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 James Jones Mr James Jones , Wrexham 12:00 am, 9th May 1960

We had an interesting and valuable as well as a necessary debate on primary education. It is necessary because we have had so many discussions and read so much in the Press about secondary education. I am not suggesting for a moment that we have heard enough about secondary education, because there is much leeway to be made up. As has been pointed out so often in this debate, the basis of our education is the primary school, and if the basis be not sound we cannot hope to have a sound superstructure.

I will not dwell long upon the size of classes. I wish to make clear that, in my opinion, the figure of 40 is too high. After all, a teacher has to teach individual children in the class rather than to address a public meeting of children. The Minister may argue that there are not sufficient teachers, and that to reduce the number of children in a class below 40 would also mean extra school buildings and extra classrooms. That is true, but the difficulties in which the Minister may find himself at present do not make the figure of 40 sacrosanct. The actual figure should be something far lower.

Regarding the difficulties over the supply of teachers, we are now reaping what we have sown, and the present Government are more responsible than any previous Government for the present situation. The present Minister of Education has held that office before. He was preceded by two other Ministers before returning to office. The previous Minister of Education—I do not blame the present Minister for this—was not convinced until June, 1958, of the need for the expansion of teacher training colleges, and that was only 18 months ago. After he became convinced that a certain expansion was necessary, he decided on a figure of 12,000 against expert advice that the minimum figure should be 16,000.

I appealed to the then Minister not to close down the training college at Wrexham. After much pleading, both by correspondence and on the Floor of this Chamber, the college was given a reprieve for 10 years. Had my appeal not been successful, the college would have closed and our difficulties regarding teacher shortage would have been all the greater. Even now, it has become quite clear that there is a need for a further reprieve for this college. I ask the Minister to consider this point very carefully, because the temporary status of the college is resulting in staffing difficulties. Would it not be better to make the present temporary colleges permanent, before electing new colleges in different parts of the country? Such a procedure would, I believe, establish a stability in our training college system from which we could expand much further.

Reference has been made in the debate more than once to the cutting back of programmes for the schools, the issuing by the Ministry from time to time of certain circulars in the name of economy. I am not concerned at the moment with the steps considered necessary in a period of financial crisis, but, when clearance of slum schools is postponed indefinitely in the name of economy, we are passing the burden of our difficulties on to our children—the innocent party. Most of those children were not born when the seeds of our difficulties were sown. It seems utterly wrong that because the fathers have eaten sour grapes the children's teeth should be set on edge.

Much as I dislike bipartisanship, there is much to be said for it in education, both within the Government and between the parties. By bipartisanship within the Government, I mean that there should be a firm understanding between the Minister of Education and the Treasury that when a programme of educational expansion has been announced and embarked on there can be no going back on that programme until it has been completed. By bipartisanship between the parties, I mean that if the implementation of an expanding educational programme is interrupted by a change of Government the change of Government should not mean the breaking down of that implementation of that expanding programme.

Had that been the policy in the past fifteen years, there would have been a steady and consistent advance. The black pages which still remain on our record—despite the fine glowing pages, of which I agree we can be proud— would have disappeared. In 1925–26, a national survey drew up what was called a black list of schools. In 1958, thirty-two years later, we had 549 of those schools on the list. I suggest that makes no sense in this enlightened age.

I want to say a word or two about the wide discrepancies between allowances made by different local authorities. First, I speak of allowances for books. The average allowance in county boroughs of England and Wales in 1958 was £1 5s. An average implies that some give more and some less, but what of the range? The highest allowance was £1 10s., given by some authorities which are to be congratulated. Other authorities, however, granted only 7s. 6d. per child. I suggest that such authorities should be told to put their house in order. The average per county borough for furniture, apparatus and equipment was 11s. 6d. per child, so that a school of 100 pupils would get £55. That would not buy much when we bear in mind that Purchase Tax was included. Some authorities granted £1 10s., and they are to be congratulated, but others made a grant of only 2s. 9d. per child. That is a disgrace.

I could give further examples if necessary, but I now turn to the question of the inspectorate. I know that I am treading on rather thin ice here. During my long period in the schools my relationship with the inspectorate was one of unbroken happiness, understanding and co-operation. At all times I found them reasonable men and women. I am pleased to make that testimony here this afternoon, but, after long consideration, I think we need a radical change of outlook as to the function of the inspectorate. I have in mind, in particular, the practice of conducting a full-scale inspection of schools. A happy band of inspectors comes along. They sit in the classrooms, listen to the teacher and later, if necessary, submit his presentation to severe criticism.

Those teachers are qualified teachers and range from teachers in the infant schools to tutors in the technical and training colleges. Too often an inspector is listening to a teacher of higher academic qualification and a much greater wealth of teaching experience than the inspector himself. This can only be a hang-over from the "payment by results" period. Inspectors come and inspectors go. Before they arrive there is awe, and they certainly enjoy that, but when they have gone there is general relaxation, of which the inspectors are fully aware and about which they can do nothing at all. That is why I suggest that we require another look at the function of the inspectorate.

It might concentrate a little more on the books and equipment, the stationery and apparatus which become available to the teacher, a little more on the conditions of the buildings in which teacher and taught have to carry out their work. They do that, of course, but I want them to do it more thoroughly. The inspectorate should inspect the local authorities as much as they inspect the teachers and, if the authorities fall short of the national average in regard to books, equipment and apparatus, the inspector should say so in no unmeasured terms. They should keep drawing attention to that until the authorities become more enlightened and mend their ways.

My time is up, and part of my "sermon" has to be thrown away. I am not making a party speech. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: To travel through one's ages is to take the heart of a liberal education. Shakespeare wrote of the seven ages of man. A modern educationist will know that a child passes through many ages, differing in experience and in emphasis, during his school life. Each age must be lived to the full if he is to take the heart of a liberal education. That is the substance of this debate. We are dealing with the provisions for children who are blossoming forth to life. They are growing quickly and need all the fresh air, the sunshine, the light and the warmth of the amenities which can be provided.

They are active, fond of running, jumping, romping and moving about quickly. We know full well they are curbed in their natural expression by being confined to small classrooms and puny playgrounds. Many of these schools are in rural areas with miles of open meadow around them, but the children are confined to a high-walled playground 100 per cent. macadamised. It is a period of activity, and what child does not revel in paint, paint brushes, pencils and crayons—very often messy things? But what does that matter if it helps the child to travel through his ages and get the heart of a liberal education. Let us give the child the space, the equipment, the apparatus—the paint, the powder and the paper—for that is, I believe, the primary task of our primary education.