Secondary Education, Derby

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd August 1971.

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

2.3 a.m.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

The hour is very late and on a day when Derby in particular has cause to rejoice because a vote this evening in the United States Senate has given great consulation to many of my constituents and has preserved their jobs, it may seem churlish of me to raise another problem in Derby, this time one that affects the problems of my constituents' children.

I begin by briefly reminding the Under-Secretary of State for Education and

The House divided: Ayes 107, Noes 6.

On the success or failure of the first stage the scheme as a whole may be judged. It is unfortunately true that the timetable for sector A and the problems it involves have aroused the hostility of some parents in Derby and the misgivings of many more. It is, I regret, equally true to say that the delays in acquiring Ministerial approval for sector A reorganisation have set off a further train

of misunderstandings. The hon. Genileman will be aware that the controversial element in sector A concerns three schools, brought together by the enlargement of the borough in 1968, which cannot be amalgamated on one campus site without the complete replacement of the oldest of them: the Derwent school, which stands at some distance from the Darwin and Henry Cavendish schools Over the last three years there has been a great deal of juggling about possible amalgamation. All have had the same result—three into two will not go to provide an all-in 11 to 18 comprehensive education in this area.

As a result, three schemes have been submitted to the Department of Education and Science, all with some opposition from at least parent groups in the area. The first, proposed in 1969, was for an 11 to 13 junior high school at Derwent and an amalgamated senior high school formed from the other two. The second, in 1970, proposed separate senior high schools at Darwin and Henry Cavendish and the third, in 1971, the present scheme, which has just been approved, is for an 11 to 14 junior high school at Derwent and Darwin and a senior high school at Henry Cavendish.

This scheme was submitted to the Department under Section 13 of the 1944 Act on 16th April, this year. It is quite clear from public meetings which I have attended and from the petition which was presented to the Minister and from objections under Section 13 to the latest proposals that many people in my constituency are still unhappy with these latest proposals, or with any others which deny sector A all-through comprehensive education in all its schools. I shall return to those fears.

Nevertheless, if the present compromise were to receive the wide measure of public support which it needed if all-through reorganisation on non-selective lines in Derby were to be a success, it needed unequivocal support from the Department of Education and Science. Teachers had to be appointed by 31st May this year and the 17 headmasters involved had to organise their own explanatory meetings by the end of term and notify parents.

Alarmed by the silence of the Department, I wrote myself on 19th May to the Secretary of State begging her not to impose an impossible delay, but to say yes or no to the latest scheme. I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, telling me that he could not hold out any hope of a decision by 31st May, which did not surprise me because the letter was dated 9th June. Soon after, the noble Lord was reported in the local Press by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) as being unlikely to accept the scheme. As the hon. Member intends to intervene in this debate, perhaps he will tell the House precisely what those comments meant and why approval eventually came, contrary to the report in the Press, on 28th June.

When approval for the scheme came, it was far too late. Derby education committee had circulated headmasters on 3rd June warning them that approval was still awaited and enclosing a draft circular to parents in the Sector A catchment area. Not surprisingly, some parents who received this circular before Ministry approval came through suspected the authority of stampeding the Minister with a fait accompli. This was an unwarranted suspicion but none the less it was as widespread at the time. The facts are otherwise, as I hope I shall show, but the end result has been to arouse even more acute anxiety among my constituents in the area.

Many fears, particularly about teaching standards and oportunities at Derwent school, are unfounded. I consider the headmaster of Derwent school a personal friend of mine and I have a high regard for the teaching staff of that school. Nevertheless, things are to some degree what they appear to be and the sort of worries and reservations which were expressed to me very forcibly about this scheme and the impossibility of having an all-through comprehensive system with a division among three schools have been paramount with most parents in the area.

I therefore ask the Minister not just about the unconscionable delays, but also about a practical solution. We have heard much recently about massive new programmes of public works. We are awaiting with interest the reply to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) who is to ask later in the week what crumbs from this table may fall to the Derbyshire primary schools.

I suggest that the Department can help the Derby education authority by approving its submission for the conversion of the Derwent site to primary use at an estimated cost of £48,000 and the bringing forward of the construction of a replacement Derwent school on the Breadsall Hill Top site to provide a common campus for all three secondary schools to provide one all-through comprehensive. The cost of this additional building would be around £290,000 providing 530 cost places on present plans, the local authority fears that it will not be able to institute this building programme for seven or eight years. That is the complete life cycle in school of one whole generation of children.

As the Under-Secretary of State knows, it has submitted a scheme to the Department of Education and Science for the commencement of the building in 1973–74 and it is that scheme which I urge on the Minister tonight. The Minister may well say, "In that case, this should be the first priority in Derby", and I freely admit that it is not. The simple provision of roofs over heads in areas where expanding population has outrun all facilities has to come first in Derby.

But, like it or not, the Ministry is involved in the problems of comprehensive reorganisation in Derby. If the scheme is to work, it will do so only if the opening stages can be shown to be a success—and I passionately believe that they should be a success and can be a success. The Derby scheme needs nothing more than a reallocation of resources. If it provides overall equality of access to full secondary education for every child in the borough, it will be a fitting climax to the career of the Director of Education, Dr. Charles Middleton, who has guided the development of education in Derby throughout my lifetime.

The Minister will not need to be reminded of the well-know poem which begins, … for want of a nail, the shoe was lost;

He can complete those lines for himself. If the reorganisation is to begin in suspicion and hostility, it cannot possibly work. If parents start moving from one part of the borough to another, a new form of segregation—always a lurking fear with non-selective education by districts—will develop. If that happens, the

future good will of the town towards four sector redevelopment phase by phase will be put in doubt.

It is my belief that basically this is a good scheme, that the four sectors ought to move roughly in the proper order of progress along the path to non-selective secondary education. I believe that there are only two schools involved over the whole county borough—one which we discussed, Derwent, and one in sector B—which would need to be replaced ahead of time to get the whole scheme through. I do not want to see parents suspicious of comprehensive reorganisation or moving themselves bag and baggage from one part of the town to another to avoid a particular part of a particular scheme which they may feel does not come up to scratch because it does not offer the full 11 to 18 facilities which they feel that the rest of the borough is scheduled to get. It is to prevent this that I earnestly commend the county borough development proposals for 1973–74 to the Minister.

2.14 a.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Rost Mr Peter Rost , Derbyshire South East

A large proportion of the constituents living within the sector A area are constituents of South-East Derbyshire and I have been at the reception end of the tremendous weight of complaints and opposition which have been building up over the past year or two since the original reorganisation scheme was proposed. I want to support the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) in what he said: the main opposition has not been on the principle of comprehensive education. It has been simply on the principle that in a certain sector of sector A in the Breadsall and Chaddesden area there is a strong feeling that unequal educational opportunities are being offered under the proposals—that is unequal with the rest of the sector and certainly unequal with the rest of the proposals in the Derby borough. The opposition has been prolonged and substantial.

I have here a petition signed by 1,500 parents, nearly all in the Breadsall and Chaddesden area. That represents a substantial part of those affected. There have also been nearly 400 individuals letters, of which I have copies, which have been sent to the Minister. That is some evidence of the weight of protest. What investigations, what consultations have there been to deal with these objections?

On 8th March the official opposition organisation, which calls itself the Bread-sail and Chaddesden Parents Committee, sent a detailed letter to the Minister with the official objections to the scheme. I am absolutely shattered to have to announce to the House that it has had no reply. It had an acknowledgment after the letter was sent, but no reply—not until after the scheme was approved and towards the end of June. It has been seething with frustration and anger ever since. Why was this committee of parents and many teachers refused a reply? Why was it not invited or allowed to meet the Derby Borough Education Committee? Although it made numerous representations asking to be seen, it was ignored.

On Friday, 18th June I was invited to a meeting with the Under-Secretary and I was then given the opportunity of discussing the proposals which at that time had not been approved. They were still under consideration by the Minister. About a week later, on 25th June, the Minister finally notified approval of the scheme.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that his own intervention, by supplying the local newspaper with alleged facts that the scheme would be rejected, built up a great deal of anticipation in the county borough that the scheme would be scrapped and the parents were therefore under a misapprehension as to the real nature of the decision?

Photo of Mr Peter Rost Mr Peter Rost , Derbyshire South East

At the meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, I was given a clear impression that the scheme was not yet approved and that there were certain aspects of it which were regarded as unsatisfactory by the Minister. I have a letter from the Under-Secretary dated 21st July, after the scheme was approved, one line of which reads: As we discussed, there were indeed features about the authority's plan on which I shared some of your misgivings. I was amazed and most disappointed when the scheme was finally approved. I am not suggesting that Derby Borough Education Committee jumped the gun or presented a fait accompli to the Minister or acted illegally, although that has been suggested, and the evidence would appear to point in this direction unless it is proved otherwise tonight. Why was this scheme finally approved, several days after it began to be implemented by Derby Borough?

The parents, my constituents, ought to be given an explanation. Why has the parents committee not been given answers to its other major queries? For example, how does the reorganisation improve the educational facilities when it offers less equal opportunities in the Breadsall and Chaddesden area of sector A? Why does sector A have to be the first sector to be implemented when it is the least suitable as it does not provide all-through 11–18 education in the area? How can it be regarded as a comprehensive scheme when it is only a zoned neighbourhood scheme and a butchered-up scheme at that?

Finally, why is it being implemented in sector A when the financial provisions necessary to provide equal educational opportunities have not been made available? These are questions to which my constituents are still awaiting answers. Until a purpose-built school with the necessary finance can be provided, how can equal educational standards, not only with those now available but with the rest of sector A and the rest of Derby be provided? It is disgraceful that the scheme should be implemented in this way, against so much opposition, without proper consultation and without the equality of educational opportunities that Circular 10/70 has always insisted should be provided?

2.20 a.m.

Photo of Mr William Van Straubenzee Mr William Van Straubenzee , Wokingham

The House will appreciate that I have only 10 minutes in which to give as many answers as I can to the points raised in this debate.

First, I reject absolutely, completely and totally the views of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) on the subject of delay. It was on 29th January that the local education authority published its proposals. There is a statutory two-month period, and lest anyone should think that these are pure formalities for my right hon. Friend, this case illustrates the contrary.

My right hon. Friend goes into these cases with the greatest care, for the very reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) asked me to go into. Those reasons include the representations which he was courteous enough to forward to her and about which the organisation to which he made reference wrote directly. It is precisely for that sort of reason that my right hon. Friend went into them carefully in this case.

We should ask ourselves whether it is appropriate for a local education authority to publish proposals on 29th January which it is intended to implement in the September of the same year. This is at least a reasonable question to ask, and it was very much in my right hon. Friend's mind. It is a quick timetable, is it not? I must remind the House that, as my right hon. Friend said on 21st April—I do not have time to quote the words she used in the House—she had 133 Section 13 proposals relating to secondary schools before her at that time.

I therefore make no apology for the fact that this was gone into in the greatest possible detail and care, for precisely the reasons my hon. Friend mentioned. I cannot say why Derby Borough did or did not act in a particular way. That is not my responsibility and that question must be directed elsewhere.

Then I am asked to hasten the replacement. The hon. Gentleman used a splendid phrase when writing to my noble Friend. He wrote to my noble Friend on 6th July courteously giving notice that he would raise this matter to see if it was possible for the Education Committee to spend their way out of the problem by bringing forward the date of the proposed rebuilding of one of the schools involved". The hon. Gentleman's letter exhibited a remarkable attitude towards public expenditure. The Labour Government never spent—they proudly said this; they made a virtue of never spending—any money on reorganisation as such. I recall well when we were in opposition how, with considerable pride, they claimed not to be diverting any resources to reorganisation as such. The hon. Gentleman cannot now be heard to ask a different standard of us from that which he would have applied to his Government had he been supporting the Labour Party in Government now rather than in opposition.

Our priorities are roofs over heads, as he said, and thereafter the replacement of pre-1903 primary schools for which there is a continuing need. I make no apology for these two priorities. I believe that they are absolutely right. As I said, the second relates to primary schools for which there is a continuing need, and the school to which the hon. Gentleman referred does not fall into that category.

I am asked about the letters written by the local education authority. There were two. The first one was written on 3rd June to the heads, and that is a carefully qualified letter making it clear that this condition did not have the approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The second letter was on 18th June to the parents, and it was unqualified. My right hon. Friend deprecates the sending of a letter by the local education authority on the assumption that she will approve a scheme one way or the other. If local education authorities take risks in this way they may easily find they have made a severe miscalculation.

My right hon. Friend takes her duties in these matters very seriously—

Photo of Mr William Van Straubenzee Mr William Van Straubenzee , Wokingham

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I cannot give way. I have been left with very little time. I want to give this assurance to my hon. Friend. At the time she made her decision which she announced on 25th June my right hon. Friend was not aware that the unqualified letter of 18th June had been written. Therefore, when she made her decision she was not influenced by it. She was not, in layman's language, "bounced" by the local education authority into agreeing to this because the authority had already written. I give that absolute assurance. Section 13 procedures are no mere formality.

To come to the merits of the scheme, I accept absolutely that the authority's proposals for Derwent, Darwin and Cavendish represented a very difficult decision. The authority was not able to propose an all-through 11–18 comprehensive school because all three existing buildings would have to be used and they were too far apart to form part of a unitary school. I think that is common ground between all parties. The authority recognised that were not immediately available to establish the school on one site, and I have dealt with this point. I am told that an earlier plan to organise the school with a break at 13 had run up against much local opposition.

Inevitably, the authority, with the advice of the local teachers, came to the proposals that I have already referred to. the statutory proposals of 29th January, 1971, under which Derwent, Darwin were to admit the 11–14 age range and Cavendish the 14–16 age range. I accept absolutely that a break at 14, two years before the first public examination, is unwelcome generally speaking and it is this reservation to which my noble Friend was making reference when he had his interview with my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East. This is one reason why the proposals had to be gone into with such care.

What my right hon. Friend had to do was to ask whether, if some of the drawbacks of changing school at 14 could be overcome by effective co-operation between the teachers in the three schools, there was perhaps something of value to be gained. The authority thought there was, and on balance—I do not suggest it was more than on balance—my right hon. Friend agreed.

I will give the House four reasons why she thinks so. First, all pupils in the area, and not just some of them, would share the facilities of Cavendish which I understand by common consent are excellent. Secondly, no one would hereafter spend all his secondary school life at Derwent. Thirdly—and this is important—the other schools in sector A would be able to develop unimpeded as comprehensive schools. I have studied the map of the area carefully in preparation for this debate, and I am referring to Olive Eden and Spondon about which there is no controversy, but they are to an extent linked in this context. Fourthly, the authority would be able to launch the first stage of its policy of ending selection. That would be the first stage that it could launch, and I understand that this has wide local support.

It was for these reasons that my right hon. Friend, on balance, understanding that it was an exceedingly difficult matter, and having weighed most carefully, and, in part, thereafter got criticised for having taken time to do so, the representations made to her as a result of the statutory plans, made her decision. I simply have to say that, the decision having been made, it is not revocable. That is why she has, without, I hope, discourtesy to my hon. Friend, decided that there really would be no point in her receiving a further deputation on the matter.

I want to end on a constructive note It is now up to the local authority whose proposal this was to demonstrate its belief that these three schools can be effectively organised against the day that resources become available for the establishment of an all-through comprehensive school in Breadsall, which I am sure is the objective towards which all of us should work. I hope that this brief debate may end on that constructive note and that we may be able as a team to work together for the good of the children of the area, which is what really matters.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Three o'clock a.m.