Orders of the Day — Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th January 1964.

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Photo of Mr Richard Crossman Mr Richard Crossman , Coventry East 12:00 am, 27th January 1964

At the beginning of my speech I feel that I ought to make a confession. Although I have spent a lot of my life in education his is the first time in my 17 years in the House that I have been privileged to catch the eye of the Chair in a debate on education. I speak among a number of experts. I want to start as an inexpert by referring to the equable nature of the debate. Personally, I relished the more spirited attitude adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton), and I hope to say one or two things later on the subject of apartheid.

First, however, I will maintain the equable atmosphere by congratulating the Minister on his decision about the school-leaving age. True, it is three years after the last day recommended by the Crowther Report; true, it is two years after the last date recommended by the Newsom Report. Still, it is there. As I listened to the Minister's detailed and persuasive reasons—and he put forward complex arguments why it was essential that the change should take place in 1970 and not in 1969—I was fascinated.

I found his arguments completely convincing, but I could not help remembering the last time on which I heard him putting forward equally brilliant arguments. This was during the debate in which he told us why, in February, 1962, the University Grants Committee had to have its grant cut. He was brilliant—just as good as he was today. At that time he stated that in his view the Government's target 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th April, 1962; Vol. 657, c. 772.] He was very expert, and it all sounded very convincing. Yet now, two years later, he proves with equal brilliance that the rate could be vastly faster. Therefore, I view with a certain suspicion the strength of his arguments.

The Minister also made a rather shorter announcement—and I wish he had left this to his right hon. Friend—concerned with the question whether there should be two Ministers rather than one. If I understood him correctly, he said that the Prime Minister would soon be able to tell us the answer, and that in the meantime we could rest assured that it would make no difference to the progress of education. It is a very modest view for a politician to hold of himself—to say that the final solution of a major dispute about political power will make no difference whatsoever.

We have now had more than three months since the Robbins Report. We have had more than three months since its enthusiastic reception, in principle, by the Government, and in those three months we have been aware of the semipublic altercation that has gone on between the two right hon. Gentlemen, and have been able to follow the arguments, week after week, and stage by stage, in the Sunday newspapers—one expressing a preference for one Minister and the other for two Ministers.

I sympathise with the Minister for Science in his predicament. There was a very good case for having two Ministers, but he was embarrassed by the discovery that the Robbins Committee had managed to make a mess of that case by dividing the functions in a way which would inevitably have led to a Minister of higher education and another Minister of lower education. How much happier he would have been—and I might have been—if the Robbins Committee had recommended that education in schools should be dealt with by one Minister, and all education outside the schools—further and higher—by another, and part-time by another. But that was not the case.

Well, we have all been given time to reflect upon the matter, and I make the guess that when the result comes it will not be very different from what my hon. Friends and I have proposed. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, after long consideration we have come to the conclusion that it is essential to have one Secretary of State for Education, with two Ministers of State under him. In the beginning it will probably be two Ministers, each of whom will have his Parliamentary Secretary and his accounting officer, so that the situation will be parallel in certain respects with that of the Minister of Defence and the Service Secretaries of State.

This seems to us a practical solution and it is a solution which, I believe, is bound, as hon. Members opposite have already pointed out, to impress itself more and more on the Government. So we may well get the final solution that the actual proposal made by the Minister of Education prevails, but that the new Secretary of State for Education will be the man who opposed the proposal, namely, the Minister for Science. Stranger things than that have occurred in politics. Meanwhile, I find it very odd that we should be told that the conflict between those two, which has raged over three months, has made no difference. I am glad that they estimate their importance at that level.

I turn to the Motion of censure, and I want to make one statement straight away. Of course I do not pretend that there have not been great improvements in education during the 12 years of Tory Government. I seem to remember that it was the present Foreign Secretary who told us that in 25 years we could, and would, double our standard of living. If we could do that in 25 years, then in 12 years it was bound to be true that there would be 50 per cent. better education than there was at the beginning. That would be a very modest increase, and therefore it would not be surprising to discover than in 12 years there had been some advance.

The criticisms that we advance and the basis for our Motion of censure are not that there have not been essential improvements in education. We make two basic criticisms of the Government in regard to education. First, we say that the advance has been unnecessarily and disastrously slowed up by the Government's stop-go economic policy. Secondly, we assert that the Government have an educational policy of piecemeal improvements without any kind of coherent plan and that this has led to certain very dangerous results in education, which I shall point out later on.

I start with the question of stop-go. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) suggested that it was absurd to talk about a stop-go policy. He said that there were no cuts except reasonable cuts made by the Minister of the estimates put forward by the local education committees. This is one of the points where it is worth getting the facts right. Of course, he was right in saying that when he is presented with proposals by local authorities a Minister trims them. But there were three occasions in the life of this Tory Government when they cut their own estimates and not those of the local authorities. The first was in the winter of 1951 when there was a 5 per cent. cut on current expenditure—£14 million cut from building projects, including the work to relieve overcrowding, to replace slum schools and for the reorganisation of all-age schools. All this was cut back in 1951 and then we had a period of going forward again. We had the next crisis in the winter of 1957. Again, we had the £14 million cut of the Government's own estimates, once again centred on the old schools, once again cutting back the slums, and once again the all-age schools were preserved. Those cuts were maintained in 1958 and 1959.

In 1959, we had another surge forward by the Government until in July, 1961, the Leader of the House made his famous cuts. These were the third cuts I would remind the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, imposed not by the local authorities but by the Government. I would remind him that this cut of July, 1961, is still in effect today, and the boost which the Minister gave to the building programme last October still leaves us £9 million short of the original total.

We ought to be quite clear that one of the ways in which education has suffered is by constantly making plans to expand it, and then suddenly saying that there is an economic crisis and the public services must take the first cut. Let us be quite clear that this cut was not applied to private enterprise capital investment it was always applied to essential public services. The same thing was simultaneously applied to teachers' pay. In July 1961, simultaneously with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer cutting the building programme, we had Lord Eccles, then Sir David Eccles, cut out £42 million from the Burnham Award, and that culminated in 1963 in the Minister eliminating the Burnham Committee as a negotiator in order to get his way.

So much for the stop-and-go education in schools. In universities we have a different picture. It is true that in the universities from 1951 to 1955 there were actual reductions in the number of university students, a rather striking fact in the first four years of Tory rule. From 1957 onwards there has been a steady advance of the target of the university student population. We started with 106,000 in 1957 and in seven stages—I think that the target has been changed seven times from 1957 to 1963—we have got to the Robbins total of 157,000 university students by 1967. What makes the U.G.C. cut so fantastic is that it was a cut proposed when the Government were insisting on an even higher target for the expansion of the university student population. Why there should be an appeal for more and more university students when the building programme was being cut back no one could explain even then.

So we come to the Opposition vote of censure. We see that our resolution has been moved for us from outside this House by such people as the head of London University. What did Sir Douglas Logan say? He certainly is an impartial man: When we survey the development of university aid during the decade, however, the absence of a coherent plan consistently followed is painfully obvious … The inability to take the long view, the repeated alterations in the target, the fixing of objectives without willing the necessary means are the very negation of planning. The root of the trouble is that the Government is not yet fully converted to the view that education must be put at the head of the national investment programme. What Sir Douglas Logan said in those words was repeated in the Report of the Robbins Committee which also passed a vote of censure on the Government when it said: It must be recognised that 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 many representations made in the recent years to ensure that their resources should match the rising demand have met with an inadequate response. Neither capital nor recurrent grants have been sufficient. So I do not think that we need talk about political propaganda. The censure on the Government comes from the world of education which has reported, in a responsible way, that the Government in that sense are to blame.

I wish to move from the first grave indictment, the stop-and-go policy, to the second, the absence of any coherent plan, the piecemeal advance and, finally the contrast between the immediate and eager acceptance of the Robbins Committee's programme with the Government's attitude to the six previous reports. Some hon. Members opposite have said that it is unfair to say that the Government show any greater interest in higher education than in other forms of education. I wish to remind them of the history of the Reports which the Government had presented to themselves in the last ten years. First, in 1954 and 1956 there were two Reports on early leaving. In 1956 we had the Weaver Report with recommendations about improved maintenance scales, and this was rejected by the Government. There was the Crowther Report. We sometimes forget that in paragraph 302 it is stated: The Minister should reaffirm his intention to implement at the earliest possible date the provision of compulsory part-time education for all young persons of 16 and 17 who are not in full-time education. I should like to hear from the Minister when he proposes to make that proclamation and whether he respects the view of the Crowther Committee that compulsory part-time day release is a vital thing. I shall have something to say about that later. Then we come to the Albemarle Report, on youth clubs. That again was a Report which put forward many proposals and the response of the Government has been very meagre. Finally, we had the Wolfenden Report on sport. I do not need to go into detail, but all these Committees were set up and little or nothing was done about them. Then suddenly we had the Robbins Committee Report and, within 24 hours, its crash programme was accepted.

In order to point this contrast I point out to the Minister for Science another Committee—which I did not mention—the Anderson Committee, of 1960. It was concerned with the means test for student's grants. An interesting facet of the attitude of this Government to life is its attitude to the amount of money found for a student at university and the amount for families of children whom the parents want to keep at school. The university grant is not perfect, but at least the Government have now arranged that 40 per cent. of students have all their fees paid, there is a fairly good maintenance grant, and a means test applying only to a high level of income.

I read the conditions laid down for families who want to keep children at school. The Minister's recommended scale means that no parent of a child of 15 can receive any grant unless the parent is receiving less than £390 a year. The parent can receive the full grant only if he has £300 a year or less. Even if he qualifies for a full grant, he will receive only £40 a year if the child is 15 and, if the child is 17 or more, the grant rises to £65. Now see the difference when it comes to higher education. Parents of a child at university get £176 for maintenance and the income limit is not £390, but £1,500.

The Government must not be surprised if we notice a certain difference in treatment and if I point out to the Minister that to implement the Robbins Report and the Robbins proposals for acceleration of university education while leaving the rate of progress the same as it now is in other fields would be to create not only an 18-plus but also to accentuate a form of social differentiation which the Robbins Committee pointed out as one of the most important defects in our whole university system.

Robbins spent a lot of time pointing out what enormously greater chances the son of someone in the professional classes had in relation to university entrance than the son of someone in the working classes. I am not going to point out the difference in detail. Hon. Members I know them quite well. When we add to them this meanness in regard to maintenance of children at school it naturally means that those who get to university come predominantly from middle-class homes, while children of workers find it infinitely more difficult because of the maintenance test and the means test.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. G. Johnson Smith) present, because he made an excellent remark about apartheid in this connection. We are committed when we come to Government to have a graded children's allowance without a means test, with a rising scale of maintenance so that the more the need the more the allowance will be in order to enable those from working-class families to increase the proportion sharing in further education.

To say that Robbins without Newsom is wrong is under-estimating the problem. The real problem, which I put in all seriousness to the House, is that the very goodness of the Robbins Report, its excellence, presents its problems. This is the first fully costed Report, phased and with the manpower worked out so that we can see what we are involved in.

Let me read to the Minister the other kinds of education for which we have no kind of costed report corresponding to Robbins.

(1) We want a costed and phased programme for eliminating over-sized classes and slum buildings in primary schools by 1980. If we had a similar programme and knew what it would cost, how much better off we should be than by the present piece-meal approach.

(2) We want a costed, phased programme, not only for eliminating all the scandals and evils listed by the Newsom Committee in our secondary modern schools, but for removing segregation from secondary education and integrating the private sector. That will be quite a task. It must be done, but no one has worked out the problem in anything like the same detail as Robbins did. Indeed, we have not worked it out at all.

(3) I want a costed and phased plan for compulsory day-release for all boys and girls after leaving school at 16 as part of a national training programme. We also want to know the cost of the implementation of the Albemarle and Wolfenden Reports.

(4) We want a costed and phased programme for adult education, including retraining, refresher courses and what my right hon. Friend referred to as the university of the air.

Did someone say that these latter are not so important? But in educational terms they are just as important. Who can say that primary education is less important than higher education? Who can say that effective secondary education, with the 11-plus eliminated, is not as important as higher education? Who can say that the education of the boys and girls who leave school at 16, as we hope, or at 15, as now, is not just as important? Lastly, who can deny that trying to get our adult population to be education conscious is not of very great importance, even if we consider it only in terms of the home? Every one of these things is important. But whereas we know roughly what it means to achieve full university education for everybody by 1980, we do not yet know in anything like the same detail what it would mean to carry out the rest of that comprehensive programme.

The Minister would not deny any of this claim, and I suggest to him that we cannot judge our educational progress until we have an overall plan based on as full and detailed an analysis of the requirements of the other four parts of education as the right hon. Gentleman gave us of higher education.

Of course I welcome the Robbins Report. Of course I welcome the principle recognised by the Government. Of course I welcome the crash programme, partly because we put it forward in almost identical terms six months ago. But I will refer briefly to four problems which in my view arise out of the Robbins Report and which must be tackled, whichever Government is in power.

The first, which was referred to by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), is the problem of the pool of talent. If we improve the rest of our education as much and as fast as we improve our higher education, it is quite absurd to believe that only 17 per cent. of the boys and girls will then get to A-level. It might well rise to 30 per cent. This brings to a head a problem which has worried me personally for a great many years. I am not convinced that full academic education right through from sixth form to 22 to 23 years of age is suitable for everybody. I would point out that, with the extra fourth or fifth year now required in academic education, the period will be longer and not shorter. I am not satisfied that every able person, every person with will, vigour and intelligence, is suited to go straight from school to university for three or four years. I am not convinced of it at all.

There is a lot of evidence from other countries that, provided the way to university is kept open, going to work at the age of 16 or 17 may suit certain temperaments better than hanging on at school.

If we hold to this astonishing assumption that all children fit for higher education must go, full-time, straightaway to university, we shall do two things—first, a great many people who go there will be unsuited and will waste their time, and, secondly, there will be a feeling that if they do not get their 18-plus they are doomed and are one of the 80 per cent. who are "not pukka." That would not be a very good situation to achieve.

This makes me want to emphasise again and again the importance of a neglected feature—further and part-time higher education. It was not the Robbins Report—indeed, it was not the job of the Robbins Committee—which suggested that this was a most neglected field. Though in part our further education has brilliant things in it, where individual employers do well, it needs a most searching inquiry. The standard of teaching in our further education and technical colleges must be considered. If the N.U.T. requires whole-time graduates for whole-time training for teachers in the schools, it does not require them for teachers in technical education. I am not criticising them; valiantly they do what they can, but they are starved of money and of self-esteem. The greatest danger, perhaps, of the Robbins Report is its effect in those areas where, if there were two Ministers of Education, technical education would be regarded as second-class education because they were not of university status.

I entirely agree with the Minister when he said that the bridges are the important things to maintain—the bridges between those who leave school at 16 and are doing further education or training and who might graduate and those doing full-time further education. The job of a regional college of technology is precisely to have within its walls people of both these sorts linking the parts of a community together. It would be disastrous if one of the results of the Robbins Report would be to make that separation absolute by having the sharpest division between university status on the one hand and inferior education on the other. We should then be having, as has been said, two nations in education.

I should like to say some further words about part-time education for the adult. I went the other day to have a talk with people at Birkbeck and have a look at what was going on at L.S.E. in part-time education. We are a nation that does less of this than almost any nation. It is a great pity for English people to believe that if they do not get to university by examination by 18 they must give up because books are only what one reads at school. One of the great disadvantages we have in competition with other nations is this adult attitude that education is something that is behind one. We should therefore do everything possible to stimulate part-time education, whether through the university of the air or by making it easier to link it more closely with our existing universities.

The second difficulty is one of building priority. Here I merely want to ask the Minister for Science a question. Is he sure that the Robbins Committee was wise to recommend that two-thirds of our new students should be in residential hostels? This is an enormous burden on our building industry. I would have thought that in a period of great emergency we might have done something like the Scots who have perfectly good universities and are proud to go to their local university. I wonder whether in order to save building which could go to slum clearance and housing we would be well advised to give people a lodging allowance who go to their local university so as to encourage them not to move. That is simply a thought I put to the Minister. I am not convinced that we should produce an overwhelmingly lavish standard for students which we cannot afford to keep up in other parts of our educational system.

The third difficulty which the Robbins Report raises is that we have to change not only the amount of education but its contents. The Robbins Committee, as we all know, recommended three major changes of content. Firstly, the Committee thinks that specialisation is an evil if it comes too early and that we have to change towards a more general type of first degree course. Secondly, the Committee holds that we must have a movement towards technology and also out of the arts into science.

On this, I merely ask the Minister for Science whether he would not agree with me that in one respect the Robbins Committee was deficient in its analysis and that it should have made a special study of mathematics and science teachers in the schools. It is no good having a global aggregate number of teachers if they are of the wrong kind. If most of the university students are arts students they will go on creating arts teachers in the schools when they become teachers and the school deficit will become worse and worse. We are desperately short of science and mathematics teachers in the universities and particularly in the schools. I ask whether we should not have a special study made of this problem to overcome this.

I hope that I have made one point clear in what I have had to say, which is that we cannot cure the ills of the universities without dealing with the schools, and we cannot cure the ills of the schools without dealing with the universities. Specialisation is something which derives from the universities. The Robbins Committee points out that the university scholarship induces specialisation in the sixth form and this goes right down the system until we have the ridiculous situation in which our children are the only children in the world who are forced to decide whether to go for arts or for science at 14 years of age. If we are ever to get our technology right and an education which is balanced we must deal with the problem in the universities and in the schools at the same time.

We have also to deal with it most urgently as the Robbins Committee pointed out, in Oxford and Cambridge. The Robbins Committee recommends that unless they rapidly improve themselves our ancient universities should submit themselves to a kind of Clarendon Commission. Perhaps the Minister for Science will have something to say about that tonight.

I should like to say this to the Minister for Science in conclusion. Of course, we do not say there has been no progress, but we do say that the reconstruction of our education on modern lines, the elimination of an already partly eliminatedélite system and the substitution of an open system instead is probably the greatest single problem that we have to face. To do that we need to do two things. First, we must have a coherent and balanced plan for advance of all educational fronts, knowing that no fronts can have everything. All will be short of buildings and teachers for as long as we can see, and that means that the need for balance between the five segments that I have suggested is more important than ever.

Secondly, we need a Government which will consistently give to education, as the greatest of our public services, clear and unambiguous priority over private consumption and private spending for ten years at least. It is because in the last ten years successive Tory Governments have failed in both these respects that we are moving this Motion of censure tonight.