Grammar and Direct-Grant Schools

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th May 1975.

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Photo of Mr William Shelton Mr William Shelton , Lambeth Streatham 12:00 am, 19th May 1975

I am saying that some parents are more involved than others. Some parents have children who are affected and therefore they are involved. Some parents have children who are not affected and therefore, perhaps, they are not involved. I am using the word "involved" in its usual dictionary sense and not in its political sense.

Secondly, as far as we can gather, teachers are also opposed to the plans of the Secretary of State. A poll published in The Times Educational Supplement on 4th October last year showed that the majority of teachers were in favour of retaining grammar schools.

The Minister is doing this without an independent inquiry, and without—at least yet—coming to this House for legislation, which he has admitted he will need if these local authorities hold out against his wishes. He is using—as I shall hope to show—resolutions which were framed for a completely different purpose, to achieve his ends so far as direct grant schools are concerned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) will be able to explain—should he catch your eye, Mr. Speaker—perhaps, with more learning than I have, the Secretary of State is doing this at a cost. This weekend the right hon. Gentleman, when referring to the forthcoming cuts in the education service, is quoted as saying: it is a very painful choice, painful for me and painful for local councillors. He might well have added that it will be painful for parents, teachers and, perhaps more important, children. Let us accept that it will be painful for him and for local councillors.

I do not know whether it is unparliamentary to use the word "threat", but the threats of the right hon. Gentleman fall into three categories. The first category is that he has said that he will not give any money for school buildings if the councils do not fall in with his designs. That is the first threat which is contained in his infamous Circular No. 4/74 and which has been backed in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison). I have received the Secretary of State's reply this morning, which I read with great interest.

His second threat is to use regulations under Section 100 of the 1944 Act to end direct-grant schools.

His third threat is of proposed legislation. He is quoted in the article published in the Labour Counsellor as saying: I have a bill already in draft form. That is another thunderbolt up his sleeve. I imagine that it is probably the same Bill as that which fell in 1970, so he has probably not had to do much work on it.

I understand that the Secretary of State has castigated at least seven councils—perhaps many more—as rebel councils for not falling in with his wishes. I should like to refer him to an interesting letter in The Times Educational Supplement which said that phrases such as this were the last resort of the demagogue thwarted in the unconstitutional use of power. They are not rebel councils. They are councils operating and acting entirely within the law of this land. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to change that law, his remedy is here in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, to adumbrate that such councils are in some way behaving improperly is, with respect, itself improper.

The first point is that he would withhold money for building purposes. In the letter of reply which he sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, he said: School building programmes, as such, are administrative instruments without legal significance. The right hon. Gentleman says that they are instruments of administration with no legal significance. What is the result, if such an instrument, without legal significance, has a legal result—a result which affects the legality of the position? If money were refused for essential new buildings, it might prevent local education authorities from carrying out their statutory duty under Section 8 of the 1944 Act. I shall not weary the House with that Section, but it lays on local authorities a duty in general … to afford for all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction". If an education authority were not granted the money for educational business, which therefore would prohibit it from carrying out its duties under that Act, that authority would be in breach of the law as a result of the use of an administrative instrument. In the letter the right hon. Gentleman said that this could be tested in the courts. We all know of the limitless funds that the Government have when they choose to go to court. What about the parents when they choose to go to court? The dice are loaded against parents in a case like this, for financial reasons. As a corollary it may well happen that if the local education authority were in breach of its statutory duty, on complaint the Secretary of State could use his default powers under the 1944 Act, declare the LEA in default and give directions. Perhaps he could do this in the same way as his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. Having in one way or other harried business to such an extent that they near failure and then come to him, he nationalises them. If the right hon. Gentleman—and hypothetically it is possible—denied this building money for schools and they became in fault in that they were unable to fulfil statutory duties, they might well then be in default and he would be able to give them directions. This is something which may have to be tested in court. We do not know.

I want to comment on the position of the voluntary aided schools and the menacing Circular 4/74, which contained these cordial words: In the case of voluntary aided schools the governors cannot expect to continue to receive the substantial financial aid which their schools enjoy"— unless they fall in with his wishes. That may be so, but is it legal to do this? Perhaps the Minister will tell us. My understanding is that the voluntary aided schools receive two forms of remuneration, one from the LEA and the other from the Secretary of State, to cover building and external repairs. In both cases my understanding is that there is a statutory duty so to do, and this statutory duty cannot be abrogated by a decision of the Secretary of State without coming to the proper place—the Floor of the House—to ask for powers so to do. Of course, that denies the different problems of the articles of association, the trust deeds and the articles governing the conduct of governors of all these voluntary aided schools.

The second menace uttered by the right hon. Gentleman against direct-grant schools he is rapidly putting into practice. He is proposing to abolish them by resolution. I refer him to Section 100 of the 1944 Act, which says that The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provision for the payment by him ‖ and so on. I do not deny that in the stricter interpretation of the law, he is enabled to use these regulations in any way he wishes. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that those who drafted the 1944 Act intended the regulations to be used for the furtherance and continuance of those schools and not for their fundamental change and destruction. Should anyone doubt that, I can only refer him to the fact that these schools have been in existence for 30 years and it has never occurred to a previous Secretary of State to use the regulations in such a way. Therefore, I question the view that these regulations can indeed be used in the way that the right hon. Gentleman is intending to use them.

There are several points from this great letter which have caused grave concern and alarm among the staff of the schools and much of the public. Indeed, some of the teachers' unions have been concerned too. For instance, no assurances are given that the staff of the direct-grant schools will be retained should they go into the maintained system. I understand that it has been mentioned that talks will be held. Do the staff categorically have guarantees of employment? Is a guarantee given that headmasters will continue to be employed at the same level at which they are being employed now? These points have not been answered.

Secondly, it has been said that the capitation grant will continue for all those students presently at the school and at the school until September of next year. However, these schools will be at liberty to increase their fees. If the capitation grant is not increased, the parents will have to make up the difference presumably. Can an assurance be given that no additional cost will fall on the parents of pupils at those direct-grant schools which come into the maintained sector? Nothing yet has covered that point.

Thirdly, in the letter about courses the following phrase is used: Everything possible should be done that pupils already in the school will continue the same type of course. I do not believe that the phrase "everything possible" is good enough. We should have a categoric assurance that pupils will not have their courses changed in mid-term or mid-year, or in the middle of their time at the schools. An assurance should be given that they can complete the course of study set out for them until they leave the school. This must be guaranteed.

I very much trust that on this point the right hon. Gentleman will give us the assurance today that he will come to the House for an affirmative resolution for these regulations and will not allow something of such fundamental importance to be passed merely by negative resolution. I hope that he will at least give the House an option to debate them openly on an affirmative resolution.

Finally, with the background of uncertainty, this authoritarian arbitrary action by the right hon. Gentleman is taking place at a time of national crisis and stringency. It is taking place at a time when the Secretary of State is saying that teachers will be unemployed and that the milk cuts will not be restored—not only for reasons of economy; it has been decided that it is unnecessary to restore the milk cuts for reasons of health. That will be interesting to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. No doubt Labour Members will have forgotten entirely the comments they made when the milk cuts were made and their pledges to restore them. I am sure their comments and pledges have passed completely from their minds. Perhaps it is unfair of me to remind them.

However, here we have this uncertain background in the education world and an economic crisis, and the right hon. Gentleman is driving through, against most of the wishes of those involved, his doctrinaire schemes, which will cost the State money—money which could well be spent on employing more teachers, perhaps.

In the letter from which I have quoted, for the first time we see an admission that indeed the abolition of direct-grant schools may cost something. The beautiful phrase used, which I am sure was drafted with great care, is The Government's decision will result in some savings and some additional expenditure. The exact balance cannot be predicted but it is not thought that there will be a substantial net addition. A "substantial increase", if one is speaking of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, may be to the tune of £ 3,000 million or £ 4,000 million. On the other hand, it may be to the tune of a few hundred pounds. I hope that we shall learn what is meant by "a substantial addition". I cannot believe that the words I have just quoted could have been written unless a calculation had been made. The House should learn what that calculation is.

I should like to point out merely that the fees received by direct-grant schools are about £ 11 million a year. If they all move over to the State system, presumably that would be an immediate cost of £11 million a year. Then there is the capital expenditure, which could be about £70 million. Therefore, one must ask how much is "substantial"£5 million, £10 million £20 million or £50 million?—in the light of the cuts in the education service which are predicted by the right hon. Gentleman in the article to which I have referred. Might it be better not to cut the services and not to abolish, for instance, the direct-grant schools?

The Daily Telegraph—which I do not suppose hon. Members opposite regard as their favourite newspaper—had an interesting leader on 9th May 1975. May I remind hon. Gentlemen that a good many hundreds of thousands of people in this country read that newspaper? The leader was entitled "Our Own Huns", and it rather savagely attacked the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Education and Science for suggesting that universities should sell their treasures to meet their additional costs. I understand from later correspondence that this was made in jest. It amused me, because at the time his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State responsible for the arts was saying that private individuals, because of wealth tax, would be forced to sell their treasures to the universities, so one saw a certain contradiction in voices at that time.

The leading article went on to say of the right hon. Gentleman that "nothing worse can come." Then it went on to ask the question, nevertheless after him what rough beast, its hour come round at last, will slouch towards the Education Ministry to replace him". Purely by chance—I am sure with no malevolence aforethought—all the newspapers next day were suggesting that the Secretary of State for Industry would shortly be moved to the position of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Education and Science. I very much hope that that will not happen To sum up, in my view—and, I believe, that of many people—the right hon. Gentleman has a bad case on educational grounds, he has a very doubtful case on legal grounds, and he has a bankrupt case on moral grounds.