. McNeil should have made that statement, because there had recently been reports about an independent school in Glasgow—I will not give its name—which was conducted in a private house and in which the sanitary arrangements were very inadequate and the only teachers were two unmarried sisters, both of them over seventy.

The hon. Lady, the Member for Lanarkshire, North and Mr. McNeil both took a serious view of this, but in the months immediately following the announcement visits of inspection showed that these independent schools—there were between 10 and 20 of them which had had their attention drawn to shortcomings in premises or staffing—were already taking steps to make these good, as far as they could at the time. In those circumstances, and in view of the difficulty at that time of securing labour and materials for improvements to buildings, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. J. Stuart)decided that any further improvements required should continue to be secured by administrative action.

I think it is only fair to remember that 1951 was a time when there were a good many shortages of raw materials, when building licences were down to an extremely low figure and when it was not very easy to make an advance. Looking back, I think that would have been the height of the economic crisis in 1951, and it would have been difficult to bring Part V of the Act into operation.