Education (School Textbooks)

LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL (GENERAL POWERS) BILL [Lords] (By Order) – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1959.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

3.30 a.m.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

During the past eight years there has been a tremendous expansion in educational opportunity in this country. The amount of money spent by the central Government and the local education authorities has doubled. The amount of money spent on teachers' salaries has doubled. There is a great new technical education scheme. The plans have been made to increase the length of teacher training from two years to three years, which is a step of tremendous importance.

All this is well documented, as it should be, but there is one vital part of our educational system where it is surprisingly difficult to get the facts, and that is the expenditure on the provision of school textbooks. To obtain the relevant figures we are largely dependent on the "Education Statistics" prepared by the county and municipal treasurers. For the last ten years they have given separately the amount of money spent on school books. Their figures in this field may not always have been precise but they were the best available. This year "stationery and materials" have been lumped together with "books" and under the same heading, and so an analysis of the figures becomes necessarily a little more imprecise.

It seems to me to be unfortunate that those who are interested in this tremendously important subject should have to rely for so much of their information on what might be called a quasi-private organisation. Textbooks are a vital part of education. Education is a vital concern of the Government. I therefore hope that in future the Government will make themselves responsible for providing precise statistics in this field.

Obviously the most difficult problem in discussing the provision of textbooks is the question, what is a reasonable standard of expenditure? Surprisingly little work has been done in this field, but the most authoritative report was made by the Association of Education Committees, working with the National Book League. There is no need now to go into the technical details of its report but I do not believe that its recommendations have been seriously challenged since it was published.

I understand that the then Minister of Education drew the attention of his inspectorate to this Report. I hope that today the Parliamentary Secretary will go further than this. Does he positively approve of the recommendations of this Report? Will he direct the attention of the inspectorate more forcefully to its recommendations or, if he disagrees with the recommendations, will he establish an authoritative committee of his own to make official recommendations?

The Report to which I have referred set two standards, reasonable and good, for both primary and secondary schools. How do we measure up to these standards? I am glad to say that the overall position is clearly improving, but there is still substantial room for improvement. If all authorities in 1956–57 had reached the good level, expenditure would have been £15,395,000. In fact, there was a gap of £3,560,000 between actual expenditure and this desirable standard. In 1957–58 that gap had been narrowed to £2,200,000, but it is still a substantial sum.

What is particularly worrying are the tremendous variations between local authorities. Of the 145 local education authorities in England and Wales, no fewer than 86 fail to reach a reasonable standard of expenditure at either primary or secondary level. Only three authorities, Cumberland, Manchester and Breconshire, reach the good standard at both primary and secondary levels. Five authorities, Blackpool, Bootle, Coventry, Plymouth and West Ham were nearly 50 per cent. or even worse below a reasonable standard at both primary and secondary levels. The records of West Ham and Plymouth are really appalling, the worst in the country. I suggest that their education committees should write out a thousand times, "I will do much better next year", or, alternatively, they might write out their resignations at once.

The good and the reasonable authorities are improving quite fast. The bad authorities are firmly stuck in the mud. The gap between the good and the bad is likely to grow even wider, when the printing strike is over. It seems inevitable that the cost of textbooks will rise. If past experience is a reliable guide, the good authorities will make allowances for this increase, and the bad authorities will not. The difference will become yet more marked.

The present "League table" makes rather odd reading. Durham was once a centre of educational advance and innovation. But, as one might expect when looking at its present rulers, it is now firmly stuck in the mud. Without exception, all the local education authorities in Durham have bad records in regard to books. In this matter, North-East England is the worst area in the country. Across the Pennines the situation is spotty. Cumberland and Manchester are excellent. Lancashire is fairly good. But the Lancashire "Bs" are bad. Blackburn and Bolton and not too bad, but Barrow, Blackpool, Bootle, Burnley and Bury are appalling.

Sometimes there are staggering discrepancies in the same county. In Warwickshire, for instance, Birmingham has, during the past year, shown a very substantial improvement, and it now has one of the best records in the country. Perhaps this is due to the political proximity of both the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary. On the other hand, Coventry, nearby, has a really wretched record, the third worst in the country after West Ham and Plymouth. Because of weakness or gross folly, the Coventry education committee is cheating children in that city out of essential aids to education.

Surely, this is a matter in which the inspectorate should be given more precise instructions about the maintenance of minimum standards in textbook provision. Is it right that Coventry should be allowed to get away with an expenditure which is about 50 per cent. per child below Birmingham's? During the debate on the Local Government Act, we heard a great deal about the enforcement of minimum standards. This is the sort of case where the Ministry ought to be particularly vigilant in the maintenance of minimum standards.

In the final analysis, a very great deal depends on the attitude of individual teachers. If our teachers do not know what is available in the textbook world, if they have never worked with bright, up-to-date, well-presented texts, then we are not really likely to take advantage of our opportunities in the future. A great deal depends on the attitude to textbooks which is inculcated in our teacher training colleges. I have heard the libraries of some of our teacher training colleges described as really appalling. The training of many student teachers in the use and rôle of textbooks has been described as pretty sketchy. Now that we stand on the threshold of a three-year teacher training programme, I hope that prompt action will be taken to remedy any deficiencies which may be found.

I have spoken fairly strongly this morning. The situation is, after all, improving, but the subject is important. With the best will in the world and the most elaborate building programme, we cannot guarantee that every child will next year or the year after go to a school with modern, attractive buildings. Even with increased salaries, expanded training colleges and a three-year course, we cannot guarantee that next year or the year after every child will have adequate personal tuition. I have had a good education, but in my time I have been taught by some indifferent teachers. By comparison, it would be comparatively easy and inexpensive to make sure that every child in a State school had an adequate supply of good textbooks. There is hope for a child with a bad teacher but easy access to good books. The average child who has both bad teaching and bad books will usually be sunk without trace.

Finally, I should like to say a word about the position in private schools. Exact statistics are even harder to come across in this respect, but some researches which I have made recently suggest that a good average preparatory school will spend four times as much on textbooks as a good State primary school. There is no other sphere of expenditure in which the discrepancy between public and private education is so great.

Some time ago, a friend of mine took part in a rough check on comparative spending on school libraries, with a small sample of public schools and grammar schools. This check suggested that the public schools were spending seven times as much on their school libraries as the grammar schools. I certainly do not want to abolish our preparatory schools and public schools, but I do want our State schools to reach a level equal to the best. If my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us that his Ministry will pursue a rather more active textbook policy, I believe that we will have taken a significant step along that road.

3.43 a.m.

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth

I rise at the conclusion of a long sitting with a sense of pleasure and a sense of regret, pleasure at being able to reply on a subject of real importance, and regret because this may well be the last time that I shall find myself speaking in this House with you, Mr. Speaker, in the Chair. I hope I will not put myself out of order if I say that that must be a matter of real regret to one like myself who has been much indebted personally to you for a great deal of kindness, both during the years I have been in the House of Commons and for a number of years before that.

My right hon Friend the Minister of Education is very conscious of the vital part that books play in the work of schools, that is to say, both text books and also books of all kinds in school libraries. I wholly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) that proper standards of education cannot be maintained without a good supply of books.

The book trade tends to take the view—I say this on the basis of occasions when it has entertained me to lunch-that on balance some schools spend rather too much on library books and not always enough on textbooks. First-class textbooks for class work are certainly extremely important, just as much as books which children use for themselves in library periods.

It is not easy for my right hon. Friend to get a really clear and reliable idea of the scale on which books are provided. The only figures available are those of expenditure produced each year by the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants, which have been used by the Educational Group of the Publishers' Association for its analysis of the expenditure of the various local authorities. I do not see how my right hon. Friend could directly supplement this information without requiring authorities to undertake a great deal more work and indeed also, if any standardised information were to be collected, without requiring authorities to keep their accounts in a standard, specified form, and that is a requirement which has not been made since the introduction of the general grant. To ask authorities to do a great deal more work on this subject would, I am bound to say, in my view, reverse the Government's policy instituted with the general grant of ceasing to require a standard form of account.

Moreover, even the most careful statistics of expenditure on books would not I think tell the full story, because it is almost equally as important for authorities to buy wisely as to buy generously. Certainly it is my own experience going round the country that one will sometimes get two authorities spending roughly the same amount of money on books, one authority getting considerably better value for money than the other authority.

But I do agree with my hon Friend that I think the Report in March, 1957, of the Association of Education Committees was a very fair one, and I may perhaps remind the House of the recommendations it made about the desirable rate of expenditure by authorities on books, stationery and materials. One could summarise the recommendations I think in this way. They said a good standard for primary schools would be 34s. 6d. per pupil per year; a good standard for secondary schools would be 66s. per pupil per year; plus an extra 50 per cent. for children over 15. The recommendations suggested not only a good standard but also a reasonable standard which for primary pupils would work out at 28s. 6d. per pupil per year and for secondary schools 61s. per pupil per year with the extra 50 per cent. for children over 15.

My hon. Friend quoted the figures of the Publishers' Association for 1956 to 1957. In the last year for which we have its figures, 1957 to 1958, the results are far more encouraging.

Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham

The price of books has increased during that period. If one were to quote a comparable price the standard would now be 36s. 6d. in primary schools and 70s. in secondary schools.

Photo of Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth

That shows exactly how very difficult these precise statistical measurements can be.

However, I wanted to say that in 1957 to 1958 it estimated that the gap to which my hon. Friend referred had fallen from £3½ million to only £2¼ million. I think that represents an appreciable net improvement.

If we look at the figures for individual authorities, whereas in 1956 to 1957 only three authorities reached a good primary standard, seven authorities did in 1957 to 1958, and the comparable figures for the good secondary standard is estimated at nine in 1956 to 1957 and 27 in 1957 to 1958. Again, if we take the reasonable standard, 15 authorities reached the reasonable primary standard in 1956 to 1957; 39 did so in 1957 to 1958. Finally, reasonable secondary school standard 27 authorities reached this standard in 1956 to 1957 and 50 authorities did so in 1957 to 1958.

I know we have a very long way to go still before we have reached the ideal of the Assocation of Education Committees, but I think, as so often, one is justified in pointing out that although the figures for the last year for which figures are available are not exactly good at any rate they are better, and there has been a very definite net improvement.

In the circumstances, I think the best check that my right hon. Friend can have on what authorities and schools are doing about books is from the reports and advice of Her Majesty's Inspectors. When we were debating the Local Government Bill in this House I did on a number of occasions remind hon. Members on both sides of the House who were anxious about the Bill that the work of the inspectorate in advising and encouraging schools would go on entirely unaltered under the new grant system. That, indeed has been exactly what has happened.

My right hon. Friend's impressions of the reports of inspectors is that while schools are on the whole doing a good job with regard to books, there are still variations from place to place in the extent of the resources that are made available. I can assure my hon. Friend that inspectors do not hesitate to comment, where comment is called for, and while it is not exactly their function to press the less generous authorities to provide more money, I have no doubt that their comments and encouragement very often have the desired result.

I have now completed visits to half the local authorities in England and Wales and I have never lost an occasion of mentioning that in my view ratepayers' money is well spent on more books for the library and more good textbooks. If the importance of library books as well as textbooks is borne in mind, I am sure that hon. Members will realise that the supply of books is not simply a matter of paying out money each year to each school, including new schools, as part of the running costs. The initial supply of library books, especially for new schools, is a capital item, and local authorities were reminded in a memorandum sent out this year that the stocking of a library could be financed out of a loan if the authority preferred not to do it out of revenue. I think that a number of local authorities have found that suggestion helpful. Certainly, my right hon. Friend hopes that generous arrangements will be made for setting up new libraries in new schools. It is worth mentioning that the last memorandum on economies sent to local authorities, Circular 334, quite deliberately omitted books from the list of items on which we thought local authorities might economise.

What I have said about schools applies equally strongly to training colleges. My right hon. Friend attaches great importance to the establishment of really good libraries in training colleges, and he is paying a good deal of attention to this in planning the extension programme. It is just as impossible with training colleges as with schools to supply precise statistics, but it is my right hon. Friend's impression and my own that pretty good standards are maintained in training college libraries at present. I have no doubt that one could find a number of training colleges in which the library showed that it could be very much improved, but I have seen a number of extremely good libraries in training colleges and have been impressed, for example, by the way in which the mathematics section is very often much better than it was ten years ago. To quote one instance, as hon. Members will know, there has been a good influx of first-class American paper-back editions into this country recently, including first-class mathematics books, and I have been very much encouraged by the number of occasions on which I have seen that type of book in training college libraries. It is particularly encouraging to see, as I have seen on more than one occasion, good mathematics and technical sections in the libraries of women's colleges.

We have a long way to go, of course, before the libraries in our schools and colleges are as good as we should like them to be. It is true that some authorities are more generous than others and, furthermore, that some are wiser than others in deploying their spending. But, for the most part it is encouraging to see the number of children who are really learning to use a library and who get a great deal out of their library periods. There is very much less today of the spirit that if one wants to cut down on something, books are very good things to cut down on, because there are few votes in books. It is a good thing to see in schools expensive books of high value on the arts, and modern textbooks which do a good job in training children in ordinary school work.

I should like to end by emphasising textbooks once again, because if we really want to see improvements in our secondary modern schools it is enormously important to provide first-class textbooks for the children in those schools who, even if they cannot do the whole of the traditional academic curriculum, can at any rate do quite good work in a part of it. I am thinking particularly of textbooks for such subjects as history and geography and perhaps English literature.

We in the Ministry will always welcome close association and discussion with the book trade on all these matters. In general, I would have said that the achievement of Britain in the writing and producing of first-class textbooks since the war has been an impressive one. Although textbooks do not always achieve very general acclaim, I would say that the achievement of any writer in producing a first-class textbook for the schools is an achievement which no one should be so foolish as to underrate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Four o'clock.