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 Martin Flannery Mr Martin Flannery , Sheffield, Hillsborough 12:00 am, 3rd November 1978

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to refute this when he makes his speech.

Turning to the question of parental choice, as the Opposition now term it, what parental choice did they give to 85 per cent. of the parents of children who were consigned to the secondary moderns and lower forms of education, despite the struggles of the teachers? For how long did the Opposition fight tooth and nail to retain the 11-plus? What parental choice was there for the vast majority of people when Conservative Party supporters were going to prep schools and private schools and creaming off the bright children to the grammar schools?

Of course grammar schools tried to achieve high standards. Many of my hon. Friends attended grammar schools because there were no comprehensive schools. But in the course of time all grammar schools will become comprehensives. For example, the school in Sheffield to which I referred is now a splendid comprehensive school and nobody is creaming off the top 5 per cent. and then streaming it. Now there is only one private school in Sheffield, at which a member of the Front Bench was a pupil. In time we shall democratise that school and allow all children access to it.

How dare the Opposition talk about parental choice after they have tried to exclude 80 per cent. of our children from any choice? The Conservatives are caught. Comprehensive schools are here. If they tried to unscramble them the chaos would be frightening. I do not believe that even they would attempt to do that, particularly in a short period.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford spoke about a parents' charter. Whom does he think he is fooling? What about all the parents whose children were excluded from the better schools under the Conservatives? Did they have a charter? Did the Conservatives ever call for a parents' charter for the majority? Labour Governments have achieved equality in education and now the Conservatives are fighting to the last ditch to preserve their privileges.

My right hon. Friend engaged in a massive indictment of Tory education authorities which are not spending sufficient money on education. Can the Conservatives explain by what strange method a Tory local education authority that does not hire sufficient teachers, does not claim its allocation of money for nursery schools, and attempts to use public money for private education, achieves parental choice? If the available money is not used, there will be fewer teachers and standards will diminish. About 60 per cent. of Tory authorities did not claim their allocation for nursery schools last year. Were standards increased by that? What standards are increased when throughout the country Tory authorities are refusing to hire available teachers, which could bring down the size of classes?

When my right hon. Friend said that money was difficult to obtain, Opposition Members laughed. If money is so easy to come by, why have not the Tory authorities claimed their allocations? Some authorities are asking for more money when they have not used the money that they have. They should be ashamed. They are pushing ordinary children into difficulties because they are not hiring sufficient teachers. At the same time the Conservatives have the effrontery to talk about higher standards, parental choice and a parents' charter.

There is a crisis of confidence in education. But it does not exist in education generally. It is a crisis of confidence in Tory authorities by people who know that money is not being used properly for the education of their children. In spite of the Conservatives' massive propaganda machine, ordinary folk are coming to realise the truth—that their children will not receive the education to which they are entitled if the money which is available is not spent.

I listened to the debate at the Tory Party conference. It was fascinating. I have never before heard such backwoods backwardness about education. I would not have known that people could talk such rot if I had not heard it. The hon. Member for Chelmsford referred to My loyal lieutenant, Dr. Boyson, to whose flair and energy I pay tribute this morning. Then the hon. Member patted his hon. Friend on the shoulder. It was touching. It was almost lyrical. It should have been set to music I nearly wept.

The hon, Member for Brent, North looked cold and craggy while the compliment was being paid to him. For once, he was mute. He did not speak. I do not think that his colleagues would allow him to because the conflict between him and the hon. Member for Chelmsford is so intense and public that we all know about it. It overflows in their speeches.

That is revealed in The Times Educational Supplement, which can hardly be described as a revolutionary journal. There were standing ovations at the conference. Speakers said diametrically opposed things and were in headlong collision with one another and yet all speakers received standing ovations. I do not know how they managed that. Some wonderful standing ovations took place. However, sometimes some people rose only half to their feet and then, when they saw that everyone was about to stand, rose themselves and then rapidly sat when they realised that it was not the standing ovation that they thought it would be. The hon. Member for Brent, North was noticeably quiet. There was a marked contrast between the debates at the Labour Party conference and the Tory Party conference.

Professor Max Beloff runs a type of education training post somewhere in Buckinghamshire. It is called a university but one has to pay to attend it. I am sure that many wealthy people attend it but it is not for ordinary students. It is for people who can pay. That is why I call it a trading post. The professor made one of the most reactionary speeches that I have ever heard. Every time a suggestion was made that would hold back education and every time he suggested that education should be handed over to private enterprise and therefore restrict education for the mass of our children he was wildly acclaimed. I should like everyone to read that speech because it reeks of Victorianism and backwardness and it would show how the Conservatives wish to take us back in time.

The Conservatives might as well plough the ocean. Comprehensive education is here, and people without money now have access to a good education. I hope that some of the more regenerate Opposition Members will accept the tremendous strides that we are making.

I should like everyone to read the debates on education at the Labour Party conference because they supported a move forward for education. The Times Educational Supplement of 20th October—of revered memory—commented on the speech by the hon. Member for Chelmsford. It was headed " Coruscating on thin ice ". I referred to my right hon. Friend and said that he was " figure-skating on thin ice ". The idea of the hon. Member for Chelmsford pirouetting on thin ice almost makes one feel abandoned. The article stated that By general consent, Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas did himself a power of good in Conservative Party circles by a scintillating performance at Brighton.In truth, some oratorical legerdemain was called for. The Conservatives are deeply divided on education policy. Mr. St. John-Stevas has cobbled together a garment to wear at the next election, but he knows how easily it could come unravelled. He had to support the comprehensive schools, but also promised to keep the grammar schools: yet even in the latter respect, he had to promise to let local education authorities decide what is best for their area, which will mean letting some grammar schools go. I would dearly love someone on the Tory Benches who knows something about education to explain how one could cream off the top group of children and then call what remains a comprehensive school. We all know in our heart of hearts that it is impossible to have comprehensive schools side by side with grammar schools. We cannot have it both ways. You pay your penny and you take your choice. Our choice is comprehensive education. Anyone who says that comprehensive education and grammar schools can work together is dreaming. Anyone who knows the truth should tell it, and I believe that the Tory Party knows that truth.

Why do the Tories not admit that our people can have either comprehensive education or grammar schools, but not both? They will therefore have to accept comprehensive education with private schools.