Orders of the Day — Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th November 1960.

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Photo of Mrs Eirene White Mrs Eirene White , Flintshire East 12:00 am, 7th November 1960

I beg to move, at the end of the Question to add: but humbly regret that the policies of your Majesty's present advisers are inadequate to reduce the size of classes in schools, to plan for educational advance on the lines recently recommended by the Central Advisory Council of the Ministry of Education, or to ensure that all young people leaving school shall have full opportunities for further education whether at a university or other educational institution. At the recent Conservative Party conference at Scarborough, the Minister of Education, replying to the debate on education, was in a mood of excessive and, in our view, completely unwarranted self-satisfaction. He congratulated himself. There is nothing new in that. He expressed gratitude to his Ministerial colleagues for their generosity to his Department. Had anyone from foreign parts listened to that debate, he would have had the impression that all the children and young people of this country, perhaps with the exception of a negligible minority, were having the best education that money could buy.

This afternoon, we shall, I think, take a little of the shine off the faces of the Minister and some of his ministerial colleagues—possibly, I might say, a little of the shine off his boots. Our Amendment is fairly widely drawn, deliberately so, because this is, after all, the debate on the Queen's Speech and it is only right that we should allow hon. Members on both sides who may, perhaps, wish to raise constituency points to do so. The main subject of the debate is the crisis in further education, the crisis which faces children and young people leaving school within the next five or ten years.

Only recently, we had a debate on primary education and we have also had a debate on certain aspects of the Crowther Report. Now we wish forcefully to draw the attention of the House and the country, and particularly of parents, to the crisis which faces children if they are leaving school at any time within the next five to ten years, whether they leave at 15 or 16 or later at 18 or 19.

The competition for trade and apprentice training, for university places and, to a lesser extent, for technical training, will be more serious in those years than it has ever been before. The peak year for the 15-year-olds is 1962, for 18-year-olds, 1965. More of those children are staying on at school. More can afford to stay longer. More are seeking further education and the places are just not there.

We are entering what has been called an academic inflationary spiral, with too many candidates chasing too few places. I give one illustration: it is estimated that in 1965 the number of 17- and 18-year-olds who will have taken the A-level certificate in two or more subjects will be more than double what it was in 1958, while the number of university places for new entrants will have increased by only about a half—and that will be with luck. Whereas, in 1958, there were roughly three candidates to every two places, in 1965 there will be two candidates for rather less than one place.

It does not take much imagination to see what strain will be placed on school pupils, on the staff of schools and on the curriculum in what will be a desperate quinquennium. The young people concerned, the young people who are hammering on the door and who will be doing so especially between 1962 and 1965, are those born in 1946 and 1947. This is not like the new crisis in the primary schools which is coming up on the horizon where at least it could be said with justification that there was only five years' warning. In this case, Her Majesty's advisers have had fifteen to eighteen years' warning.

The truth is that the Conservative Party has not believed that the children of the common man had the capacity or desire for further education to anything like the extent which they have proved to have had since the war. It has been indubitably shown that, with the easing of economic conditions, children are staying on at school and that their parents are encouraging them to do so to a far greater extent than has been believed possible. They are reaching higher levels of qualifications and are, therefore, quite properly asking that provision should be made for them.

The Conservative Party has preferred to wait and not to hasten unduly, to attend on advice rather than to seek it. Now that the crisis is almost upon them, the Government are putting on a spurt. There is no doubt that they are trying to catch up, but it is equally clear from their public statements that they will not catch up for the next decade and that, with luck, by 1960 to 1970 they may get somewhere near, but only somewhere near, an adequate educational system.

I have no doubt that the Minister has come here this afternoon armed with figures about extra expenditure, additional places, new buildings, and so on and so forth. He probably has an impressive catalogue, and I shall not be at all surprised, because, although every now and again he drops some fairly resounding "clangers", in between he is a very smooth operator. Unless hon. Members are quick at mental arithmetic, I have no doubt that they will be impressed by the figures which he will probably deploy, because they will not be able rapidly to correlate them with the increase in the school population, with the rise in the national income, with increased building costs, and with all the other factors which ought to be taken into account. I am sure that the Minister will try to repeat his Scarborough performance of pulling out the plums and singing, "What a good boy am I".

However, we on this side of the House believe, as I am sure the informed public believes, that the partly opposite is being pushed ahead by events and that the Government have no real plans in mind for the development of further education in the next ten years. It is only now, when we are nearly in 1961, that we are told that there is to be an inquiry into the pattern of further education. I shall return to that later, but, after all the hints which have been dropped in so many quarters, we must clearly expect a statement from the Minister today about what that inquiry is intended to cover and when it is to start.

Before I go further into the matter of the necessity for an inquiry into further education, I want to take some specific points about which the Opposition have every right to be extremely critical of Her Majesty's Ministers—and I use "Ministers" in the plural because it is not only the Minister of Education who is concerned. At one end of the scale, where apprenticeships and trade training are concerned, he shares responsibility with the Minister of Labour, and at the other end of the scale, where universities are concerned, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is involved, as he is the Minister responsible for the University Grants Committee through which public finance is channelled.

There is also the Secretary of State for Scotland, with whom my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison), who is to wind up this debate for the Opposition, will be especially concerned. We have a galaxy of Ministers, but we convict all of them, without exception, and their predecessors, as guilty of failing the school-leavers and the teen-agers of the 1960s through having made inadequate preparation.

I do not wish today to discuss apprenticeships and trade training in detail, for we had a debate on that subject not long ago and there will no doubt be others, but, nevertheless, that subject is part of the general problem of further education and it would be wrong in this debate not to mention the extreme difficulties which face youngsters leaving school at 15 or 16 and going into industry. I will content myself with quoting just a few sentences from the report of the recent conference of people who should know what they are talking about in this connection—the National Association of Youth Employment Officers. At its recent conference, the association put it on record that the chance of getting training for a skilled occupation declined as time went on. That is part of our charge against Her Majesty's Government.

In his presidential address to the association, Mr. Heginbotham of Birmingham said: The proportion of the age group who become apprentices or the like declined from nearly 18 per cent. in 1956 to only 15·4 per cent. in 1959. Even if the British Employers' Federation recommendation to increase training places by 20 per cent. is carried out, we shall be short of 10,000 places in 1961 and 22,000 places in 1962. If the intake remains as at present"— in other words, if there is not the extra 20 per cent. of places in industry, and it is doubtful whether those places will be made available— we may be 26,000 short in 1961 and 39,000 short in 1962. Can we really afford nationally to lose these potential craftsmen and crafts-women? Can we be surprised that some young people, feeling themselves defrauded, become anti-social in their behaviour?

Yet at Cambridge, in September, the Minister of Labour had nothing whatever to suggest except to say that if industry did not meet its obligations, the Government will have to review the position". What a bromide! When will the Government review the position? Will it be after 1962? What a dusty answer to give the young people of this country, to whom he referred as a precious resource which must not be squandered. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman leaves his platitudes and returns to pig breeding, in which, I believe, he was a great success.