Orders of the Day — Science and Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th November 1963.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North 12:00 am, 19th November 1963

May I begin by echoing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee)? What we are debating is the pace of the advance. The need to expand our educational provision is generally agreed, and the issue is whether we are expanding sufficiently for us to hold our place in the world.

I am sure that the House wishes me to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) on his maiden speech. Everyone enjoyed it, and it was made as though he had been in the House for years. One would not have thought that it was a maiden speech. It was a very useful contribution to the debate, and I am sure that all civil engineers are delighted that they have an articulate voice in the House. It is perhaps significant that on the last occasion on which I wound up a debate on education I congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr.Merlyn Rees) on his maiden speech, for it is significant that hon. Members who win by-elections feel that they should speak on education at the first opportunity in the House. It is an issue which divides the parties.

I am sorry that the Minister of Education is not taking part in the debate, particularly because, with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon), I was due to debate the Robbins Committee's Report at London University, the issue being whether the Government were capable of implementing the Robbins Report. I have been informed by the President of the Union that, despite repeated efforts, he has been unable to extract any adequate opposition. He pointed out that he had been trying since May. I am sorry that it is impossible to debate the matter with the Minister of Education either within or without the House.

But I welcome the opportunity of speaking before the Leader of the House. He provides me with a peg upon which to hang my speech if not to hang him. May I first welcome him back to the Front Bench, where he ought to be as long as the Conservatives are in office. But he has had a cardinal personal responsibility in the three matters which we have mainly been discussing today—teachers, school buildings and universities. May I help him make his speech? Why in 1961 did he single out the nurses, the teachers and other groups of professional people least able to protect themselves, because of their social responsibilities, and treat them as he did? Why did we have the monumental folly of the Remuneration of Teachers Act last Session? If we have a desperate shortage of teachers, is this the way to treat teachers?

Let us put this in its context. The first speech I made from these benches as party spokesman on education was devoted entirely to the shortage of teachers, and it was in 1961. Lord Eccles replied and said that I had made an interesting speech but that it was too late to do anything and that nothing could be done. In 1962 we returned to the same issue. The right hon. Gentleman had had 12 months' warning, and he produced the scheme of auxiliary and short-terra training—and immediately the debate was over he forgot about it.

It was only after we had wasted all that time that the Minister of Education made his proposals to extend the training colleges, not only too late but too little, for everyone in the training colleges knows that £7 million is inadequate to expand the training colleges to 80,000 people. Moreover, he has not honoured his obligations. As I said last time, training college after training college have protested because they have not had schemes approved which they regarded as necessary to an expansion of the numbers. When we last debated the matter, the right hon. Gentleman said—as though this were an answer—that 30 or 40 schemes had been approved. There are 140 training colleges. His reply confirmed my complaint. The training colleges are beginning to consider their entry for next year, and again they do not know where they are because the right hon. Gentleman is delaying his approvals.

If we accept the Prime Minister's advice and put these matters into the context of General Election terminology, I invite the Leader of the House to reply to some questions. We are dealing with the responsibility of his Administration. Why had we this awful waste of opportunity in the 1950's? Why was no action taken then to provide more teachers? We have seen the bulge go through the primary schools, approach the secondary schools, go through the secondary schools and approach higher education. Why did the Government persistently regard this as a liability? Why did they not regard it as a great opportunity for a break-through in the supply of teachers? Why, as the years have gone by, have we seen thousands of young people have their applications turned down, not for want of qualification but for want of places at the training colleges?

What about school building? Ministers of Education have never been able to reply to these questions. Will the Leader of the House try to reply? We had an economic crisis in 1961 and he made a botch of things then. But why should we have a cut in school building this year and next year? Why should the Minister of Education tell us that we shall have an increased school building programme but not until 1965–67? Why cannot we have it now? Plans are ready; plans totalling £188 million were submitted by local authorities. Why cannot we have an expanded school building programme now? We know that when the right hon. Gentleman has his increased school building programme there will be 325,000 more children in the schools than there are now. Why not prepare for this?

Putting this into the context of a General Election, why are we to complete this year and next year a five-year school-building programme devised in 1958 when the Government did not envisage a second bulge moving into the schools? Why are we now planning to complete that programme £30 million or £40 million short of the original figure? It is nearly a year's work short of the original five-year programme. Surely this does not make an exorbitant demand upon the Government. Why have we a minor works programme which is still running substantially short of that attained by Lord Eccles?

This is not taking a partisan view of school-building. I hope that the Leader of the House has seen the representations made by the Campaign for Education to the Minister of Education. The Campaign for Education is not a political body. It is not subject to any political influences. It is a body representing all the interests and voices of education. It says that the Minister's programme in primary education is ludicrously inadequate. It says that in some cases the provision in the secondary schools is so inadequate that it wonders whether the children would not be better off not going to school at all. The Campaign for Education says that it is a farce for the Minister to talk about the ending of the all-age school in view of the provision in the secondary schools today.

We now have the Newsom Report, which the Chief Secretary would not have mentioned if he had not been interrupted in his peroration. The Labour Party regards the Newsom Report as just as important as the Robbing Report. The Newsom Report tells us that in the badly housed areas 75 percent, of the schools should be condemned as seriously inadequate. This does not make an exorbitant demand upon our building resources. Over recent years only 3£ per cent, of our total building resources has been devoted to school building. One could understand this, perhaps, if the righthon. Gentleman were planning irresponsibly because he will not have responsibility then. If he is planning two years ahead, why cannot the present programmes be increased?

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition referred to the survey of the National Union of Teachers. This revealed that one in seven of the primary schools is without any water sanitation at all. We have the Newson Report on the secondary schools. We must think of what this means in term; of education. It is encouraging to know that, in spite of the pessimists, literacy has improved over the past few years It is, however, frightening to learn that there is a difference of 17 months in the reading age on leaving secondary schools of children from the good and the worst areas. The difference in the reading age of children from the best and from the worst schools is as mud as five and a quarter years.

This is a fact which must be faced It will not do to say that we are devoting all the resources we can to school building. We are not. We must do far more, and we must do it now. We must not wait until the children are in the schools. We know the numbers. There will be 320,000 more in two years' time. We know the numbers moving in now. We must tackle the problem now, and we must revise our estimates of school-building now. We must give the local authorities, which the right hon. Gentleman stopped building, the go-ahead to tackle this problem.

I turn from teachers and school buildings to the universities. The Leader of the House again has a personal and outstanding responsibility for what has happened. It was his Government—he had a personal responsibility—who took the unprecedented step of rejecting the recommendations of the University Grants Committee. That unprecedented step was properly described by Hugh Gaitskell as "discreditable, dis honourable and deplorable". Now the right hon. Gentleman has his opportunity. Why were the recommendations of the University Grants Committee rejected by the Government 18 months ago? What effect has this had? How much more difficult has this made the attainment of the Government's present objectives? Has the right hon. Gentleman read what the Association of University Teachers has said, that … the tragedy of Robbins is that it is now too late to do much that could have been done but for the ill-judged Government cuts in university grants, against which we protested so strongly last year. Sir William Mansfield Cooper, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester, said: … it is now too late to cope and thousands of young people will be denied university education to which they looked forward and which they have been led to expect would be available. However, this is not the major charge against the Government. The major charge is that in all our previous debates on higher education the Home Secretary, the Chief Secretary and the Minister of Education have all said that the highest realistic practicable objective was to endeavour to maintain that the same percentage of the age group had the opportunity of a university education. That was clearly expressed—as one would expect, for he is lucid if nothing else—by the Minister of Education when he said: In my view, this represents the fastest practicable rate of university expansion, and no one conversant with our universities has ever suggested that they could be expanded at a faster rate. This is what the Home Secretary had to say: No one from the university side has ever suggested that the universities could be expanded significantly faster than this, and that is the answer to those who think that between now and 1967 we ought to be planning to expand these places for what is called the trend as well as the bulge."—[Official Report, 5th April, 1962; Vol. 657, c. 772 and 738.] That has been the Government's case. If we speak in terms of electoral terminology, it is interesting to know that it is revealed by Robbins that the percentage attending the universities, even as a percentage of the age group, has fallen since the significant year 1959. The percentage in training colleges, remarkably enough, has also fallen since 1959. Thus the Government have not even attained what they promised in that sense. They have not given the universities the tools with which to do the job

. Sir Douglas Logan, for example, called attention to the state of London University and spoke of vacant posts still unfilled, maintenance work postponed and newly created buildings often unused because of the lack of staff. Despite all this, these are the minor counts against the Government. The major one against them is that their programme for higher education—and this is the guts of teacher supply—has been absolutely unsatisfactory and completely inadequate. That is the crucial importance of the Robbins Report.

The Robbins Report condemns the Government out of hand and what that Report says is what the Taylor Working Party had also said. It is what Professor Blackett said in his Guildhall lecture. It is what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) said—that we should seek to double the places of higher education in the next 10 years. The Robbins Report entirely rejects all that the Government have said and represents an utter condemnation of Government policy.

The fact that Robbins has been accepted by the Government overnight—without second thoughts and without examination—means that the Govern- ment have been convicted by Robbins because if they say they can do it now, they could have done it years ago. What the Government have said for years could not be done is now to be done overnight. We have lost the critical years.

I turn for a moment to the Report which has hardly been mentioned today but which I regard as critical for the future of education in this country, the Crowther Report. This is what the Crowther Committee said: … there is much to be done, and little enough time to do it. If the opportunities of the 1960s are not to be wasted, we would urge that a decision be taken now and that a consistent programme of action in all relevant fields be set on foot and pursued with the vigour necessary to ensure that by the chosen date, the conditions are prepared for the extra year in school to provide its full benefit for all the nation's children". Nothing has been done. Now, we have the Report of the Newsom Committee, and we know what its first recommendation was, that "an immediate announcement" should be made—it has not been made: it has hardly been referred to, and would not have been mentioned if the right hon. Gentleman had not been interrupted— that an immediate announcement should be made that the school-leaving age will be raised to 16 for all pupils entering the secondary schools from 1965 onwards". What the right hon. Gentleman will face when he has the courage to declare a General Election is the appalling waste during the past few years. Clearly, what Robbins says can and must be done now—the Government accept it—could have been done four years ago. If it had been done four years ago, how many additional teachers might we have had from our universities and training colleges? If one thinks also of the 800,000 and more small children in primary schools now in classes of over 40 and of the conditions in secondary schools revealed by the Newsom Report, one realises the measure of the Government's responsibility.

Worse than that—and this is the key to the debate we had on higher education in the summer—the Government complacently thought themselves safe because they knew the terms of reference of the Robbins Committee, restricted as they were to the long-term development of higher education. But so desperate was the position confronting the Robbins Committee that it burst through its term of reference and recommended, as w had recommended, only to be sneered at by the right hon. Gentleman, a crash programme.

The House should be reminded of the way in which the Robbins Committee made its recommendation outside tin terms of reference: We are confident that the universities can meet this deficiency if they are given a clear statement of the national need and if the: have adequate resources and adequate assurance that any sacrifices that they haw to make will be of limited duration. The proviso is all-important, for it must be recognised that the universities already have cause for lack of confidence in the Government's intentions. In the last few years the universities have wished to go forward more rapidly than they have been enabled to do. The man; representations made in recent years to ensure that their resources should match the rising demand have met with an inadequate response Neither capital nor recurrent grants have bee: sufficient. In the past, when they have had confidence that resources would be available the universities have given ample demonstration of their willingness to respond to calls upon them. That is a clear condemnation of the Government.

What does the right hon. Gentleman say about the pre-Robbins programme the "fastest practicable rate" that we could have for university expansion' What does the Home Secretary say now about taking into account not only the increase in numbers but the revolution in expectation, the numbers qualifying to merit and deserve a higher education? If we lived in times when there was more rigid accountability, we should have had the resignation of the Home Secretary, the Chief Secretary and tin Minister of Education. They certainly have a particular personal responsibility for the situation which my right hon Friend properly described as ten pas twelve.

But let us consider the opportunities that we have wasted. As long ago a 1955, between 2,000 and 2,500 qualified young people were unable to gain admission to universities. We have the figure of the A.U.T. for 1961 which show that in that year a quarter of the qualified applicants who sought entrance to the universities failed to get admission. In this way we lost very nearly 9,000 quali- tied people who should have had a university education. We know that last year there were 55,000 qualified applicants and only 27,000 places. We know that Sir Eric Ashby has estimated that soon there will be only one place for every two qualified applicants for university education.

We know the position in the training colleges. We have the clearing house figures for the training colleges and we know that thousands are failing to get into the training colleges although they have much higher entry qualifications than entrants in the past.

However, the measure of the Government's failure—this is the encouraging side—is the extent of our present opportunity. We know how the Government have failed over the past few years in providing places in higher education, but we must also think of the fact that in 1966 there will be almost 1 million more young people aged between 18 and 21 than there were in 1955. This is the bulge that we shall have to break through and provide in thousands the teachers we need for our schools.

My one quarrel with the Robbins Committee is that, advised by the Government, it was far too unambitious. We should think not only of providing opportunities for those who qualify but of increasing the numbers of those who qualify. We should think of the pools of untapped ability—the working class, girls, and enlarged families. As Robbins points out, a child in a family of five has only a quarter of the opportunities of a child in a smaller family. We must remember that those whose fathers had a full-time education to 18 have eight times the opportunity of a higher education than those whose fathers left school before 16.

These are things with which we should be dealing. We should be ensuring that these untapped resources are harnessed so that there is no further neglect not only of those qualified for a higher education but of those who might qualify if we could provide a better secondary education system.

The other unhappy thing is the really remarkable response that there has been to the approach made to the universities by the U.G.C. The universities and colleges are not responding in terms of Robbins. University college after university college is saying that it is prepared to admit in the forthcoming academic year 40 per cent, more than the present numbers. This is the real tragedy, because if the universities and training colleges had had this appeal four years ago we should have had the same response. This is desperately urgent, and I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that the universities are not disappointed.

The training colleges have been disappointed, but we cannot fail the universities. They must get the additional staff for which they have asked. They are prepared to do without additional buildings, but they must have the additional staff and be supplied with administrative help so that they can do more tutorial work. We have universities suggesting that they should go on to a two-shift system. We should see that they have the libraries and the librarians which they want and that the facilities are provided. We should see also that backing up this short-term crash programme are the beginnings of a long-term programme. This is what the universities demand and this is what they are entitled to expect.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that it was ten past twelve. We still just have time, if we work very hard, to save the position of higher education. This, however, is an issue of confidence, as I have shown from the Robbins Report. Those in higher education, in the universities and in the training colleges have lost confidence in the Government. What we want is a new Government and a new start. We want a Government that believes in youth, will see that youth gets a chance and will see that we have confidence in the future.