School Building and Teacher Shortage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th March 1963.

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Mr. Wiley:

What the Minister overlooks is that the £49,000 allocation was so ridiculous and contemptible that his predecessor immediately revised it after I had raised the matter in the House.

In view of his ill-success last year, I advised Lord Eccles, the previous Minister, to stop being pushed around from pillar to post by the Treasury and to stop wasting his time in the Cabinet. I do not know whether he took this advice to heart, or whether it was the Government who thought that he was too tough a Minister of Education. But, however much Lord Eccles failed, he did not fail so miserably as has the present Minister, who frustrated and exasperated the University Grants Committee last year. He upset the universities, and it will take them a long time to recover. Now he has frustrated and upset—I say this for the benefit of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock)—every education authority in the country.

Let us now turn to the alarming question of the teacher shortage. No one should be in any doubt about how grim is the teacher supply situation. The right hon. Gentleman will agree with that because that is what he himself has said. But it is no good saying it and not accepting responsibility for it. The responsibility is that of the right hon. Gentleman and his Government. This is the result of past indifference and neglect.

I remind the House of what was said in July, 1956, by Lord Eccles, when he was Minister. He told the House: 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.] In the event, there were 300.000 more children in the schools when the time came. What disturbs me far more than this massive miscalculation is that there was no sense of urgency for the Government to deal with the problem of oversized classes. This was the great opportunity. If the Government had taken that opportunity, they would have failed, but they would nevertheless have prevented the chaos which we are now facing.

The problem of oversized classes is the biggest source of social inequality and the greatest bar to equality of opportunity that there is. The right hon. Gentleman will agree with that, because those are words which he has used. But it is no good saying that without accepting responsibility. The Minister was Parliamentary Secretary in 1958 when the Government rejected the very cautious advice of the National Advisory Council on the Training and Supply of Teachers, which recommended that 16,000 more places should be provided in the training colleges.

That is why we have oversized classes today, eighteen years after the war. We have had no policy from the Government, but only a makeshift provision from year to year. It is incredible. One would think that in this country children sprang from the womb five years old with their school caps on. The birth rate began to increase and to increase very sharply in 1955, and it has gone on increasing sharply ever since, but the Government have not taken account of that increase.

When I undertook the responsibilities of the Opposition's spokesman on education, and opened my first debate on the subject in 1961, the facts were stark and obvious—the birthrate figures, the oversized classes, the wastage rates among teachers. Lord Eccles was kind enough to comment that I had made an interesting speech. He said that he had believed that in 1965 there would be 6 million children in the schools, but that he now thought that there would be 7 million. Having made that interesting observation, he said that he could not see how he could go any further in the training of teachers. He said that the Government were awaiting the Robbins Report, but nothing was done.

We returned to the issue of the crisis in teacher supply last summer. The then Parliamentary Secretary said "We had estimated that the school population would be 7 million and remain at that figure; but, oh dear me! we were wrong. We understand that it will be at least 7¾ million in 1970 and 8½ million by 1980." Because that was the second occasion on which we had raised the subject, the Government had to produce something. They produced a couple of "gimmicks"—auxiliary service and short-term commission. What has the right hon. Gentleman to tell us about those this afternoon? They were produced dramatically as the solution, but nothing has been heard of them since. They were quietly buried until we had another debate on education.

The Minister himself has said that this problem is the biggest single source of social inequality in Britain. He gave me the figures recently.There are million children in primary schools in classes of more than 40; there are nearly 2½ million in oversized classes—and those are classes which are oversized by pre—war standards and those are the figures for January, 1962. Why cannot we have the figures for January, 1963? What is the good of the Department having a computor if we have to wait all this time for the figures? We want the figures for 1963, because this is the year of intermission.

The appalling figures for 1962 which the right hon. Gentleman has given me are the optimum figures. From now on the position will deteriorate rapidly and will be worse next year than this. The Government estimate that there are 5,000 fewer first appointments in primary schools this year than last year. We know the wastage rate of teachers and we know that we began the year with 2,500 fewer teachers in the primary schools than last year. By a singular feat of social engineering, it so happens that this year when we have a shortfall of teachers, is the first year of the new bulge coming into the schools.

The crisis of teacher shortage which is facing our schools is not just a question of the numbers of teachers. It is also a matter of the qualifications of the teachers. As I pointed out in our last debate, whereas 78 per cent, of the teachers in the grammar schools are graduate teachers only 17 per cent. in secondary modern schools are graduate teachers. The disparity is almost as great as that between elementary schools and grammar schools before the war. It is no good talking about parity of esteem and equality of opportunity if this disparity exists. Among the graduate teachers there is an acute and desperate shortage of teachers of mathematics and science.

We can deal with this problem only it we have a policy. What has the right hon. Gentleman to say about the longterm aspects of the eighth Report of the National Advisory Council? What has he to say in advance of the Robbins Report? We know that the Robbins Report will say that there is an appalling inadequacy in the provision of higher education. We have to act now. We ought to have acted years ago.

When the right hon. Gentleman says, as he will say, that the Government are waiting for the Robbins Report, I remind him that we are still awaiting the implementation of the Crowther Report, which is very germane to the issue of higher education. We will not have the numbers we need in higher education until we raise the school-leaving age. We will not get the numbers in full-time education at 18 until everyone is educated up to 16.

The truth is that the Government have no plan and have given us no constructive response. What they have given has been too little, too late, and too begrudgingly. The right hon. Gentleman recently expressed his great personal pleasure at announcing further places in the training college—I do not know how many we have had. We welcome the increase, but I join with Education in saying that the Minister's statements are very shifty and shabby. He knows that he cannot do this on £7 million.

We are facing a desperate shortage. In the light of this shortage, it is a great tragedy that last year 2,000 or more fully qualified young people failed to embark on training for teaching in the training colleges and that several thousand failed to get into university. The tragedy will be greater, because we know that this year the position will be worse and that next year it will be much worse. Yet this still evokes no plan and no response from the Government. All that we have had is makeshift arrangements year after year.

When I heard about the right hon. Gentleman's plan to disrupt the Burnham Committee and to destroy the negotiating machinery which has been built up over the years, I thought that this was gigantic stupidity, the peevishness of a Billy Bunter dictator. But I have had second thoughts. I do not think that that is the explanation. I think that this is the exasperation of a man not big enough for his job. No one would gainsay, least of all myself, the size of this job. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has sought to escape his responsibility by deliberately causing a diversion even at the cost of disrupting negotiating machinery which has been laboriously and patiently built up over the years.

Not only will the right hon. Gentleman fail, but his failure will cause a volume of protest which will join the increasing volume of discontent which will sweep not only him but his Government from office.