Orders of the Day — Primary Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th May 1960.

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Photo of Mr Richard Hornby Mr Richard Hornby , Tonbridge 12:00 am, 9th May 1960

During the last few months, we have had a great deal of discussion about secondary education, university education, the recruitment of teachers and technical education; a great deal of discussion about the secondary and later stages of education. We should scarcely be surprised if this had given rise to a feeling of anxiety amongst primary schools and those connected with them and to an inclination to say, "In all this educational discussion, how much do we in the primary schools matter?" I am not at all certain that that feeling has not been abroad and was not, perhaps, one of the sponsors of the booklet of the National Union of Teachers and of a great deal of the discussion stemming from it.

As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) has said, it would be false economy to starve the primary schools. Therefore, as an example of the attention that the House of Commons is paying to the primary schools, we should welcome this debate about them.

There is a strong case for saying that the primary stage of education is the most important of all. To quote merely two reasons for that, most of the experts argue that the early years are the most impressionable years of our lives, the years in which we are capable of learning faster than at any other stage. It is true, as other hon. Members have said, that if a person gets a good start in life, it is much easier for him to go on educating himself afterwards. For anybody who gets a bad start, it is much more difficult to catch up. To use a more statistical argument, the majority of children who leave school at the earliest possible age, spend more than half their school life in the primary school. That in itself is a good enough argument for taking primary schools seriously.

As hon. Members, on both sides, have said, a great deal of progress has been made in primary education. I shall not exchange arguments with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland as to whether the greater responsibility for that lies with the teachers, with those who decide whether the schools shall be built, with the administrators, the educational inspectors, or who. The fact is that there has been great progress in primary education. I am glad that the figures concerning reading standards were quoted. The nine-month improvement in reading ability of the child born in 1945 as against the child born in 1937 is an important example of what has been done. In physical education, one sees signs of great improvements; and in buildings wherever one goes. In the use that is made of the curriculum, we see great signs of innovation and experiment in our primary schools. The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Fitch) commented on segregation in primary schools. My only point on that subject is that I hope that the hon. Member would agree with me, if he were present, that the right thing is to leave the matter to the head teacher in the school. If the head teacher thinks that particular advantages are to be gained in a subject by a certain group, he should be allowed to work out his own experiments with his curriculum and his grouping inside his class. That is the better way rather than to say from the House of Commons or from the Ministry that there should or should not be segregation from the age of 9, 10 or 11 or whatever it might be. The head teacher should be fully empowered to work out his or her own class organisation.

On balance, there has probably been more innovation and experiment in the primary schools than in any other part of our school system in recent years. I am not certain that it is not the work of the primary schools of which we have most cause to be proud. We have made great progress. Even so, a great deal remains to be done.

Nobody who defends what has been done in education by successive Governments wants to underestimate what remains to be done. We must face, and we have had to face all the time, the overall problem of 2 million extra children in the schools. This far more than anything else has accounted for the overcrowding, the over-large classes, the failure to catch up with the renovation of old buildings, and so on. That has been the crisis problem with which the Ministry of Education and every local authority has had to cope since the war. It has been made even more difficult by the deliberate action of the House of Commons in 1944, in passing the Education Act, and thereby setting the educational sights a great deal higher than ever before. Nobody in the House of Commons wants to go back on that decision.

The whole problem is complicated by a great many conflicting claims on national expenditure, which we shall not argue in broad detail now. Those crisis conditions are likely to continue. For one thing, expectations of a substantial fall in the birth rate are being falsified and over the next ten or fifteen years or more the schools look like being fuller than was expected. It is certain, as the Crowther Report, reports on universities and almost every industrial and scientific report indicate, that we shall have to continue to set our sights a great deal higher than they are now, so that here again pressure will continue to make life difficult for the educational administrator, the Treasury and for those who are trying to get as much done as they possibly can. On top of that, even if we were satisfied with all that was being done, we still have not begun to nibble at the problems of educational aid overseas and the contribution which a country such as this should be making overseas. So that the pressure, which has been very great since the war, will be equally great, if not greater, hereafter.

In these conditions, what evidence is there that the primary schools have been neglected, and are likely to be neglected in the future? We should look at this question under three main headings —firstly, building; secondly, the size of classes; and thirdly, the morale and opportunities of the teachers in these schools.

It is no secret to any hon. Member who knows his constituency that there are school buildings which should not exist. Some are bad, some very bad and some a disgrace. We all acknowledge that and are trying to catch up. Why do these buildings still exist? First and foremost is the reason I have given —that we have had an extra 2 million children to put a roof over, and that has been no easy job. Faced with the problem of whether to destroy an old school and replace it by a new school, or whether first to provide a new school and later to replace the old one, every local education authority has had to say that it could not do without anything which it has. That has very nearly been the position—hence the desperately unsatisfactory buildings. There are some in my constituency and I am sure that there are some in every hon. Members'.

If we are to try to put this right, we must ask ourselves if the primary schools have been getting their fair share of new building expenditure. I understand that they have had almost exactly 50 per cent. of this expenditure. Whether that is or is not the right proportion can be argued either way, but it seems to me to be a fair share, bearing in mind that in implementing the Educa- tion Act we had, in many cases, virtually to duplicate secondary school buildings.

It may also be asked whether education authorities and the Ministry have frequently got their priorities wrong, to the detriment of primary schools, when considering development programmes. Whenever my attention has been called to a particular grievance, a particular feeling that a certain primary school was a very bad one, or that a new primary school should be built, after I have seen the building I have frequently answered that I would not like that school to continue in existence for a moment longer than absolutely necessary.

I have followed up some such cases and have found that, within the context of the money available, the priorities have not gone hard against the primary schools. By and large, education authorities, in conjunction with the Ministry, seem to take a very great deal of trouble to arrive at what they think is the right order of building or rebuilding of their schools.

Should we be making more use of the minor works programme in addition to the increased building programme? Obviously we could raise the quota of the minor works programme. In many ways I would like to do that, but we should bear in mind one or two things before arriving at this obvious answer.

Firstly, if a local education authority knows that a school building is to be totally replaced sooner or later, it will be reluctant to spend more money than is necessary on temporary accommodation on that site. Secondly, there is very frequently a limit to what can be done by minor works within the context of the existing site. Thirdly—and this is the point about the plumbing tour on which we were taken by the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood)—a great many of the lavatories he so sedulously inspected could be dealt with under the existing minor works programme. That should be remembered alongside the strictures which he made. Twenty thousand pounds is quite a large amount of money with which to deal with the plumbing of an individual school. I understand that only the total figure available for minor works is inspected by the Ministry—which he criticised as being on the shoulders of the local authorities—and not each individual item, so long as it is under £20,000. That gives a lot of scope for plumbing.

I now come to the problem of over-large classes. We are aiming at a maximum of 40 per class in primary schools. This does seem, to anyone who has ever taught, a somewhat unambitious figure. It is true that 25 per cent. of the classes contain more than 40 pupils, and we must take those figures extremely seriously. It is equally true that the main reason for that is not Government policy, but the problem of finding the teachers for these schools. It is perfectly reasonable for primary school people to ask why it should be thought that a maximum size of 40 per class should be set for primary schools whereas the figure is 30 for secondary schools.

That is a sensible, logical question for a weary primary school teacher to ask himself at 4 o'clock in the afternoon when he feels that he has just about had enough. Should we, perhaps, reverse the figures? Have we any idea at all as to what is the sensible use of our teaching resources? I suggest that we are giving too little attention to educational research. We have very little idea, other than hunches based, perhaps, on what we have heard of the personal experiences of teachers, as to what a sensible class size is. Is it the same size for different subjects? How much do we know about this? It is difficult to find money for anything, but it might be money well spent if we could find a little more in order to ask the question: what are we doing with our money and could we deploy our resources better?

I also agree with the N.U.T. booklet "Fair Play for Primary Schools" on this point. We should avoid transferring teachers from primary to secondary schools, as the bulge goes through. We should not debase existing standards in primary schools just to meet the admitted crisis in the supply of teachers to the growing secondary schools. We should at least try to hold the existing teaching force in the primary schools.

In worrying about the size of classes in primary schools, have we given too much thought to the school-leaving age and little to the entry age? I am not asking that it should be discussed seriously now, because the movement has gone out of the primary schools, but I ask whether or not the age of five was the absolutely perfect and all-time right age of entry into primary schools.

Had we decided, or had hon. Members opposite when they took over the responsibility for education in 1945 decided, that the right entry age was six, that would have cut substantially the number of children to be catered for in the schools. I am not arguing that it would be the right thing to do now, but one ought to consider some of these problems. Still thinking of the size of classes, we come to the most important point of all, the need to recruit more teachers. In fact, the need to obtain more and better teachers comes a long way in front of the need for more and better buildings. If we can secure the teachers, we shall have made great progress towards the solution of our problems.

That is easy to say but it is a very difficult thing to achieve. I wish to know what is being done by the Ministry, the local education authorities, the National Union of Teachers and all others concerned to try to induce ex-teachers to return to the profession to assist us in our difficulties. The first hope for a larger teacher force in the future may be based on the return to the profession of such people, and the second hope is that, as we become a more educated nation, because of our better system of education, the "catchment area" for teachers will be greatly enlarged.

How much of a national issue have we made of this problem of attracting teachers back to the profession? Have we really brought home to the public how very badly these extra teachers are needed? I can imagine my right hon. Friend in the guise of a 1960 Lord Kitchener, as it were, with his face surmounted by a mortar board, appearing on posters on which is the statement, "Your country needs you in the teaching profession." But perhaps that is stretching matters too far. However, I believe that we have not yet begun to bring home to the public how badly we need more recruits of the right calibre for the teaching profession and I urge that we should do everything we can to that end.

The feeling which seems to be emphasised in the N.U.T. booklet "Fair Play for Primary Schools" is that teachers in the primary schools are getting a poor deal. They have to contend with bad buildings and over-large classes, which seem to be the two things mainly affecting the morale of teachers. A teacher in a new school feels very different from a teacher in an old school and probably is a different person, because it is easier to do the job in a new school where the strain on the nerves of teachers is far less. Therefore, the more we can do towards reducing the size of classes—and that has top priority in the Ministry's policy—and the more we can do towards improving the building programme, the more will be achieved in improving the morale of the teachers in some of our schools.

Some primary school teachers feel that they get less than their fair share of attention. I hope that, as a result of this debate, we shall be able to do something to remedy that. I hope that the teaching profession will not resent my saying that I trust we shall not have too much of a feeling of touchiness on the part of members of the profession about their conditions of work. I am sure that teachers generally do not wish to create that impression and nobody else would desire to do so. Teachers, administrators and Parliament must combine in an operation against these problems. It would be a great pity if in an increasingly affluent society the teachers were to give the impression that some of them were an aggrieved society. I do not think any of us would wish that to happen, because it would be the worst service which could be done to the teaching profession and education generally. What members of the teaching profession have to do, and what so many teachers are doing, is to continue the great work of teaching in the existing schools and, secondly, to do all they can, with the help of Parliament, to mobilise public opinion to maintain and increase educational expenditure in the interest of our country.