Orders of the Day — Education Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th December 1967.

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Photo of Mr Fergus Montgomery Mr Fergus Montgomery , Brierley Hill 12:00 am, 12th December 1967

I am glad to hear that, because the more I read, the less I felt I understood.

The Bill was undoubtedly conceived because of the Enfield case. Writing in Education Sir William Alexander said: This Enfield Bill, as it will come to be called, gives effect to the promise made by the Secretary of State, which was that he would not appeal against the interlocutory injunctions granted by the Court … This comes about because of the valiant fight of the Enfield parents. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) who felt that it was all the parents' fault that there was trouble in Enfield. Had it not been for their fight, we should not have this legislation, because, by their actions and their determination, they showed that the rights of parents have to be heeded. Practically every hon. Member will agree with that.

The Government have only themselves to blame. I do not blame the present Secretary of State, because he was not in charge at the time of the issue of Circular 10/65, which is one of the root causes of the trouble and the political bitterness in education today. I deplore this, because, as far as possible, education should not be a political subject. That circular asked local education authorities to prepare a completely new secondary school system within a year, but without any extra money.

Some people are completely opposed to comprehensive schools—we must face this fact—but an enormous number of people are opposed to getting what they call comprehensive education "on the cheap."They are perfectly happy about purpose-built comprehensive schools serving an area. What they are deeply unhappy about is having linked together two schools, perhaps one or two miles apart, which are then called a comprehensive school. Circular 10/65 was a thoroughly bad circular and the party opposite will soon realise the wisdom of the saying" Act in haste: repent at leisure", although, since my return, I have seen little sign of repentance by hon. Members opposite.

The Bill comes about because of the actions of the Enfield parents. They were astonished at the speed with which the local council and the Department moved. They were not the only ones, because anyone who has ever dealt with Government Departments knows that they usually take a very long time to act. Then, the London Borough Council elections were postponed until May of next year. After the losses inflicted on the party opposite in April and May of this year, one realises why. I can assure them, however, that the holocaust has only been delayed and we will wait with interest to see how the people give judgment on the way in which they were deprived of their right to vote this year.

In view of all this, the Enfield parents felt that their ony recourse was to fight their battle in the courts. The courts decided that, for eight schools in Enfield, no public notices in accordance with Section 13 of the 1944 Education Act had been issued, because the Council said that the Minister had advised it that no notices were required for those schools. As Lord Denning rightly said: The advice of the Minister is not law. Now we have this Bill, aimed at clearing up the confusion. If it becomes law, it will concede the point raised by the Enfield parents and will give parents and local government electors the right to lodge objections to any proposals to make changes in the character and size of existing schools by requiring specific notices of such proposals under Section 13 although they do not constitute the establishment of new schools.

The Bill goes even further, because Clause 1(4) proposes that it should operate retrospectively to 1st April, 1945, which was when the 1944 Act came into effect. Generally, I am opposed to retrospective legislation, which worries me, but I agree in this case with the Minister and with the editorial in Education on 1st September, 1967: What about authorities which have already done as Enfield proposed without issuing notices?…Will they be challenged at a district audit for spending money on maintained schools which have been established illegally? In fairness, to safeguard these people, who acted in good faith, this legislation must certainly be retrospective.

Clause 2 deals with standards of school building. The 1944 Act contained the phrase, "… having regard to the shortage of labour or materials ". Of course, in the immediate post-war years, shortage of labour and materials was of great importance, but times have changed and it was no doubt right to delete those words and insert instead: … having regard to the need to control public expenditure in the interests of the national economy… This makes sense, because we can spend on education only what the national economy can afford. If we can strengthen the economy, we will be able to afford more, and I am very worried whether the present economic crisis will mean that we will not be able to spend sufficient to keep the expanding educational building programme which the country needs.

I return in conclusion to my complaint—it is obviously that of the Minister of State as well—that I found the Bill almost unintelligible. I was consoled not only by what the right hon. Lady said but by the fact that almost every educational journal has complained about this. I would commend to the right hon. Gentleman an extract from the current edition of The Times Educational Supplement, which states: A study of the new Education Bill has given rise to strong observations from the National Secular Society. 'The least literate of Ministries,' it says, ' has now produced a Bill which will be intelligible only to minds that have never emerged from fetid bureaucratic cellars'. Since I found it unintelligible to begin with, that extract raised my morale no end because for once I was on the side of the angels.