Orders of the Day — Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th May 1962.

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Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North 12:00 am, 17th May 1962

Sir William, with your assurance that we are in Committee of Supply I rise to open a debate on one of the most controversial subjects facing us at the moment—that is, education. I am sure that the Minister of Education will concede that in our debates on education I have been charitable towards him personally. We all recognise, looking down the Treasury Bench, that we cannot pick and choose in looking for a Minister of Education. The one-eyed myopic is king in such company. But today, even the right hon. Gentleman is being affected with the demoralisation which is affecting his colleagues. Today, not only is education losing its due priority. It is even losing the appearance of that priority.

After all, the two major responsibilities of the right hon. Gentleman are, first, to promote school building and, secondly, to ensure that we have an adequate supply of teachers in our educational establishments. I will deal, first, with building. Less than twelve months ago we had the cuts in the minor works programme. As I have often said in our debates, in a very real sense we have two nations of school children. We have those who are fortunate enough to enjoy their education in new buildings and those who have to endure their education in old buildings which are often slum schools. What we call the minor works programme is very largely a programme to deal with the essential modernisation of the old buildings. In many respects it is a very elementary programme—to provide flush lavatories and that sort of thing.

In 1960–61, the programme for minor works was running at £21 million. Last year, it was cut to £12,700,000. It was practically halved. We understood at the time that this was a once and for all economy. Far from it. For the current year the programme is cut to no more than £10 million, so it is more than halved. The prospect for 1963–64 is not much better. The programme will be something of this character. In other words, not only last year but this year and the following year, possibly even after that, we are to have a minor works programme half of that which the right hon. Gentleman considered necessary two years ago. In education, the right hon. Gentleman is projecting the present economic crisis forward two years.

The same is true of school building. This is not a luxury programme. Its official designation is "Roofs Over Heads". It is an elementary, essential programme. We have only to remember that even today there are a hundred schools in use which were black-listed, condemned, as long ago as 1921. In 1961–62 the school building programme stood at £64 million. For the current year we have a similar programme of £64 million. After a good deal of hesitation and procrastination we had the announcement from the right hon. Gentleman that the programme for 1963–64 is to be cut from £64 million to £55 million, a cut of £9 million, without making any allowance for the increase in building costs.

We tackled the Minister. We appealed to him to review the allocations. He said, "No. Local authorities have been informed of their respective allocations, and I cannot increase them". For that reason, I asked him to tell us in detail what the allocations were. He gave us the allocations. The surprising thing was that they did not total £55 million. They totalled only £47 million. This is a cut of a further £8 million.

It is no good the Minister smirking. It is a very serious matter for the local education authorities. I am glad that some authorities, like my own, are fighting back. Moreover, an examination of the allocations which the right hon. Gentleman has given us shows that for whatever reason, technical or not, these lists have a very marked social bias. We fare far worse in the North-East, for instance, than do authorities in the south of England. We are cut more drastically in the North-East. We have been cut to a quarter, and in my own constituency, in Sunderland, at the moment we have approved 5 per cent. of what we were prepared to carry out.

Hypocritically enough, the right hon. Gentleman is to have a survey made of old buildings. He does not need a survey. I can tell him where they are. They are in the north of England, in Sunderland, in the old industrial areas and the rural areas. These are the areas which, because of the Government's economy policy, will not now be allowed to do what they want to do in providing school accommodation.

In the capital programme for education this year, and more so next year and the year after, we shall have savage cuts in school building. When the right hon. Gentleman was tackled about this by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) the other night, he confused the issue, as usual, by referring to something else. He referred to educational building and starts made over the last two years. We were concerned about the programme for 1963–64, but as the right hon. Gentleman has called our attention to this, we might as well have a look at it. If we do, we will see something which is a remarkable example of inefficiency for one who was once Minister of Works.

Let us look at the educational building for the past two years. We are mainly concerned not with starts—because anyone can make starts—but with completions. In 1960, we completed £18 million worth of building less than 1958, £5 million less than the year before. In 1961, we completed £20 million worth less than in 1958. If we are concerned about school building, we provided 91,000 places less in 1961 than in 1958. It is true that the starts increased over the two years which the right hon. Gentleman wants to call in aid, but there is here a remarkable position. The amount of work under construction has increased substantially, but, at the same time, the completions have decreased substantially. This is an illustration, if the Committee wanted one, of what happens under the "stop and go" policy of the Government. This is the inefficient pattern of educational building we get.

However, we are concerned with the prospective view of what schools will be built next year, and the year after. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not regard me as unkind to him personally, but it is obvious that he has lost ground and that his Department has been pushed from pillar to post by the Treasury dwarfs and that he is wasting his time in the Cabinet. We should have a mounting provision for education, but we had an economic crisis last year and—surely we are not planning for another crisis—we have the Treasury taking the opportunity and saying, "By golly, this gives us an opportunity to cut back the future programmes for school building." This is what has happened with building.

Let us now look at the position of teachers. No one can disguise the fact that we are facing an alarming crisis in teacher supply. In this matter the right hon. Gentleman is guilty on all counts of an indictment which is as long as my arm. I take a couple of examples. If one sought the worst example, which as a partisan politician I might well seek, one could not think of a worse piece of incredible stupidity for a Minister of Education.

The right hon. Gentleman told the Committee in July, 1956: It is now too late to build any more training colleges. They would come into service only in 1958, and their first students to enter the schools would pass out of those colleges only in 1960, by which date the school population will be declining. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July, 1956; Vol. 557, c. 445.] Believe it or not, but when the right hon. Gentleman made that statement the birth rate had been increasing sharply for the second year in succession, and the trend of children staying increasingly on in school was as marked as it is today. In the event, we reached 1960 with 300,000 more children in the schools than there were when the right hon. Gentleman spoke. Worse still, it is not only a case of too late but when we had some response from the right hon. Gentleman it was far too little.

Let me take a second count of the indictment, which is equally fantastic. It is less than twelve months since we debated the crisis in teacher supply in this Committee. At the time of our debate, the right hon. Gentleman and his Department said that by 1970 there would be an increase in the school population of 351,000. They said that in 1970 there would be 7¼ million children in the maintained and assisted schools. What does the right hon. Gentleman say today, less than twelve months afterwards? He says now that the figure is not 7¼ million. The right hon. Gentleman now believes that there will be 7¾ million children in the schools in 1970, or another 500,000.

The Committee will be interested to know that the only new factor that we could not have known at our earlier debate is that today, oddly enough, the right hon. Gentleman is basing his calculations on an estimate that there will be a fall in the birth rate this year. This is clear enough from the new statistics which he has presented to us. If we look at the intermediary years we find the same basic miscalculations. It is absolutely incredible that at a time when all other educationists were making estimates such as those which are now accepted by the right hon. Gentleman, he should have been half-a-million out. But what is far more important is what the right hon. Gentleman is doing about it.

What has the right hon. Gentleman done in view of this new estimate and the fact that he now calculates that we shall top the 7 million in 1964 and not in 1967, as he estimated last year, and that we shall have reached 8 million in the schools by 1972? This is the crisis of the "second bulge" already coming into the primary schools and the trend, which we should all welcome, for children to stay on in school after the school-leaving age—and all this aggravated by the increased wastage in the teaching profession. The right hon. Gentleman's attitude towards the profession and the way he has treated it is not likely to reduce that wastage.

It is against that background that we have the appalling position of the schools as they are today. Consider the question of oversized classes. In this, the space age, and judging them by prewar standards, we have today 2½ million children in classes which are far too large. Nearly 40 per cent. of the children at present at school are in classes too large, not by present standards but by pre-war standards. We have nearly 800,000 children in the primary and junior schools in classes of over 40. This is the size of the problem that we are facing, and the right hon. Gentleman is not even comprehending it.

To remove over-sized classes by 1970, which is not a very ambitious target to set ourselves, would require, the right hon. Gentleman said, when we debated education last year, 73,000 additional teachers. But he has now been advised by the National Advisory Council for the Training and Supply of Teachers, that the number required is not 73,000, but 89,000. I would emphasise that this is without tackling all the other immediate problems before us—without any question of implementing the Crowther Report, without helping the technical schools or dealing with further and higher education, and without paying regard to the tragic problem of the special schools.