Orders of the Day — Schools, Kingston upon Thames (Building Work)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th December 1968.

Alert me about debates like this

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

8.57 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

I feel that I owe the right hon. Lady the Minister of State an apology for bringing her here twice within a fortnight to answer the same Adjournment debate. But she will recall and, I hope, agree, that, in the circumstances a week ago last Friday, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer wished to make a statement which the House very much desired to hear, it would have been quite wrong had I sought to stand on my rights and take the Adjournment. None the less, I thank the right hon. Lady for her courtesy in being present on both occasions.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science, this summer, cancelled approvals already given for work on a number of schools in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. In the questions, to which I shall refer in a moment, which I addressed to the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend. I referred to three of these schools. As the right hon. Lady knows, four schools are concerned. On a previous occasion I arranged for her office to be notified that I would make, at any rate, a passing reference to the fourth. I hope, therefore, that there is no misunderstanding between us on this point.

I hope, too, that neither the right hon. Lady nor the House will seek to take the point that I, a fairly vigorous exponent of the need for economy in public expenditure, am inconsistent in that line in urging expenditure in these matters affecting my constituency.

There are two factors here which distinguish this case from the general run of requests for expenditure with which the House and the right hon Lady must be only too familiar. First, I am not asking for a new approval, or newly thought out demands. I am asking simply for the implementation of agreement already given, of approvals already granted in respect of the work. Secondly, this is a case in which the reasons given across the Floor of the House so far for the with- drawal of approvals already given have been so irrelevant to the whole matter as to cast considerable doubts on their validity.

The matter arose this summer, and when the withdrawals became known I followed them up with some Questions. The first Question to which I invite the attention of the House was asked on 25th July, when I am reported as having asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science why he has now withdrawn his approval for the urgent work previously authorised at St. Paul's Church of England School, Beverley Boys' School and Bonner Hill Secondary Girls' School in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames; and what account he took of the disagreement over secondary school reorganisation in making these decisions. The right hon. Lady replied: These projects have not found places in the reconstructed school building programme for 1968–69. My decision had nothing to do with secondary reorganisation since the schools were originally submitted prior to the circular on secondary reorganisation and included in a programme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th July, 1968; Vol. 769, c. 971.] In a subsequent answer the right hon. Lady referred to the debate which had taken place in the early hours of that morning.

Not being satisfied with that, I resumed Questions on 24th October, when the House returned after the Summer Recess. I then asked the Secretary of State a general question: … why he has now cancelled school-building projects previously approved by him. Again, the right hon. Lady replied: The major programmes for 1968–70 had to be recast when the resources for school building were reduced following the postponement of raising the school-leaving age and the wthdrawal of the associated building allocations. As a result, some projects previously authorised to start in those years or earlier are being deferred. If we had not controlled the backlog of unstarted projects, we should not have kept within the expenditure limit fixed for this year. To complete the picture, in a further Question, to which the right hon. Gentleman replied, I suggested that the money being expended on the Newsom Committee might be better expended on these schools. The right hon. Gentleman's reply, with which I wholly agree, was: That depends on the right hon. Gentleman's social priorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th October, 1968; Vol. 770, c. 1566–67.] I think that the money would have been better spent on these projects.

I propose to deal, first, with the question whether an approval already given can and should be withdrawn because there has been a change of policy in respect of tie school-leaving age. Whether or not an argument can be founded with respect to the two secondary schools in this list, to suggest that a change in the school-leaving age can have any relevance whatsoever to proposals for work on the two primary schools is really so absurd as to be quite unworthy of being put from than: Box. How can a change in the school-leaving age, which, admittedly, can affect secondary schools—though I shall suggest to the House that on the facts of this case this has no bearing on the matter—have the slightest relevance to much-needed work on primary schools which are completely unaffected by whatever the school-leaving age may happen to be at any time? I hope that the right hon. Lady will indicate how that answer came to be given.

Subsequent to my seeking this Adjournment debate—no doubt by one of those happy coincidences which adorn our public life—the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames was informed by the right hon. Lady's Department—although, on a point of courtesy, I was not—that the two primary schools which had been taken out of the 1968–69 programme would be put into the 1969–70 programme. To that extent, perhaps, we have made a little progress. None the less, the effect of delaying projects which had been previously approved for earlier programmes to the 1969–70 programme is to continue thoroughly difficult and overcrowded conditions in these schools, and has the further result, at a time of rising building costs, that these schools will now cost more to have the work done than would have been the case had work proceeded at the time for which approval had been given.

With the present change in building costs this will be a substantial element and, I suggest, a wholly unnecessary one. I must therefore ask the right hon. Lady for an assurance. We are told that these two primary schools will now go into the 1969–70 programme. Is that a firm assurance? They have already been approved in earlier programmes, and arbitrarily and unilaterally taken out by the right hon. Gentleman. May I have the right hon. Lady's assurance that in no circum- stances whaever will this undertaking of acceptance for the 1969–70 programme be subjected to the same treatment? In other words, may I be told that this placing, in this admittedly later programme, is firm.

I now turn to the two secondary schools—Bonner Hill Girls' School and Beverley Boys' School. There is no need for me to take up the time of the House in arguing that the work required is urgently needed. That is accepted, because these schemes had been approved by the Department, which cannot now seek to argue that they are other than urgently required. With all the demands that fall on the right hon. Lady and her right hon. Friend, where schemes have actually been thought to be urgent and to demand such priority as to be approved, it is inconceivable that at this time of day anybody could seek to argue that these are not urgently needed.

Bonner Hill Secondary Girls' School—I do not know whether the right hon. Lady knows it—carries on under difficult and almost medieval conditions. The fact that a remarkably good teaching job is done there is due solely to the complete devotion to duty of its staff but the conditions under which children are educated there are not good enough in the modern world.

The situation is different in the case of Beverley Boys' School. This is a good school, but it is now very overcrowded. The work involved is an extension, which was approved at a cost of £100,000. I understand—and this reinforces the point that I made in respect of the primary schools which will be in the 1969–70 programme—that the work approved which could have been done at the relevant time for a cost of £100,000 will now cost £116,510. We have no assurance that that school will be placed in that programme, or in any programme. I have here a letter from the headmaster of this school, in which he says: The extension of this school is of great urgency and even this extension will only bring the school up to the standard required by the Minister and would not be an improvement above the normal. We have the site and this building would be necessary whatever happens regarding reorganisation"— he means secondary reorganization— in the borough. The building is necessary for the work of the school as it is at present situated and would be necessary for any future development in education. Yet there has been no assurance yet from the Department that this will be placed in any programme.

In my earlier Question, I asked the right hon. Lady whether this treatment of the educational programme for the Royal borough was connected with the fact that those responsible for education there take a different view on the system of secondary education appropriate to the borough from that taken by the Ministry. There is a perfectly genuine and open difference of opinion.

In her earlier Answer to me, the right hon. Lady denied that this decision of which I complain had anything to do with that disagreement. I hope that this is so, because the House would feel it utterly unworthy of a great Department of State to bring financial pressures of this kind to bear, involving the repudiation of approvals already given, simply because there was a difference of view on policy.

I hope that this may be reaffirmed, but the right hon. Lady will appreciate that she is in a dilemma. Has the Royal borough been singled out for particularly bad treatment in this respect? If so, why is that? If so, what other reason is there but an attempt to punish the borough, and therefore the children, because of a disagreement on policy? Or—this is the other leg of the dilemma—is this being done all over the country? Are approvals already given being revoked throughout the country? If so, the right hon. Lady and her Department are entirely free of the charge of any unfair discrimination, but on the other hand this would indicate an appalling state of affairs.

Hon. Members familiar with these matters know the hard preparatory work which must be done to get a particular educational building project into the programme. Rightly, the right hon. Lady's officers test these programmes rigorously before they can go forward for approval and they must be examined in competition with other projects in other areas. This is right, but when projects have passed those tests and been given priority over others because of their urgency, when they have been accepted as necessary, it is a very serious thing to upset the plans of the local authority and the hopes of the parents by retrospectively withdrawing those approvals.

I have mentioned the disagreement in principle on the reorganisation of secondary education between the Department and the education authority of the Royal borough. I do not wish to exacerbate that, but I hope that the right hon. Lady will understand the exasperation which is caused to a local education authority in an area intensely conscious of the need for education to be at one and the same time nagged by the Department to make changes which, whatever merits they would have, would involve considerable expense, and to be faced with approvals already given for necessary work being withdrawn. She could hardly create a worse atmosphere.

Her right hon. Friend observed at Question Time today that changes in the attitudes of local authorities towards secondary reorganisation were being forced not by him but by public opinion. In Kingston-upon-Thames, this issue of secondary education was a major one at the recent local elections. I do not want to hurt the right hon. Lady's feelings, but I must point out that at those elections only one member of her party was returned to a council of 60, and that one, as I must in all fairness and frankness admit, because of his personal qualities and service to the borough rather than because of any affection for his party. Therefore, whatever is being done by the borough council in this respect is being done in accordance with the will of those who elected the council, which is something, I might add, to which we here might pay equal attention.

What does the right hon. Lady propose in respect of the two secondary schools—Bonner Hill Girls and Beverley Boys? Are the approvals, now promised for the two primary schools for 1969–70, confirmed? Is the disruption of the programme and the withdrawal of four approvals part of an attempt to put pressure specifically on a local authority with which the right hon. Lady is in dispute, or is it, as some suspect, typical and characteristic of what is happening throughout the country?

9.15 p.m.

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said that he had brought me here twice for the same Adjournment debate. I fully recognise why that is so, and I would thank him on behalf of the Government for the way in which he so readily gave up his Adjournment debate a fortnight ago so that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer could make his statement. As I say, the right hon. Gentleman apologised to me for bringing me here twice, but I have been thinking that it could have been worse—we might have been making our speeches at 5.30 this morning. That, at least, is something for which we must both be thankful.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he believed in the utmost economy but, like so many others, he believes in economy in general but not in particular when it affects his constituency.

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East

He also said that these schools are special cases. This argument is not unknown to me when I receive deputations both from Members of Parliament and from local authorities. Of course, when looked at by those in the vicinity, all schools are to them special cases, but this is an argument that I get on many occasions——

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

The Minister of State really must have misunderstood my argument. I suggested that they were special cases, not because of their merits, which are not in dispute, because they have been proved, but because what is involved is not a request for new approvals but merely the honouring of old ones already given.

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East

I am coming to that point. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate as we go along that Kingston is not alone.

The schools are: Beverley Secondary Boys' School, the extensions to which will cost £125,000; Bonner Hill Secondary School for girls, to be rebuilt on a new site at a cost of £329,000; St. Paul's Church of England School, which is a 240-place instalment of a 320-place junior school, to cost £75,000, and Clarence Avenue Junior School, which is a 120- place instalment of a 320-place junior school, to cost £49,000.

As the right hon. Gentleman says, the Beverley School was included originally in the authority's approved building programme for 1967–68; the Bonner Hill School in that for 1966–67; St. Paul's in that for 1968–69, and Clarence Avenue in that for 1969–70. The local education authority could have started the two schools at any time before 31st March, 1968. One of them could have been started any time between April, 1966, and March, 1968, and the other between April, 1967, and March, 1968. I am a little puzzled why if these schools are so urgent the local authority did not start them during those periods when they could have done so.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

It was because it trusted the Department of Education and Science to allow it to proceed in accordance with its plans on the basis of a firm approval given. It has learned now not to trust the Department.

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East

We have a certain amount of money each year to be allocated for school building. It is a little unfair to other local authorities when local authorities ask for schools which they consider to be really urgent and when they are allocated a school to start in April, 1969, and have not started that school by April, 1968. They are pushing out of the queue schools in other local authority areas which would have been allowed to go ahead in April, 1966. This is a point I make in passing because with a certain amount for school building any local authority which does not start the school building in the year which it is allocated means that another local authority ready to go ahead has been pushed out of the queue.

I shall explain to the right hon. Gentleman what has happened about these schools, and indeed, others in the rest of the country. In January my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced measures for dealing with the economy. He said that it had been decided to postpone the raising of the school leaving age for two years, but local authorities had already been allocated £36 million for each of three years for building for the raising of the school-leaving age. It was in order to save the £36 million in each of two years that this decision was taken. It was impossible, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will realise, to take £36 million worth of school building out (DI' one year's programme which had previously been allocated without taking out some schools which had been in the original programme. One cannot just take £36 million out of a year's building without postponing some of the projects and schools which have already been allocated.

My right hon. Friend said that he could see that this might affect secondary schools but not primary schools. We have a global figure and recasting priorities in the way we do means that the whole school building programme has to be recast throughout the country. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have to give first priority in the school building programme to areas of new population and increasing birthrate before we can deal with projects which are replacements of old buildings. I add in passing that the full £36 million was not withdrawn because £7 million was allocated in each of the two years to help those local authorities which had been relying on the raising of the school leaving age money to start secondary reorganisation in 1968–69.

I am pleased to say that the £7 million in each of those two years has meant that no comprehensive scheme due to start in 1968–69 had to be postponed. However, because of the changed circumstances and the fact that we had to take out £29 million from the school building programme in each of the years, local authorities were asked to review their proposals for 1968–69 including schools allocated in earlier years but not expected to start before 1st April, 1968. We asked local authorities to look at their priorities in the light of the changed circumstances because we thought it only right to ask them for their revised priorities in the light of the new situation.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that there were many local authorities like Kingston which had had schools approved but had not built them before the announcement of the postponement of the raising of the school leaving age. Indeed, adding all the schools which had been allocated to local authorities before that time the amount of backlog of unstarted schools was £70 million. Like Kingston upon Thames, some local authorities had had schools allocated and had not built them in previous years. It was clear that if nothing were done local authorities would have substituted schools from this backlog and there would have been no saving at all and no control whatever over the annual expenditure on school building.

In passing. I mention that our new procedure for new school building programmes should get rid of the backlog problem in future. In future we shall approve only those schools which are ready to start within the year they are allocated. Local authorities were asked to review their proposals for 1968–69 and 1969–70 and submit new proposals with their revised priorities. In the case of Kingston the local authority changed its priorities for its proposals for 1969–70. and put first of all the St. Paul's Church of England Junior School, secondly the Clarence Avenue Junior School, third, the Beverley Secondary Boys' School extension, and fourth the Bonner Hill Secondary Girls' School rebuilding.

The junior schools were justified on basic need grounds, as a shortage of places, and were both accepted in the 1969–70 programme which has just been announced. This means that two of the schools about which the right hon. Gentleman is complaining, the St. Paul's and the Clarence Avenue Schools will be able to start at about the same time that they would have been ready to start. The approvals for these projects have not been withdrawn, and Kingston can start these schools at any time it likes.

The Beverley and the Bonner Hill Secondary Schools are basically improvement projects rather than basic need—that is shortage of places. The local authority has said that it considers that there is an element of basic need because numbers in the catchment areas of these schools are rising. However, there has been no suggestion that there was any difficulty about accommodating secondary school children in the borough as a whole in the years in question. Indeed, I understand that the local authority is considering closing the Burlington Secondary Girls' School, Malden.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in this period when we have to be very careful about the amount of money we spend on school building we have to give first priority to areas of new population. No newly authorised improvement projects were allowed to start in 1968–69 in the whole of the Greater London area, except those which qualified for a share of the additional allocation of £7 million for secondary reorganisation. Kingston, therefore, is not alone in this. The right hon. Gentleman said that these two schools were not allowed because Kingston has riot so far submitted an acceptable plan for secondary reorganisation. It is true that Kingston has no acceptable plan. I met the local authority about this some time ago and told it that our policy, which has been stated on many occasions since 1965, is not to approve new secondary schools projects which would be incompatible with the introduction of a non-selective system of secondary education.

I will not weary the House, those of us who are left in it, by going through the statements which have been made, but I could give the right hon. Gentleman statements made in circulars going back as far as 1966, and in speeches made by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, when he was Secretary of State for Education. The right hon. Gentleman tried to infer that, because of the attitude to secondary reorganisation, the Labour candidates had not had very much success in the Kingston local elections. But my information is that among the people of Kingston there is a shift of opinion in favour of comprehensive reorganisation and that in many areas which are by no means Labour there is a demand from the general population for schools to be reorganised on comprehensive lines. However, as I have said, there were reasons other than the question of secondary reorganisation why these schools were not included in this year's programme.

As regards the future, Kingston's bids have already been put in for the new design and preliminary lists to be considered in future years, and they are at present under consideration in my Department. I cannot say what future allocations to Kingston will be. I could not tell any local authority what schools it will be allowed in future years. It depends on the total amount of resources to be devoted to school building. It depends, too, on the priority relative to schools in other areas. Also, as my right hon. Friend has said, as I have said, and as his predecessors have said on many occasions, we would give priority to secondary schools which are compatible with a scheme of comprehensive reorganisation.

I have pointed out that there were other reasons why these schools could not be included, but it would be wrong to suggest that we should not in the future take account of whether or not new secondary school buildings were compatible with a scheme of secondary reorganisation.

I claim that Kingston has had its fair share of school building in this year's programme, considering that its two top priorities, the junior schools, have been given a place in that programme. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will realise that, to that extent, Kingston has not been singled out for treatment different from any other area.

Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames

How does what the right hon. Lady has just said about her decision being affected by the disagrement on secondary reorganisation between her Department and the borough accord with the Answer which I have already quoted which she gave on 25th July: My decision had nothing to do with secondary reorganisation … "?

Photo of Miss Alice Bacon Miss Alice Bacon , Leeds South East

The right hon. Gentleman has not put the whole of it. What I intended to say—I am sorry if it was not clear on that occasion—is that these schools had already been included and Kingston had been told that it would have these schools before Circular 10/66 was issued. So the original decision had not been affected by that. But, of course, we cannot say that in looking at future allocations for secondary schools we can put out of our minds the national policy of the Government which is to have schemes of secondary reorganisation throughout the country. However, even if there had been a scheme of secondary reorganization in Kingston, it is clear from what I have said that these two schools could not have been given priority for the reasons which I have stated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Ten o'clock.