Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd July 1974.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Christopher Chataway Mr Christopher Chataway , Chichester 12:00 am, 3rd July 1974

—or fora. I must confess that I am not a product of the kind of school of which at the moment I am speaking well. One of the troubles is the unrealistic and extravagantly elagitarian claims that are made for comprehensive schools. In the first paragraph of the circular we are told: The Government have made known their intention of developing a fully comprehensive system of secondary education and of ending selection at eleven-plus or at any other age. Can the Government be serious? Do they think that it is within the capacity of any Secretary of State to end selection in education? We live in a society which is bound to be served by our schools. Does anyone think that we are moving towards a society in which there will be no selection—a society in which the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation will have equal status and standing with any of the corporation's cleaners, where people will not mind whether they are Prime Minister or party constituency workers? Of course not. We shall always have a society in which there will be selection

It is odd that in this House—where we all spend a great deal of our time assessing and reassessing the ability of individuals—almost more than anywhere else, personal ambition and competition for advancement are often responsible for getting things done. It is odd that in such a place people can talk as if the education system can abolish selection. It cannot.

The argument is not whether there shall be selection; it is about when, where and how. First, when? For those with disabilities I hope that selection will be as early as possible. It is vitally important that many of the disabilities should be identified early and that the child be given special care in a special school. For those with a particular genius—for example, a genius for music, ballet or, perhaps, mathematics—there may be an argument for early selection. There may be a necessity for a special institution as the kind of teaching that is required is so specialised. But for most, the age of 11 is, I am sure, far too early.

How should there be selection? Not, I think, between two different types of school. After all, human beings come in a greater variety than that. If they came in two different types, the bi-partite system would be admirable and we would not have seen local education authorities, Conservative as well as others, moving away from it over a period.

My anxiety about the bi-partite system is not that it is selective—there will be selection, anyway—but that it is an inefficient form of selection, based on the demonstrably ridiculous proposition that there may be a value in dividing children into two classes. They come in many more categories than that.

So, selection should generally be in the school to the extent to which it is self-sufficient. There are important questions, to which we should give more time, about streaming, for example—that is to say, segregating not a totality of ability within the school but setting the dividing process according to ability in a particular subject.

I am convinced that it takes a teacher of far more than average ability to teach a mixed ability class. I have a child with experience of mixed ability teaching, and I know that it can be done well. It has been done well in independent schools and primary schools for a very long time. There is nothing new about it, but it demands more of the teacher, and I believe that there is a danger in some of our secondary schools that those teachers with no more than a commitment to a progressive idea may be forced into taking mixed ability groups when they are not really prepared for it. So, selection within schools seems to me to be far more important a subject than selection between schools.

The same goes for choice. There is no more choice under the bipartite system than under the comprehensive system—that stands to reason. I do not think that anyone would argue about that. If there is simply a secondary modern school and a grammar school serving one area, no one in his right senses whose child has passed the 11-plus will choose the secondary modern school, while no one whose child has failed the 11-plus will be able to choose the grammar school. There is no choice in those circumstances.

More difficult is the concept of coexistence. I do not care at all for the revengeful spirit which seems to go after the grammar school just for the sake of abolishing it. If, in an area, as we have been told, only 1 per cent. of the children go to a grammar school, that is not inhibiting the existence of the comprehensive schools. Clearly, we should not work for uniformity, but we must he motivated by the spirit of wanting to create something rather than destroy it. As parents have to make their choice, so do we. We cannot pretend that we can have a grammar school which takes 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. of the children locally and also a comprehensive school. We can put a comprehensive label on the other school if we want to, but it is still really a secondary modern school.

The majority of parents naturally will not take a risk with their child who is bright; they will put him in with the rest who are bright. There are choices to be made, and all of us reckon that we have to face them. Let us keep as much as we can of choice within and choice between schools.

When I was Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, I had the task, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) no doubt did, of dealing with appeals under Section 76 of the 1944 Act. One tried all the time to help any parents one could. One's inclination was to try to find a way, but if the school to which parents wanted their child to go was full, there was little one could do. In many areas, such as rural areas, there is little choice anyway.

Choice by parents is often taken on very imperfect knowledge. I have been particularly struck by the fact that in the independent school sector parents do not seem to devote the same kind of appraisal of alternatives to the choice of school as they do to their choice of car. In deciding upon a car for the family, they go into great detail about performance. Yet, in choosing a school, they are apt to do it on the basis of a visit, or just because they were there themselves.

Nevertheless, far more important is the succession of choices which the child has to make within the school. I hope that our attention will increasingly be focused on this very important area. In some schools, the extent to which parents are brought into the picture and encouraged to think about and make choices is admirable; in many other schools, parents are kept at arm's length. I believe entirely that what my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has called "parent power" is vital. All research has shown that the main determinant of a child's progress is the home, and that if we want to have the parent involved we have to give the parent some information about the important choices, and that the important parental influences are the continuing ones—the ones that are influential throughout the child's career.

I have made my criticisms of the circular issued by the Secretary of State. I do not believe that he will look back on it with much pride, or regard it as one of the great State papers. I hope that the argument will be increasingly concerned with the problems of the great majority and with the vitally important question of selection and choice within a school as well as between schools.