Until four months ago I was not a member of this House, but head teacher of a secondary modern school in the City of Manchester. I had devoted most of my teaching career to the less able and socially deprived children and most of the remainder to the boys who had stayed on for a fifth year even though they had failed to pass the 11-plus examination and not gone on to grammar school. I had been appointed as a head teacher shortly after the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) announced the decision to raise the school-leaving age in 1971.
I realised that there was need for thought and work and experiment to make that a success, but there was no reason why it should not have been a success from the teachers' point of view. We had seven years' notice, and teachers who say that we would not have been ready were not trying to get ready. I initiated a number of teaching schemes. The staff of my school responded with great enthusiasm. So did the local education authority which was then Labour-controlled. It allocated grants, not only to my school but to a number of schools in the city, to enable them to carry out experimental work. This was extended, with the assistance of the university in Manchester and the local authorities in the area, until the North-West Curricula Development Group was set up.
I believe that we in the North-West, at any rate, would have ben ready both with the buildings and the curriculum by 1970. Five months ago I told the parents of my first-year pupils that their sons would be staying at school until they were 16. That was a very proud moment for me because I had worked for this not only in schools but in speaking to teachers' organisations and in other ways. I admit that some of my words fell on stony ground but I felt that this was a necessary action, that it was socially and educationally desirable and would benefit the young people and the country as a whole.
It was therefore with a very heavy heart that on 18th January I went into the Division Lobby in support of a Government who were postponing the raising of the school leaving age and against an Opposition who said they would not have postponed it. Some told me that 1 should have abstained, but I could not do that. I had just fought an election campaign in which I had urged Labour supporters not to abstain because of disagreement with this or that aspect of Government policy but to consider the Government's achievements, to consider their difficulties and also to look at the alternative. Considering the alternative helped me to go through that Lobby on 18th January. Although hon. Members of the Opposition say that they would not postpone raising the school leaving age in those circumstances, I did not believe them. I have great respect for the right hon. Member for Hands-worth. I have heard him in the House and in many other places. However, he does not have a united party behind him on education. He does not have a united party here. Even less does he have a united party in the country for the ideas which he advances.
The failure of the Opposition's Amendment to the package deal on 17th January to mention education was significant, because then the other part of the Opposition was in the Chamber throughout the day. The calls then were, not for education and social service, but for guns before schools. Although right hon. Members here tonight may mean what they say, I take leave not to believe that a Conservative Government would not have made these, and even more severe, cuts in education in these financial circumstances.
The same applies to the precision of the Motion today. There is no mention of the raising of the leaving age or of any other matter, because the support of the Conservative Party cannot be assured for those points. The Conservative Government's whole record and their decisions at times of crisis is against it. The only previous election I fought before the one which brought me here was in 1955. My opponent then was a lady called Florence Horsbrugh. Right hon. Members opposite do well to look pale. I notice that according to the opening speech today Conservative educational history began in 1955.
I do not want to look back altogether to those days. There were some achievements and there was some growth under the Conservative Government. The last meeting I attended as a head teacher was called in the City of Manchester by the Chief Education Officer in September to consider the problems caused by the City Council's decision to cut education spending in the last five months of the financial year. This was before devaluation, before the package deal and before the postponement of the raising of the leaving age was announced. Some of the things which were cut were the cleaning of schools and the heating of schools. Manchester schools, which are heated by coke boilers, are very cold on Monday mornings. I was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman express the hope that there would be a mild winter.
Teachers' courses have been cut. Even if the raising of the leaving age is considered as a curriculum problem, it is not so much a problem of training new teachers as of training experienced teachers to think in new ways and to act in new ways. These are the types of courses which were cut in Manchester before the announcement of the postponement. The grants which had been made available for experiment—they were called Newsom projects—were completely washed out. These were forming the basis of our experimental work towards the raising of the leaving age.
I do not want to labour this, because I realise how hard pressed chairmen of some education committees—I include Manchester in this—are, in that they have Conservative-controlled—councils. I realise the difficult position in which the right hon. Member for Handsworth is placed by the fact that he is not fully supported by his colleagues in the House. I believe that the leaders of both major parties and all hon. Members should urge their local councillors to exercise restraint in their enthusiasm for cutting.
The main theme of my speech is that we must ensure that the two-year delay is used to the best advantage. We have heard this evening that the cuts were dictated by the Treasury and that it would have been impossible for the leaving age to have been raised at the stated date even if there had not been an economic crisis. I do not believe this. I accept my right hon. Friend's word that the leaving age will be raised in 1973.
During that period we have certain jobs to do. One is the training of teachers. In-service courses are necessary for the numbers of teachers who will be coming out of the colleges. Because the school leaving age is not being raised until 1973, they will he available to release teachers for further study. We must extend the links between universities, colleges of education and schools. They still have some fear of each other.
We must extend and develop the experimental work which has been going on. This is a job for the Government and for local education authorities. The raising of the leaving age should be taken in two steps. I have always believed that the way in which it was proposed to be done was wrong and that in the fifth year boys and girls would have been leaving at Easter. That would not have been a solution to many of the problems which exist. I believe that the establishment first, in 1969 or 1970, of a single leaving date will be a valuable contribution. Immediately after the announcement of the package deal I tabled a Motion to this effect, which so far has gained 60 supporters. I was glad to learn today that hon. Members opposite are also viewing this idea with favour, and I hope that they will support it. Indeed, one might have hoped that they would have supported it before. Perhaps the afternoon editions of the papers has helped them along.
The full fourth year will not be expensive. Both sides of the House should view this with favour. Teachers to whom I have spoken support the idea, although I must admit that many teachers to whom I have spoken are quite happy about the postponement of the leaving age.
If my proposal were adopted, school organisation and careers guidance work would be easier. There is a feeling now that youth employment officers will be running round in small circles in June trying to find jobs for all the leavers. Nowadays the work of youth employment and careers guidance officers is more than this. It is work spread over a period in the schools which do it well on a careers programme basis. The better employers would approve of the full four-year course. I know that some would like to get young employees earlier, but most would welcome the single-year entry to fit in with their apprenticeship schemes, and the transition to industrial training and full time courses in technical colleges and further education would be much more convenient. I hope that my right hon. Friend will let us know what progress there is on the question of the school-leaving age and the single school leaving date.
Our education system is closely tied to our social system, and our education opportunities are tied closely to the social and economic background of the children's parents. It is unlikely that the child of a Member of Parliament, a teacher, a businessman or a member of one of the professions will leave school at 15 as a result of this Government decision. Those of us who realise the value of additional education, whether our children are 11-plus successes or not, keep them on at school until they are 16 and even later. Therefore, we have a particular responsibility to the other children. To many children, staying on at school is an economic problem for their parents, and I hope that the Government will extend maintenance grants and issue the same kind of information about them as they have for school meals. This would be of benefit.
There is also what I might call a productivity factor—school attendance. Not enough attention is paid to the fact that many children do not attend school regularly, and do not have a 10-year course but sometimes have a seven year course. No national statistics are collected on the question of attendance. I believe that much delinquency and many of our education problems result from failure to check on absence from school early enough, and from the insufficiency of welfare officers and other people to examine the causes of absence.
In an experiment in Manchester last year, a welfare officer was put full-time with a secondary school which had a poor attendance record. As a result, over a four-month period the attendance at that school jumped by 13 per cent. which is as good as raising the school-leaving age for a number of children, and delinquency dropped from 15 in the comparable period to nil.
I hope that in her reply to the debate my right hon. Friend will give notice to the local education authorities of the need for courses, will express her views on the single school leaving date, will consider circulating information to parents on maintenance and clothing grants, and will consider the importance of school attendance.