Harpur Trust, Bedford

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th March 1967.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gourlay.]

9.38 a.m.

Photo of Mr Brian Parkyn Mr Brian Parkyn , Bedford

Mr. Speaker, I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise in this House the subject of the Bedford Charity, now usually called the Harpur Trust. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for being present to reply.

I wish also to declare an interest, because the hon. Member for Bedford is ex officio a governor of the Harpur Trust, but I am introducing the subject as a Member of Parliament on behalf of my constituents to whom this is a matter of great concern, and not as a governor.

Although letters patent were issued by Edward VI in 1552 empowering the town of Bedford to found a school and hold property which would yield revenues for its maintenance and for certain other charitable purposes, the actual foundation of the grammar school, later to become Bedford School, dates from 1566. In that year, Sir William Harpur, an Alderman of the City of London, by deed of gift, conveyed to "the Mayor, Bailiffs, Burgesses, and Commonalty of Bedford", 13 acres and one rood in Holborn, and made it subject to control by New College, Oxford.

This gift was to establish a "free and perpetual school within the said town of Bedford". Over the years, of course, there has been a good deal of heated discussion over the meaning of the word "free". Some held and still hold that it meant free in the sense of non-fee-paying to the children of the citizens of Bedford. Others maintain that it meant free in the sense that the school would be independent of the Church.

In all probability, however, it meant free in the sense of being free from tolls and tithes in pura et libera elimosina. Several subsequent Acts of Parliament confirmed that "free" meant non-fee-paying for Bedford-born boys, but as a result of the Endowed Schools Act, 1869, and of an adverse report by a Commissioner, Mr. R. S. Wright of the Endowed Schools Commission a new constitution for the Harpur Trust was ratified by Queen Victoria in 1873. Since it was set up as an ad hoc educational trust it has gone from strength to strength, and has made Bedford a national centre of education. It has also pioneered girls' secondary education, and as early as 1818 founded a national school.

The Trust now administers two independent schools—Bedford School and Bedford High School for Girls—and two direct grant schools—Bedford Modern School and the Bedford Dame Alice Harpur School for Girls. It may be of interest to say that none other than the redoubtable Erskine May was educated at Bedford School, a pupil between 1826 and 1831 under the famous Dr. Brereton.

There are 31 governors of the Harpur Trust, and I would like to discuss the reason for their appointment as it will illustrate rather more clearly the point I am trying to make. Five governors are ex officio, 14 are nominated for a period of five years, and 12 are representative and are appointed for three years. The five ex officio governors include the Mayor of Bedford, the Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, and the Members of Parliament for Bedford, Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) and Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Gwilym Roberts). The 14 nominated governors include two appointed by New College, Oxford, one by the Lord Chancellor, one by Cambridge University, one by London University, one by the permanent staffs of each of the four Trust schools, one from the parents of day scholars at each of the four Trust schools and one by the parents of the scholars of the Harpur secondary school. The 12 representative governors include six appointed by the Bedfordshire County Council and six appointed by the Bedford Town Council though up to 1946 seven governors were elected, one for each ward in Bedford by direct ward elections, representing the town, and I think that the 1946 change was most regrettable, and, indeed, regressive.

The income from the Trust is nowadays about £100,000 a year. This is divided into 11 parts, of which 4/11ths go to the two independent schools, 4/11ths to the direct-grant schools, 2/11ths to the former elementary education account and 1/11th, the eleemosynary element, for the support of almshouses.

The 2/11ths part that goes to the former elementary education account is mainly to provide special assistance to boys and girls who are resident in the borough of Bedford and have for not less than two years attended county or voluntary schools. It is to provide scholarships, help towards foreign travel, coaching in athletics and clothing, tools, instruments and books to enable beneficiaries on leaving school to assist their entry into a profession, trade or calling.

In spite of great local opposition, the Minister of Education on 2nd August, 1956, allowed this elementary account to be partly used, not for the ordinary boys and girls of Bedford for whom it was intended, but further to finance the four Trust schools. A sum of £15,000, representing accumulations of interest appropriated for the elementary account, was transferred to the four Trust schools. Since that time the process has continued, and in 1963 no less a sum than £5,825 was transferred to the grammar schools; in 1964, £6,507, and in the year 1965–66, £7,075. These large sums of money are the rightful heritage of the ordinary children of Bedford, yet they were used further to subsidise the four schools of the Harpur Trust.

In the division of the two portions of the 4/11ths to the four Trust schools there is an extraordinary clause in the Trust Deed which stipulates that the money should not be shared equally between the two girls' schools and the two boys' schools. It is a clause which astonishes someone like myself, who believes fervently in the equality of the sexes, because it states, and I quote but reckoning for this purpose three boys as earning the same amount as five girls. The good work of the Harpur Trust and the fine academic record of the Trust schools cannot be belittled. Owing to their existence, Bedford had the best schools in the country—for the minority privileged to be able to gain entry to them. For the others, until recently, Bedford had no county secondary school to prepare students for university entrance; for these—the majority of the boys and girls in my constituency—Bedford therefore had a poor standard of education.

A high percentage of places, well over 50 per cent., are offered to the county in the two direct grant schools, and a much smaller number in the two independent schools, but even so the percentage of boys and girls who were able to be successful in the 11-plus examination was well below the average for the country as a whole.

During the past five years the local education authority has built one school, the Pilgrim School, which has at last improved the chances of our boys and girls receiving a higher secondary education. Following Circular 10/65 issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, the Bedfordshire County Council considered the reorganisation of schools in Bedfordshire and last year submitted their proposals to my right hon. Friend.

I feel that it would be improper of me at this stage to discuss these proposals in detail, but two essential facts stand out, particularly in so far as the proposals affect the Borough of Bedford and the surrounding area. Either Bedfordshire will need a massive special grant urgently in order to build comprehensive schools, or some of the schools of the Harpur Trust will have to be brought into the comprehensive system. If that were done some means of selection would be necessary unless all the places in the Trust schools, or at least in the direct grant schools, are made available to the county.

The Newsom Report specifically rejects the assumption on which the 11-plus examination is based—that intelligence is a given and stable factor in a child's make-up which can be tested. The Report says Intellectual talent is not a fixed quantity with which we have to work, but a variable one that can be modified by social policy and educational approaches. Circular 10/65 states It is the Government's declared objective to end selection at 11-plus and to eliminate separatism in secondary education. I applaud and warmly support that policy, and I hope that a way will be found to abolish selection in Bedford.

The governors of the Harpur Trust are all distinguished men and women of the greatest integrity, and I mean no disrespect to them when I say that in my view the running of the four Trust schools—as distinct from the Trust itself—should be transferred lock, stock and barrel to the L.E.A. At the very least I consider that the running of the two direct grant schools should be transferred wholly to the L.E.A.

In this way the boys and girls of Bedford will be able to claim their birthright, and I suspect that this would fulfil the real intentions of Sir William Harpur, were he alive today.

I do not pretend to offer a simple solution to the complex and unusual problem of education in Bedfordshire. We must be fair to all those who have endowed these four schools so generously. We must be fair to Sir William Harpur and to the vision and hopes and faith that he had. We must be fair to the governors of the Harpur Trust over the years who have tried to administer the the affairs of the Trust wisely and generously. We must be fair to the teaching staff of the four schools and to the traditions which have been built up over generations in those schools. But overwhelmingly we must be fair to all the children of Bedford to see that each has the very best educational possibility to enable him, rich or poor, bright or dull, to learn how to live his life to fulfilment.

Confucius said, "In teaching there should be no class distinction". I believe that all hon. Members would support that sentiment. It is as true today as it was 2,500 years ago. When applied to the problems of Bedford and its very special problem of education, I believe that the whole structure of the Harpur Trust schools needs urgently to be reexamined.

9.51 a.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Jones Mr Arthur Jones , Northamptonshire South

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye to make a short intervention in this important debate. I do so as one who has benefited tremendously from the charity of the Harpur Trust. I obtained a free scholarship to the Bedford Modern School from a local education authority school and I have served as a governor of the Trust as a nominee of the Bedford Borough Council for the last 10 years.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Brian Parkyn) on giving a brief but full outline of the Trust's affairs, not unduly coloured by his own opinions and ideas. I point out to him that the foundation documents referred to a free and perpetual grammar school in Bedford. "Grammar school" still has a particular significance in those days. Erskine May, although not a resident of Bedford, was a private pupil and was so described by Dr. Brereton, the headmaster at that time.

I want briefly to refer to the assistance given to L.E.A. pupils under the 2/11 ths proportion and the fact that some of it is taken into the general school accounts of the four schools. This is carefully administered and all applications for assistance from L.E.A. pupils are met every year when it is reasonably just to do so. We grant tools for indentured pupils.

Photo of Mr Brian Parkyn Mr Brian Parkyn , Bedford

Would not the hon. Member agree that, nevertheless, there is insufficient publicity in Bedford as to the amount of this fund and what it could be used for?

Photo of Mr Arthur Jones Mr Arthur Jones , Northamptonshire South

I am sure that it is well known in educational circles and all heads of schools have the right to submit their pupils' names. The record of the governors in this matter is beyond question. We have in fact met substantial fees for sporting activities and dancing when pupils have a special aptitude. In this way we have used the 2/11ths proportion of the foundation to meet all fair and just requests from L.E.A. schools.

I refer to the number of free places which are taken up particularly at the Bedford Modern School and the Dame Alice Harpur School. Of 905 children aged over 11 at the Modern School no fewer than 611 have free places and are supported by the L.E.A. and at the Dame Alice Harpur School of 730, 567 are there on free places. This shows the degree to which these schools are open to L.E.A. pupils.

As to handing over the schools lock, stock and barrel, they are for the benefit of children in Bedfordshire as a whole. This was the outcome of the decision following the Royal Commission which looked into the charity under the scheme of 1873. To hand over lock, stock and barrel would be a complete departure from the tradition of the Trust and would be very harmful to the schools for which special appeals have been generously supported by existing parents of children and children educated at them in the past.

With regard to the negotiations with the local education authority, the governors are willing to receive pupils on a wider range of ability than hitherto. We are anxious to agree a method of transfer from the local education authority to the four schools, although the local education authority has said that it does not wish to take up all the free places at Bedford School and Bedford High School for Girls and this is most regrettable. I am hopeful that we will reach a fair and acceptable solution with the local education authority and there is every indication that it will be possible.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Bedfordshire South

Will the hon. Member not agree that unless my hon. Friend's suggestion is accepted and the school is taken over lock, stock and barrel there must be some selection, which is contrary to the Government's policy of comprehensive education?

Photo of Mr Arthur Jones Mr Arthur Jones , Northamptonshire South

I do not think that we have had any clear definition from the Department of what selection involves. There is evidence that settlements already approved by the Department, on agreements between local education authorities and direct grant and independent schools support my view that there is a substantial amount of latitude in the arrangements that the Secretary of State is prepared to agree to.

9.58 a.m.

Photo of Mrs Shirley Williams Mrs Shirley Williams , Hitchin

I believe that in his maiden speech my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Brian Parkyn) referred to Bedford and said that education was one of the main occupations there. In his speech he has shown the great contribution made over the years to education in Bedford by Sir William Harpur's Trust, and by what he says has indicated that the tradition of the trust is being carried on.

In 1946 the number in the sixth form was 344. By 1966 this figure had jumped to 760. The unusual thing about Bedford and Bedfordshire—in fact this situation is almost unique—is that a large proportion of the boys and girls who win grammar school places take up their places in direct grant schools or independent schools of the Harpur Trust.

It is worth mentioning the figures for October 1966. Out of the 132 boys entering the Bedford Modern School, 92 were from Bedfordshire and were L.E.A. places; two were from Northamptonshire, and 38 were fee-paying. The same applies to the places at the Dame Alice Harpur School for Girls. These are made up of 99 from Bedford and 4 from other L.E.A.s, the total being 103 out of 129 children.

Over and above this my hon. Friend has pointed out that 10 per cent. of the places in the independent schools: Bedford School, and Bedford High School go to local authority children. This means that about half of all the selective places are in these four schools and the other half are in the Pilgrim School.

It is difficult for me to comment as early as this because the Bedfordshire local education authority has not yet, as my hon. Friend will know, submitted the details of its scheme for secondary reorganisation. The negotiations with the two direct grant Trust schools are by no means completed.

Broadly speaking, our impression is that Bedfordshire is likely to put forward a scheme for middle schools—that is schools for children from nine to thirteen. This would be significant for the direct grant schools who would take boys and girls at 13-plus and each of the direct grant schools are willing to offer 100 places to the local authority. The difficulty turns on the terms on which these boys and girls can enter direct grant schools.

Before going on to say a few more words about that, I want to turn to the position of the Bedford School and the Bedford High School. The debate, which has been well worth while, slightly anticipates a future situation, because both these independent schools have been asked by the Public Schools Commission, set up under Sir John Newsom, to answer a number of questions. I do not know what answers to the questions the schools are likely to give, and it would be wrong of me to anticipate the findings of the Commission on the position with regard to the two Bedford independent schools.

Turning from there to the direct grant schools, as I have already said they have offered up to 100 places each to the local education authority, as we understand it. The question is what range of choice ought to be permitted for these 100 places. I gather that it is right to say that the direct grant schools are both willing to fit in with a middle school curriculum if the L.E.A. decides that this shall be its final course and that, in addition, they are willing to widen the range of choice into the direct grant schools. But it is the object and policy of the Government that there shall not be selection in any form. Paragraph 39 of Circular 10/65 asks local authorities to study ways in which their direct grant schools may be associated with plans for secondary reorganisation.

I would point out also that at the present time there are no powers to take over direct grant schools as such and this matter has been left squarely with local education authorities, which can then pursue whatever arrangements they wish to make with the direct grant schools. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) has pointed out, in some parts of the country perfectly satisfactory arrangements have been made with direct grant schools, in one or two cases arrangements which have in fact effectively abolished selection.

Therefore, I do not think that I can take very much further, much as I would have wished to do so, the answer to my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him for airing this particularly tricky situation in Bedfordshire. Many of the points he has made about the obvious purposes of the foundations of these schools, as with the obvious purposes of the foundations of any historic trusts of this kind, are very well worth making; but he will appreciate that, with the negotiations still continuing between the local education authority and the Trust, with our own detailed knowledge of the local education authority plans still waiting upon its submissions, and with the Newsom Commission sitting and not yet ready to draw up a report, it is very difficult for me to give a clearer answer to the useful points he has made at this point of time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Ten o'clock a.m.