HC Deb 20 December 1968 vol 775 cc1777-91

2.30 p.m.

Mr. John Peel (Leicester, South-East)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to draw to the attention of the Government the increasingly serious situation in school building in Leicester due to the inaction and the narrow-minded and doctrinaire policy of the Government. The position of secondary school building is especially serious as the Government have withheld for too long essential grants. The situation is being aggravated by a large increase in the number of immigrant children of school age now coming into the city. In 1967 there were 694. This year up to October the figure is 1,191—more than 100 a month.

The situation has been brought to the attention of the Department of Education and Science and the Home Office but, so far, with no apparent effect. In some primary schools in Leicester the percentage of coloured immigrants is already far above the Government's accepted norm of about 30 per cent., and, unless something is done urgently, the situation will become further aggravated and will in due course spread to the secondary schools. By this last summer term there were already more school children than school places, and there were 250 children out of school.

I would like to know some of the whys, and then I would like to know whether and when. Why have moneys for secondary school building been withheld? I have been given to understand by the Secretary of State that it was because he could not agree to a building programme that would perpetuate selection and the tripartite system, and he wished to be assured that the building programme that was agreed would be in the context of a plan for reorganisation on comprehensive lines, even if it were long-term. But there has been nothing in the secondary school building proposals made by the Leicester L.E.A. over the past few years which would perpetuate irrevocable selection. Every proposal has been compatible with the development of a comprehensive system of secondary education and, if necessary, I could give specific examples.

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's objection to the tripartite system, I can say only that the system of secondary education in Leicester is not tripartite, it is bipartite, with so many bridges and overlappings between the two parts that it has become almost a unitary system. At the same time, the essential character of Leicester's most excellent grammar schools was being preserved though, naturally, like all healthy, growing organisms, they would evolve and develop over the years in accordance with the need of the local population. Provision was being made for the continued raising of the standards of all other secondary schools. I have figures which show that the system in Leicester was not irrevocably condemning children at 11-plus to an inferior type of education, which seems to be what is worrying the Secretary of State, but was increasingly flexible. For example, the number of children transferred to grammar schools grew from 91 in 1963–64 to 159 in 1967–68.

In all these circumstances, I ask why has the Minister withheld vitally essential building grants and requested the local authority to think again and produce another plan? Education should be to a large extent a matter for the local authority and the local people, and a considerable majority of Conservative councillors on the Leicester City Council, elected this year, promised in their election addresses to preserve the grammar schools of which the city is so rightly proud. I had always thought that this was the Prime Minister's policy. Did he not once say that grammar schools would be destroyed only over his dead body? Is this just another of those easy promises which he made to the British public and is now just as easily prepared to break? It would, unfortunately, be quite in character.

Even if the money were voted and provided now, it would be too late to provide all the school places which will be needed in 1971–72, and many children will be without places. However, better late than never, and Leicester has a right to know clearly and unequivocally from the right hon. Lady how she proposes to rectify the present injustice.

As she knows, a working party has prepared another plan which a majority on the Council has rejected because they fear that it is inimical to the grammer schools, which they are pledged and were elected by a considerable majority this year, to defend. It may be that the plan will be re-submitted to the Council and approved, not because a majority of the elected representatives of the people like it but because they are not prepared to allow more than 3,000 of Leicester's children to be without school places in 1971–72. But, even if it is approved locally, we do not know whether the Government will cavil at it and insist on further delays and further plans.

Is the right hon. Lady prepared to say something about this today? The truth is that the Government are guilty of a scandalous piece of political and financial pressure, and the responsibility for the lack of school places for many of Leicester's children in the coming years will rest squarely upon their shoulders. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am strictly timing today's debate. This debate must end at 3.15 p.m. and the Minister will rise at about 3 o'clock.

2.38 p.m.

Mr. Tom Bradley (Leicester, North-East)

The hon. Member for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Peel) has introduced for discussion this afternoon a subject of admitted difficulty, but I listened to him with great interest for some clue as to how he proposes we should get out of the situation, but I listened in vain. He knows, and must have known before the debate took place, that the difficulties in Leicester about secondary school building stem from the refusal of the Leicester City Council to accept a reorganisation of their secondary facilities on comprehensive lines.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that on 21st January, 1965, the House debated and endorsed a Motion declaring that the time was ripe for a national policy on comprehensive education. That was followed by the Secretary of State's famous circular 10/65, of 12th July, 1965, which requested all local education authorities to submit their plans for the reorganisation of secondary education within their boundaries on comprehensive principles. Not only did the circular do that, but it was at particular pains to point out to local education authorities that there were a variety of ways in which they could so reorganise their secondary education. It went further and said that it wanted the local education authorities to submit their plans within one year.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South-East has asked whether, if the plan which is yet again to go before the Leicester City Council is on that occasion adopted, the Minister will cavil at it once more. I might remind him that the Ministry has not yet had a plan from the Leicester City authority. Therefore, he is hardly in a position to repeat something, as the hon. Member implied when he said that there had been a previous plan but it had been rejected.

Leicester has the doubtful privilege of being one of a handful of authorities which still have not yet submitted a scheme of any kind. Over the last two years, the attitude of the Leicester City Council has been one of reluctance, procrastination and, now, total defiance.

Mr. Peel


Mr. Bradley

I am sorry not to give way, but you have reminded us, Mr. Speaker, of the pressure of time and there ought to be the opportunity from the back benches on this side of the House to rebut some of the doctinaire points made by the hon. Member.

A working party of ten members was set up in Leicester to produce principals for reorganising its secondary education. It reported in March, 1967, but it was told by the council in September that year to go ahead and produce a plan. It finally presented that plan to the November meeting of the education committee this year, when it was approved for submission to the city council by a majority of 20 votes to eight. Unhappily, however, as we all know, the full council meeting in Leicester on 26th November rejected that plan by a large majority.

The important thing is that in the debate that the Leicester City Council had on this matter on 26th November, it became clear that the opposition stemming from a majority of members of the Conservative group on the city council based their opposition not on the details or the practical imperfections of the plan, but on the principle of comprehensive education. In this way, Leicester seeks to isolate itself from the ground swell opinion in favour of comprehensive education which has been mounting in the country for several years.

This is not some doctrinaire policy item embraced by the Labour Party only. Many important and distinguished educationists quite divorced from the Labour Party have advocated the principle of comprehensive education for many years. This is not the occasion to rehearse all the arguments in favour of those principles, but I mention that as a fact.

In other words, the Leicester City Council is now defying or ignoring the very clear instructions which were issued from the Department of Education and Science on this subject, and yet the hon. Member for Leicester, South-East and some of his political friends accuse the Government of blackmail, of withholding money for secondary school-building, because they will not in Leicester conform to the principles of comprehensive education. I am glad that the hon. Member appears to confirm what I am alleging is being said, because it enables me to say that the Government's position on this matter has always been clear.

The Department of Education and Science issued a circular, 10/66, on 10th March, 1966, in which it conceded that both the rate and the manner of the changeover would be determined by the existing stock of schools and proposals already approved. That same circular clearly indicated, however, that any future building proposals that were inconsistent with the long-term objectives and based upon a separatist approach to secondary education could not possibly be approved. Authorities were specifically asked to describe how each proposal would, or could, fit in with a comprehensive plan. This Leicester City Council as it is at present constituted politically will not do.

Not only has the council refused to join the march of progress. It has also been needlessly provocative. Certain borough boundary changes have taken place. A year or two ago, the Leicester City authority inherited an existing comprehensive school from the Leicestershire local education authority, namely, Hamilton High School, just outside the periphery of my constituency.

The Leicester City Council has recently deliberately taken the retrograde step of reintroducing a selective system based upon the 11-plus in the Hamilton High School's catchment area. In this way, Leicester City Council has not only distorted the curriculum of the two primary schools which feed the Hamilton High School but, by so doing, has deprived the Hamilton High School of its richest stream of pupils and destroyed its comprehensive character.

The city council has done that on the strength of less than 20 parental requests to do so. It has taken this retrograde step of reintroducing selectivism and separatism in an area previously free from it without any consultation with the parents or with the teachers at the school. It is little wonder that there is consternation and wholesale opposition among all the teachers of the school and fury among the parents in the area for which the school provides. That provocative action has poisoned an already bad atmosphere.

I share very much the genuine concern of the hon. Member for Leicester, South-East at the shortage of secondary school places that is certain to arise early in the 1970s. I suggest, however, that the best service which he can render to the cause of education and the future of the pupils is to use his influence on his political friends on the city council to behave realistically and more reasonably in this matter.

Particularly do I urge the hon. Member to make that kind of approach to a member of his party who is reported to have said, after the famous meeting on 26th November, that as far as he was concerned, the children could be taught in the fields in the 1970s rather than give in on this principle. I believe that it is only in this way that the hon. Member for Leicester, South-East, as I advise him to do, or anybody else will get Leicester moving in a progressive education direction.

2.50 p.m.

Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South-West)

The hon. Member for Leicester, North-East (Mr. Bradley) referred to difficulties stemming from a refusal to accept reorganisation on comprehensive lines, but I should ask him and the Minister of State what legislative authority have the Government to impose a comprehensive system upon a democratically elected council which put in the forefront of its election campaign the system of education which it proposed to adopt and which got an overwhelming majority in its favour—

Mr. Bradley

Would the hon. Member not agree that there were many items in that election manifesto? What evidence has he that it was this specific item of comprehensive education which led to the election of a Conservative majority?

Mr. Boardman

Of course there were many items, but, as the hon. Member knows, this was in the forefront of the campaign. Had the electorate not wished this Conservative policy to be adopted, they would have clearly shown that by their votes.

The hon. Member prayed in aid a Government circular and a debate in the House, but since when have Government circulars had legislative authority to bind local authorities on how to carry out their educational processes, when the present law clearly states that the choice is for the local authority and is not, at this stage, one which can be decreed or decided by Government circular 10/66 or any other? If the Government wish to impose this system on the country, they must pass the necessary legislation and see what the country thinks of them.

There is much misconstruction—in some quarters, I think, deliberately—about the attitude of Leicester City Council, Leicester Conservative counsillors are not aiming to preserve privilege. On the contrary: they are aiming to preserve opportunity for better education to be available to all parts of the city. They are not seeking to preserve grammar schools just because they are grammar schools but to preserve those schools which are able and equipped to give a higher standard of education to the maximum number of children.

Of course there is much talk about selectivity. Some form of selection is inevitable in life and in education. It appears, of course, in regard to universities. Some hon. Members may wonder whether the method adopted there is necessarily ideal, but there is no way in which selection can be totally avoided. The 11-plus is criticised—I criticise it myself—but Leicester has been moving away from this and achieving a degree of flexibility which we should encourage and support and not condemn.

I do not believe that Leicester's problem applies all over the country. It has neighbourhood areas of large council estates on the one hand and private dwelling houses on the other. In these areas, in some cases, the educational standard is very good and in others it is not so good. The Government plan to freeze that pattern and that standard so that those in an environment where the opportunities are not available for good education would be deprived of the opportunity of getting the best possible places to which their merits, their ability and the wishes of their parents, who take a pride in them, entitle them.

We must also give the opportunity for the bright and hard-working child to get on and have a better chance, no matter what part of the city he comes from. The Government plans would deny this and would freeze them in the neighbourhood areas and ensure that the children who happen to be brought up in an environment with poor educational opportunities shall remain there. This must be wrong. It is this attitude which tells Leicester City Council, "You must put in our scheme regardless of what your electors think, or else you will get no money." It is an attitude which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South East (Mr. Peel) rightly described as blackmail.

I have written to the right hon. Lady and asked how much money is required to carry out the secondary school building programme in Leicester and whether she would give an assurance that it would be forthcoming. I am still waiting for an answer; perhaps I will have it in a few minutes. Leicester Conservative councillors sincerely believe—and not because of any doctrinaire party policy but because of their sincere belief in the education of the children of their electorate—that the system which they have now and are developing all the time is the best for those citizens. This is the pledge which the electorate supported—

Mr. Bradley

What does the hon. Member think of the attitude of the more senior, experienced and statesmanlike members of the Conservative group on the council who have agreed to support a submission of a plan for reorganising secondary education?

Mr. Boardman

I am glad that the hon. Member has asked that question. Although I am not authorised to look into the minds of all those individuals, I can tell the hon. Gentleman what influences them mainly. If they are faced with the alternative of depriving 3,000 or 4,000 schoolchildren of places—this is what will happen if money is not made available—or of putting in this scheme, they believe, after much heart-searching and anxiety, that it is right—even though it means going back on their pledges—because of the high stake to accept a scheme which may extract from the Ministry the funds which would enable the essential buildings to be put in hand. I believe that I am voicing their views when I say that.

At stake here is the future of not just 3,000 or 4,000 children but of the enormously growing number of immigrant children who are coming in. In reply to a Written Question of mine yesterday, the right hon. Lady said that, in the next 12 months and in each of the following years, if the present rate continued, 770 children of primary school age and 430 of secondary school age would be coming into Leciester. She also said that there were 11 primary schools which had over 33 per cent. immigrant population at the moment. She could not say what was the maximum number in any one class. I can tell her that in one school, and probably in others—and she will have seen this if she has seen the Leicester schoolmasters' report—there are over 83 per cent. of immigrant children in one class.

I must not depart from the terms of the Motion, but I put this in the context of the problem with which Leicester education has to cope. Leicester has to deal with the numbers coming in and with all the language problems. To do that, we must get away from the doctrinaire Socialism of comprehensive education and get on with providing the schools which the local authority needs to house both the 3,000 to 4,000 children who will be coming forward and the 1,200 a year who will be coming into the schools.

Let us concentrate on upgrading schooling. There are very good secondary modern schools in Leicester. Let us try to make them at least equal to the grammar schools. Let us raise the standards. If the Minister puts doctrinaire ideas before the future of these children, the Government will have much for which to answer, and I believe that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite who take part in that decision will have on their consciences a burden which I should not care to carry.

3.0 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

Before I talk about secondary education I want to clear up one important point. The hon. Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Boardman) spoke of the immigration problem in Leicester, and I know that Leicester has a severe immigration problem. But the local authority do not claim that pupils were out of school because of shortage of places. In fact, we have given Leicester all the primary schools for which it asked in the coming year, 1969–70, which will provide about 800 new places next year in the City. In addition to that, Leicester is one of 34 local authorities which benefits under the urban programme, which means that Leicester will be able to provide nursery education in certain areas during the coming year.

The speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, South-West is the most reactionary speech I have heard for a long time on secondary education, and if right hon. and hon. Members on his Front Bench who are particularly interested in education were here, I am sure that they would dissociate themselves from what he said. It is the kind of speech which we used to hear 20 or 30 years ago. He said that we lay down a doctrinaire scheme by which children must be educated and that we keep to rigid patterns and rigid areas. That is completely untrue. It only shows that he has never read circular 10/65, which sets before local education authorities a variety of different ways in which they could get rid of selection at the age of 11 and could please themselves in drawing up their scheme on how they would get rid of selection.

He talked about the people of Leicester. I have had quite a postbag in the last few days from parents in Leicester, all urging me to see that Leicester has a comprehensive system of education. I have here the letters which I have received. I have listened carefully to all that has been said by hon. Members in this short debate, and it must be apparent to all of us that secondary school building in Leicester is closely related to the whole question of secondary reorganisation. That is so in all parts of the country.

My hon. Friend quoted Circular 10/65 and other circulars, and if I had time I could quote pledges made by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, when he was Secretary of State for Education and Science, when he said that all new secondary building must be compatible with secondary reorganisation. It is not, as the hon. Members for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Peel) and Leicester. South-West have tried to make out, that this is in some way a punishment for not adopting a scheme of comprehensive education. It is because we want to ensure that secondary schools are geared to the education system of the future. It would be foolish to build new secondary schools for a system which is dying out.

The great majority of the country has plans for secondary reorganisation—most of them Conservative local authorities. Out of 163 local authorities, 119 have had plans accepted for a whole or part of their area; 13 local authorities' schemes are now under consideration; seven of the plans have been rejected; and only eight have declined to submit a plan. A further 16 local authorities have not yet submitted a plan, but some of these are known to be preparing schemes. It is, therefore, a very small group of local authorities which is without a definite intention to reorganise on comprehensive lines, and Leicester is one of those local authorities.

When a deputation from the Leicester Local Education Authority came to see me in September of last year to discuss their bids for building allocations in 1968–69 and 1969–70, I took the opportunity to emphasise that little progress appeared to be being made with plans for the reorganisation of secondary education on comprehensive lines. I said, in particular, that there seemed to be a good deal of doubt about the authority's overall intentions. We discussed in some detail the relationship between the authority's building programmes and secondary reorganisation, and I think that I made it clear that the two should march in step and be seen to do so.

More recently, I heard informally—I have not received a scheme from the Leicester Education Authority—that a working party was formulating a scheme of reorganisation, and I was glad to know that these proposals were approved by the education committee on 12th November of this year. I did not know the details of the proposals, but I looked forward to considering them closely when they were submitted to us. Unfortunately, as we know, the plan was rejected by the City Council at its meeting on 26th November, 1968, and I much regret that the progress which looked possible seems to have been halted.

However, I find it hard to believe that this is the authority's last word, and I still very much hope that there may be reconsideration of this decision, so that the plan, into which so much hard work has gone, may be submitted for consideration by my right hon. Friend and I. I was pleased to see in the Leicester Mercury for Wednesday, 11th December, that there is a chance that this plan might be reconsidered by the Leicester City Council.

One of the features of Leicester is that the city of Leicester is entirely surrounded by the county of Leicester; and the position of an urban authority with no reorganisation plans whatever, situated in a reorganised county, must necessarily pose many difficult problems. My hon. Friend has pointed to some of them. The Leicester Authority has enlarged its boundaries and has taken in part of Leicestershire.

In addition, there must be constant movement of people between the city of Leicester and the county of Leicestershire. There must be great difficulties involved in children moving from one area to another, from an area that has not reorganised to a reorganised one, and vice versa. I do not accept that there is something special about the city of Leicester from the point of view of the geography inside the city or that it is in any way different from any other city in the country which has found it possible to adopt a reorganisation plan for comprehensive education.

Moreover, without in any way endorsing the figures quoted by the hon. Gentleman, I recognise that Leicester will need some additional secondary school places in the coming years, as a result of the steady growth of the resident school population, reinforced by the substantial and continuing influx of immigrant families in recent months. One very much hopes that these and other factors will convince the Authority of the good sense of establishing a satisfactory relationship between building needs and the organisation of schools.

Since the authority did not put forward the reorganisation plan which had been under consideration, I have no means of judging how its proposals for the secondary school building programme will fit in with that plan. What the authority has said in its official proposals for building programmes about the way in which individual schools would fit into a reorganised system of secondary education has not been specific, with the exception of one school, which is Hamilton School.

I have with me the quotations from the local authority's submissions to me when it sought secondary school building. The authority has told me that Hamilton School is a 10 form entry lower-tier comprehensive school for children aged 11–14, that it is to become an 8 form entry comprehensive for children aged 11–16, that in the final stage it will be either an 8 form entry comprehensive for children aged 11–16 or a 10 form entry comprehensive for children aged 12–16. This is what the authority tells me. My hon. Friend has now said that the 11-plus has been reintroduced into this area.

With regard to the Eyres Monsell school, the local education authority said in its submission to me: The Authority is still considering its proposals for the reorganisation of secondary education as requested in Circular 10/65. If built adjacent to the existing Mary Lin-wood Girls School, this new school could, together with Mary Lynwood Girls School, provide a comprehensive unit of 8 for entry over the age range of 11 to 16. That is what the authority told me, but I do not know whether or not this still stands, because the authority was writing to me in the context of the secondary reorganisation plan on which it was working, being accepted by the city council. There is now no plan against which to judge the proposals, and it will be necessary for the local authority to explain how these projects are to be viewed in the new situation. There is another school—the Northern Area School—but there was no mention of that being a comprehensive school.

In a few cases we have been able to authorise secondary school buildings designed to provide comprehensive education in certain places within the area of an authority which has not yet submitted a reorganisation scheme for the area as a whole, and the Leicester authority may wish to bear this fact in mind when formulating any further representations it may wish to make. As I have already said, I hope very sincerely that it will find it possible to re-examine its whole position in regard to secondary reorganisation. This would certainly provide the best conditions for the steady application of capital resources.

As I have already said, I met the Leicester Education Authority almost as soon as I came to the Department of Education and Science. I hope that when this matter goes before the city council, the city council will adopt a reorganisation scheme that we may then consider, but I would be very happy to meet the Leicester Education Authority at any time to explain the present position, and to find out its intentions with regard to secondary building. We have not all the building resources that we would like, and we have to see that those we have are used in line with the schools of the future and not for a system that is steadily dying out.

I think that the hon. Member for Leicester, South-West is completely wrong when he talks about comprehensive education being a matter of doctrinaire Socialist principles. I have shown that many local authorities, not by any means Labour, have adopted satisfactory schemes of comprehensive education.

Mr. Tom Boardman

I never intended to suggest that comprehensive education is universally wrong. I said that it was wrong in the context of Leicester's present geographical situation.

Miss Bacon

I fail to see how the hon. Gentleman can make that argument stand up, because there is nothing in Leicester that is different from any other city that has adopted comprehensive education. If anything, there is everything to be said for Leicester City going comprehensive, since it is surrounded by the whole county.