Education (Extra School Year)

Ways and Means – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th April 1972.

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

11.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr Harold Gurden Mr Harold Gurden , Birmingham, Selly Oak

I wish to raise tonight the subject of the arrangements for the compulsory extra school year, and I do so because there are differences of opinion about the extra school year, from the age of 15 to the age of 16, and some of us are very doubtful whether there should be this extra school year compulsorily, and doubtful, anyway for this reason, that more and more children are staying on at school of their own volition. It is not my purpose tonight to argue this. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) holds the same view on this as I do and agrees with me that if we are to have this compulsory extra school year we should consider what is to be done in it.

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-secretary of State will be able to tell me whether or not a Minister has the power to determine the school curriculum. My impression is that it is a matter for the local education authority. However that may be, surely the House of Commons should not make compulsory an extra school year without having given considerable thought to how it should be used.

It is claimed that even the present length of time which a child has to spend at school is not always used effectively and efficiently. We hear of the lack of success of some pupils in the three "Rs". Unless we have some ideas as to what is to be taught in the extra year it is unlikely that the children will benefit much from it. It is unlikely, for instance, that children will be better able to read and write after spending another year at school.

No doubt the Minister has given much thought to what should be done, and I hope she will use her influence by issuing a circular or giving advice on how the extra year should be used. I am not happy at the thought of the local education authorities being left to their own devices.

A friend of mine, Councillor Donald Alexander, who serves on the Birmingham Corporation, has discussed this matter with me. I advised him to raise it with the local education authority and this he has done. I am indebted to him for the suggestion, which appeals to me enormously, that the extra year could be used for training young people in the responsibilities and arts of parenthood.

It is doubtful whether young people, who tend to marry earlier nowadays, are sufficiently knowledgeable in the art of parenthood to be able to bring up their children properly. There is increased delinquency, vandalism, crime and hooliganism and failure in law and order in the world today. It is thought by Councillor Alexander—and I agree with him—that we could hardly find a better subject to employ the young people's minds during this extra year at school than the art of parenthood.

I am told that it is common practice to have teaching in parenthood, cooking and needlework, also for there to be sex instruction. But where can we look for the instruction which some of us believe to be so necessary in teaching children about their responsibilities in terms of better behaviour, obedience to law and order, and so on?

I am indebted to Dr. Eric Midwinter, the Director of Education at Liverpool, for publicising these matters. Some three years ago he set out to find new ways of educating pupils and suggested: Why not have State examinations in parenthood, marriage, work, consumer education or any other contemporary social problem which the children can look at critically and learn something about the faults of the community in which they live? Dr. Midwinter was speaking at the launching in London of the new Liverpool-based national centre for the study of big-city education problems called Priority.

Dr. Midwinter is backed up in his efforts by Mr. Brian Jackson who has called for considerable research into this subject. He suggests the setting up of 50 action teams, each of which would cost £12,000 and the object of which would be to improve society generally.

So much time and thought is given to the ordinary curriculum—to the three "R's"—that a small percentage of our secondary school children at some stage cease to benefit from the education that is given to them. And these are the children who will be made to stay on at school for an extra year. I do not know whether the idea of "O" level and "A" level exams in the subjects I have outlined would be practical, but the teaching of young children in these arts would be of tremendous value. Such teaching must be of plus value and would certainly not be detrimental.

I conclude my remarks by quoting from some notes on this subject by Councillor Donald Alexander. He asked the Birmingham Education Committee whether in the extra compulsory school year there could be provision for the training of children, as parents of the future, in their responsibilities in the art of parenthood. Mr. Alexander said in his notes that he had been very impressed by an address given to the National Playing Fields Conference by Mr. Peter Outram of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which pinpointed the fact that a great deal of juvenile delinquency and hooliganism could be traced back to parents who had found it impossible to cope with life. Mr. Alexander concluded: This brought home to me the fact that in our schools although we teach English, arithmetic, and so on, and are now even teaching sex, we do not give any help in presenting a code of ethics for parenthood, which is perhaps the greatest art of all. He went on to make his case to the education committee.

The reply from the authority rather disturbs me, and I should like the opinion of my hon. Friend on it. The chairman of the local education committee wrote: I wish to acknowledge your letter dated 20th March concerning the question of teaching 'The Ethics of Parenthood'. No further progress has been made in this matter yet in that no consultations have been held with the teacher organisations. At the same time I must point out that this subject is, of course, dealt with already in many of our schools in a general way and I doubt whether there is any possibility of having a set subject entitled 'The Ethics of Parenthood'. That sort of reply is most discouraging. I have just said that many people think that the present practices at the end of a secondary school child's school life yield very little, and an extra year for a certain number of these children may not be very rewarding. I therefore support Councillor Donald Alexander in what he is trying to do.

I shall take up the matter with the local education committee, and I hope that that committee and other education committees will seriously consider the subject. I shall seek the help of Councillor Alexander and others in seeing what can be done. At least it is worth a try. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for listening to this case, and I shall be very interested to hear what he has to say.

12.12 a.m.

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

I am sure that when we are dealing with something so immensely important as the raising of the compulsory school leaving age we all benefit by discussions about it, and I am therefore extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) for raising one particular aspect of the matter. I am Only sorry that both he and I are severely restricted as to time and so cannot develop our arguments as fully as we should like.

I also entirely respect, though he will know that I do not share, his reservations about the wisdom of the step in principle. I must say that for me, at any rate, there is no other weapon in the armoury of the education departments in the United Kingdom at their command at the present time that I know, which can more assuredly bring closer equal opportunity for our young people than the raising of the school leaving age. I would, of course, hinge this in part on the very point which my hon. Friend himself made, and it was a perfectly fair point, that in a number of areas—including, incidentally, that which I represent in the House—young people are encouragingly staying on increasingly already after the compulsory period of schooling. As he will know with his much greater experience, there is a great diversity in different parts of the country, and it is this more than anything else which encourages me to believe that the law should take its stand. At any rate, this is the decision which the House has come to. It will take effect, comparatively speaking, quite shortly, and I hope and believe that it will be a very historic occasion. But he is equally right that a large number of people are concerned about the effective and proper use of that additional year. He will, for example, recall that it was the Newsom Report of 1963 which made the point strongly that the curriculum in secondary schools needed a good deal of revision if it was to continue to appeal to pupils of average and below average ability. Looking ahead, as it was in 1963, to the raising of the school leaving age, the report also made the point that the fifth year should not be looked upon just as being tacked on artificially but that a co-ordinated curriculum covering the five years of secondary education was needed.

Here I come to the direct question asked by my hon. Friend, who wanted to know whether the Secretary of State had the power to decide the curriculum. The answer is "No". The Secretary of State can and does encourage, exhort and advise. She does not direct. According to the school concerned, this is a matter for the local education authorities or the governors of the voluntary aided schools. In practice, a great deal of responsibility here is rightly delegated to those in charge of the individual schools. But we in this country rightly are very careful about having so important and potent a power as that concentrated in the central hands of Ministers.

Obviously a great deal of thought and care has gone into the preparation, because this has been on the stocks for a considerable time. For example, taking the great city from which my hon. Friend comes, Birmingham's total building allocation over the three years 1970–71 to 1972–73 for the raising of the school leaving age amounted to over £2·5 million. I am told that the building work for the provision of the extra places required is now very well in hand.

My hon. Friend will know that the local authority and its teachers have been particularly active in curriculum development. There was established in 1968 the Birmingham Educational Development Centre. It has as one of its main priorities the development of material and ideas in preparation for the raising of the school leaving age. I have before me the interim report dated September, 1969, of that centre, and it well repays reading. Furthermore, another report, entitled "Challenge and Change", containing the contributions of 150 teachers towards the achievement of a complete course of secondary education to the age of 16, is evidence of the professional way in which the teachers have been preparing for this major reform. There have been a large number of seminars, teachers' working parties, conferences and courses looking at different aspects of the curriculum for the young school leaver. I pay tribute to the lively and positive way in which teachers in the city of Birmingham are responding to this major challenge.

My hon. Friend mentioned one aspect of the curriculum which he hopes will be given additional attention in this period. He is right that the young people being prepared in school are marrying younger. I recall talking recently to a headmaster who said that he found it strange to be asked by a senior boy for time off in order that he might visit his wife and young baby in the maternity hospital, and that he had obviously to get used to this nowadays.

On the important aspects of housecraft and work of that kind, a great deal is done in schools, and my hon. Friend will know how this is catching on with the boys as well as with the girls. Indeed, it is one of the interesting developments of the modern day that so many of these skills and arts have been taken up by both sexes.

My personal opinion, on a matter about which I have already explained carefully that no Secretary of State or junior Minister must direct, is to question whether responsible parenthood, as a subject, is appropriate for a separate and individual subject. I should add, in case I may be misunderstood, that I share my hon. Friend's concern that the young person leaving school should be equipped, and better equipped than at present, for responsible parenthood. I think that my hon. Friend has identified one of the social problems of the age.

I am not questioning or crossing swords with my hon. Friend on his anxiety to equip our young people more effectively for such responsible parenthood; I am asking him, as a matter of personal opinion, which may or may not be right, whether, as a separate subject, it is appropriate for treatment in that way.

I suggest that it should be an amalgam, a make-up, of a considerable number of different subjects which necessarily ought to be among those dealt with in the fifth and final year as, indeed, in earlier years, but which together make the responsible parents into which we hope our young people will eventually grow.

The Secretary of State for the time being does not direct the mechanism by which this exhortation is carried through and done. I have mentioned the Schools Council. My hon. Friend may be interested, if he has not had an opportunity of doing so already, to look at two of its recent publications. One is "Society and the Young School Leaver", which bears upon the many points which which we have been discussing. The other is "Home Economics Teaching", which, after all, is very close to the points put forward by my hon. Friend, Schools Council Curriculum, Bulletin No. 4. I am simply suggesting that this matter may be better dealt with in the curriculum as a whole rather than identified and isolated as a separate subject. I express that as a purely personal view and make it clear that Ministers neither have nor want responsibility for the curriculum.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked me to express an opinion about the reply which he had received from the chairman of the Birmingham education authority. In the light of what I have said, that must be a matter for the chairman and members of the committee, not for me. The chairman is the person vested with the authority. It is not for me to pass judgment on what he has said.

I hope that those who are concerned to improve the quality of our whole life, and particularly the quality of the social backgrounds into which children are born, will feel that a debate centring upon the additional year may be of general assistance and may encourage some who have not given any consideration to the raising of the school leaving age to consider it in the light of what I have said.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that, within the limitations imposed on Ministers, I have as fully as possible answered his questions.

I believe that it is most beneficial that from time to time, even on what by comparison with all the other things we do must seem to some a mere detail, this House should give time to a subject which obviously must be of great importance to all right thinking people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Twelve o'clock