Orders of the Day — Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd November 1978.

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Photo of Mr Norman St John-Stevas Mr Norman St John-Stevas , Chelmsford 12:00 am, 3rd November 1978

I thought that we were in general agreement that the hon. Gentleman was in the role of a pumpkin, without a transformation scene.

The right hon. Lady has shown some brief flashes of insight. We once thought that she was coming round to the Opposition's point of view on educational standards, but our hopes have been disappointed. Like her predecessors, she has been afflicted with a profound deafness as to the views of parents and as to what the public in general feel about standards within our educational system. If there is one overriding need in education today, it is to preserve and restore, where it has gone, public confidence in the standards prevailing in our schools. If the Secretary of State disputes that there is a crisis of confidence in our schools, she cannot be talking to parents or to industrialists, who are on constant record that our schools are not in fact producing the training and the standards needed in a modern industrial society.

It is true that the Labour Party gives a higher priority to the promotion of equality, to egalitarianism in the educational system, than to the promotion of high standards. We shall get high standards only from those who believe that the purpose of schools is to promote educational rather than political or sociological values. We believe that true equality can be achieved only by a rigorous pursuit of excellence.

One sees a very good example of that in the motions which were put forward at this year's Labour Party conference. There were very few proposals to raise standards. Most of the debate centred on the obsession of wiping both the grammar schools and independent schools out of existence.

When the right hon. Lady first took office, we had hopes that she would take her party's education policy back to an older Labour tradition which sought to provide high standards and a ladder of opportunity for children from modest backgrounds. Alas, we have been disappointed about that. The only sphere in which she has shown vigour has been in her vendetta against grammar schools and now her rather petty campaign against the independent schools.

I cite an example of that—Dauntsey's school, in Wiltshire, which has a perfectly good working arrangement with a local comprehensive school, the Lavington school, which is of benefit to both. For doctrinaire reasons, the Secretary of State has declared that this arrangement must come to an end. If apartheid is wrong in race relations—which it certainly is—why is it right in education? Why should schools which share facilities in this way to their mutual advantage be prevented from doing so on the most doctrinaire and petty grounds?

Nothing illustrates more clearly the Secretary of State's indifference to standards than her examination proposals. Here again, the explanation of those proposals is the desire on the part of the Labour Party to promote equality in schools at every cost and to use schools as tools of social engineering. It is the Labour Party's desire to do away with any sense of failure that has given rise to proposals which simply fail to meet the need to safeguard standards and thus to command the confidence of those who use the education service.

The point on which the Opposition stand and the point of division between ourselves and the right hon. Lady is that we stand for the retention of O-levels and A-levels as the bench-marks of excellence in the educational system.