Orders of the Day — Education Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th June 1979.

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Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North 12:00 am, 19th June 1979

It is difficult to answer that question simply. The Bill does not fight tooth and nail to bring grammar schools back. The Bill is not about choice. It passes freedom back to local education authorities so that they can develop schools in the interests of their areas.

Labour Members seem to think that the problems will be solved once the whole country goes comprehensive. They believe that the tears of the 11-plus will then be banished. When I was the headmaster of Highbury Grove school, I found that parents whose children were not admitted to schools of their choice protested more than they did if their children did not pass the 11-plus. The gap between the good comprehensive and the bad comprehensive is now wider than that between some of the best selective schools and the worst secondary modern schools.

It would help if Opposition Members concentrated on ensuring that children have a good education. Figures for inner London comprehensive schools were published in 1977. In only one in three London comprehensive schools could a pupil take a technical subject at A-level. In only half of those schools could a pupil sit an examination in pure mathematics. In only two-thirds could a pupil take an examination in French at A-level. Only in another one-third can one now take a second foreign language at A-level. Those are not the choices that most parents, Tory or Labour, would want for their children were they academically inclined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) referred to truancy in London. I suggest that certain Opposition Members read Professor Rutter's book. All credit should go to the Inner London education authority for allowing that book to be written. It is an in-depth analysis of 12 comprehensive schools in London. These schools were from the same background and had the same staffing. The analysis showed that pupils entering school A as against those at another school had five times as much chance of getting an O-level pass than in the other school. This is the choice in the comprehensive system in relation to non-achievement in many of those schools.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) doubted the figures given by my hon. Friend concerning truancy. But figures are also published in that book. One school, the better school, had only 16 per cent. of its 15-year-olds playing truant normally. The other school had 41 per cent. of its pupils missing. It is all very well for hon. Mem bers on the Opposition Benches to shout when they do not like the figures, but it might be a good idea if they read them. We can also give the same figures for delinquency.

If one goes to a county such as Oxfordshire, which is Conservative-controlled and almost totally comprehensive, one can see recently published figures of O-and A-level passes there. One finds that the gap between certain comprehensive schools and others is such that there is no doubt that there is the same pressure to get into those high-achievement comprehensive schools in Oxfordshire as once existed in relation to grammar schools as against secondary modern schools.

The idea that by passing an Act and driving pupils through the system regardless and calling schools comprehensives one has solved the problems of education, is not true. These problems can be solved only by long-term co-operation among teachers, local education authorities and Government.

I can speak about the change to comprehensive schools because I spent 12 years in them. I also spent 10 years in secondary modem schools—five years as a chalk-faced teacher and five as a headmaster. If one looks at the 1976–77 figures in UCCA, of the percentage of children of blue-collar workers who get to university—of the full intake—the fascinating aspect is that whilst we have been moving to comprehensive schools, which the Labour Party says has given opportunities to children who never had them before, the percentage of children of blue-collar workers going to university is 2 per cent. less in 1977 than in 1974. The figure fell from 26 per cent. to 24 per cent. of university intake.

Is that the great social revolution that has been heralded from the Opposition side of the Chamber? We can all do bleeding hearts on figures and we can do it emotionally. I would much prefer figures to be presented from both sides of an argument so that parents may make their decision. They are the people who should decide, with their local education authorities, how their schools should be run.

I would like to quote Mrs. Shirley Williams twice. I do not disagree with her statements. First of all, she asks whether comprehensive schools have improved academic standards. Perhaps I should not have given her name straight away, Mr. Speaker. You must forgive me for not allowing the opportunity for a little more hilarity which I could have provoked had I asked Labour Members who they thought had made these statements. On 12 July 1978, Mrs. Williams was reported as saying at the conference of local education authorities that information about comprehensive schools was still too patchy to draw conclusions on the crucial issue of standards.

Now, with 83 per cent. of our children in comprehensive schools and with certain areas having been totally comprehensive for up to 25 years, if we still have not got the evidence I would like to know when we will get it.

It always astonishes me how politicians get into the habit of speaking on behalf of everybody in the country, particularly about anybody who is not present at the time. In 1977, there were two surveys. One, by the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, sponsored a British Market Research Bureau survey into 79 secondary schools. It found that 58 per cent. of teachers thought that comprehensive schools in their areas had lowered academic standards. I am not saying those schools had lowered standards, but I asked Opposition Members who claim to speak on their behalf to let us have a better figure.

The Times Educational Supplement published in 1977 an NOP poll showing that 72 per cent. of teachers opposed the elimination of grammar schools. I am not saying that these schools should be kept, but the Opposition seem to think that they alone represent the future and that we represent the past, and the public told them what they thought of that on 3 May. Perhaps some people like the old verities and high standards and moral responsibility; perhaps that is the sort of thing that many people want.

It was good to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Thornton), who was the chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities education committee until he entered the House. He and some of my other hon. Friends referred to the big problem of the comprehensive schools. Statistically, one would need a 5,000-strong comprehensive school to do a viable group O-level Greek course. Unless one has a big school of 2,000 or 1,500, one cannot provide a wide variety of courses. But if one has a small school, which does not have the disciplinary problems of the big school, one will not have the variety of courses. There must be some form of combination. That is where thought should be given for the future.

Mrs. Williams told a London conference on 5 March this year that it was only a minority of comprehensive schools that produced a large and regular flow of entrants to universities. She said that pupils from the others trickled through in ones and twos. Therefore, simply producing comprehensive schools does not solve all the problems of education. The division between the good and the less good comprehensive school is as wide as anything that came before. I am sure that that is why a smaller percentage of children of blue-collar workers are going on to university.

The comprehensive school in the suburban area is usually a grammar school with a CSE stream and the comprehensive school in a downtown area is a large secondary modern school with a few pupils doing GCE. In good areas the system has given greater advantage to children and in downtown areas it has taken them away. We can see the figures for London. As the Bible says, "From him that hath not even that which he hath shall be taken away."

Some hon. Members talk as if the Conservatives are the hard men and the soft, compassionate men are to be found on the Labour Benches. We and the hon. Member for Bedwellty can decide how to do research to find out what is happening. I believe that the coming of the comprehensive school to the inner city has done more to deprive the bright child in that area than anything else in the past 25 years.

I should like to give two more quotations before I come to the end of this winding-up speech. If I refer to The Times, that is history again, but we hope that it is the future as well. It said in a leader article on 25 March 1977: The most characteristic socialist reform in education, the introduction of comprehensive schools, is generally believed to have led to a serious lowering of standards and to have done great harm to the prospects of hundreds of thousands of children. That is already true. Dr. Harry Judge, who, unlike many hon. Members, had long experience of comprehensive schooling and was the head of Banbury school, which is always used as an illustration for non-streaming, said recently that Comprehensive schools are systematically neglecting the needs of able children. Labour Members have said that we are putting the clock back. I do not mind putting the clock back to correct a wrong. On this occasion I do not believe that we are putting the clock back. I say to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that at least when we put the clock back we get another hour's daylight. The Labour Party waits until it is dark before stopping the clock. There is no harm in assessing what is going on.

The chief education officer of Richmond said recently: We cannot just keep behaving as if comprehensive schools were something mysterious. Education is suffering a crisis of confidence that can only be removed by frankness and openness. The Government do not object to frankness and openness. There is no doubt that the Labour Party is dogmatic and doctrinaire. We accept that in certain areas comprehensive schools have worked well. There are good comprehensive schools. On that basis the Labour Party says that there must be comprehensive schools throughout the country, regardless of whether they are wanted. It surprises me that the Left wing of the Labour Party has been bewitched by the Fabian idea of the mandarin comprehensive school. I thought that there would be rather more Friggings on the Left wing of the Labour Party.

There is one sector of the Labour Party in particular that objects to the Bill's passage. Those in that sector scorn our claim that the Bill was proposed in the Conservative Party's manifesto. It is fascinating that the Left wing of the Labour Party is talking all the time about the Right wing of the Labour Party because it chooses to carry through its manifesto commitments. It seems that Governments are not supposed to implement their manifesto pledges. I do not know how a Government can win if that argument is accepted. The Bill was proposed in the Conservative Party's manifesto. The Left wing of the Labour Party should congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill so soon in the Parliament. If it did so, however, it might put Left-wing seats at risk.

The Bill will pass to Committee within a week. Undoubtedly we shall enjoy the long battles that will take place in Committee. The Bill is part of the overall policy that was advanced by the Conservative Party with the object of putting Britain back on the right course. The Conservative Party proposed the lowering of taxes. I know that Labour Members do not like that, but unfortunately for them the electorate does. The electorate wants to see taxes reduced, and it is with us on that score. There is similar agreement about the sale of council housing. The Labour mandarins do not want to allow the sale of council houses. However, the electorate wants that to take place. There is no doubt that it is already supporting the Government on the sale of council houses.

There is no doubt that the electorate will similarly support the Government's education policy. It will support the Government's comprehensive policy on two grounds. First, it does not believe that comprehensive schools should be forced on the public in areas where they are not wanted. It will support a measure that places power again in the hands of local authorities. Secondly, I have no doubt that the majority of parents who have children in comprehensive schools will thank the Conservative Party for introducing a policy to ensure that all comprehensive schools work. There is no doubt that the policy of the previous