HC Deb 06 December 1973 vol 865 cc1637-46

12.54 a.m.

Captain Walter Elliot (Carshalton)

HMS "Conway" was established in 1859. For nearly 11 years she has given valuable service to the nation. During that period many changes have taken place and "Conway" has adapted to the needs of the times.

Credit is due to generations of management committees and shipowners who have recognised the vital contribution made by "Conway" to our maritime interests and who have given their time and money to ensure that the ship has been safeguarded for the nation. Many old boys of "Conway" have achieved great distinction and high office in our national life. Thousands of them have manned the bridges of our ships in peace and in war, and four Victoria Crosses are among the many decorations awarded to them.

The value of the education and training given by "Conway" is not to be measured only by the distinctions achieved in many walks of life by a minority. The value lies in those qualities of self-discipline, initiative, self-reliance and high moral standards which are inculcated into each "Conway" cadet, and each fit him to become a strongpoint in our national life.

Another great strength of "Conway" is that her cadets are drawn from all strata of society and from all income groups. They are welded into a community and they leave the ship equipped to take their places in the modern world with a sense of their obligation to society. Whatever the future of "Conway", that is a vital ingredient, and I for one would not be arguing her case if that ingredient were to be lost.

With those traditions and those records, it is not surprising that nearly 140 Members of Parliament, many among the most distinguished in the House, from all parties and from all parts of Britain, should sign a motion calling on the Government to ensure the continued existence of this unique establishment. It is not surprising that letters should have come not only from this country but from all over the world calling on the Government to save "Conway" for the nation. It is not surprising that a study group set up in 1968, sponsored and chaired by the Department of Education and Science and composed of representatives from that Department, the Board of Trade, the Cheshire local education authority, the management of the school and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, should have reached the conclusion after examining the situation that the continuance of "Conway" was in the national interest.

What is surprising is that the Government today, against this weight of opinion, should hesitate about whether to save "Conway". What is surprising is that, with all the tens of millions of pounds given to other educational establishments of all types, the small sum necessary to save "Conway" may not be found. I will examine this position in greater detail.

First, are enough boys coming forward for places at the school? In 1972, the last year before "Conway's" future became in doubt, there were 800 applications for entry. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary should inquire why, of those 800, only some 200 were interviewed of whom 65 were accepted. He should inquire also why from 1969 to 1971 considerable numbers of boys, interviewed and suitable, could not be admitted. So the boys are coming forward.

Secondly, is there a large enough proportion of "Conway" cadets going into the Merchant Navy? Of course, some go into the Royal Navy and the other fighting services. The figures are as follows, and they include both navigation and marine engineer officers. In 1969 there were 72 per cent., in 1970 there were 58 per cent., and in 1971 69 per cent. These are high percentages, and they could be made higher. Taking the crude figures each year these do not appear high, because the total number of cadets at the school is not great. This has been so for decades.

In 1972 the figure was 34 per cent. and in 1973 32 per cent., a sharp drop. But the reason was that by then the axe had been poised by Cheshire. Therefore, the boys were leaving "Conway" to find further education at establishments with a secure future. Indeed, most of the 1972 intake left in 1973. I suspect that the Department of Education and Science has been given some misleading or perhaps incomplete figures on this issue and that they should be checked.

Therefore, when times were normal at "Conway", a high proportion of cadets was going into the Merchant Navy, and this proportion could be higher.

What are the educational standards? The number of O-levels and A-levels gained are above the national average. Recently a team of "Conway" cadets came second out of all schools in the United Kingdom for scientific endeavour at the Television Science Fair and later won £1,000 at an international exhibition in Holland.

I will quote from one letter of the hundreds that I have received. This is from a Professor Smart, who says : I know at first hand of Conway's excellent work in the teaching of navigation up to GCE standards, for I examined 50 to 60 cadets annually for roughly a score of years for the Oxford and Cambridge Schools' Examination Board. … I can certify that the Conway cadets were well taught the foundations of navigation and that they achieved—and maintained year by year—a high standard of excellence. There is no doubt that the educational standards are high.

To summarise, "Conway" has fine traditions and an outstanding record of service to the nation. Demand for places at the school is high. Demand for "Conway" cadets by the shipping lines is strong. A high proportion of the cadets enter the sea services. The standard of education is of a high order.

Why, then, is the continued existence of "Conway" in grave danger? Why, indeed, am I forced to raise this matter on the Floor of the House? Has this great maritime nation got its priorities so wrong that, while supporting every other type of establishment, from ballet schools to bankrupt companies, it will not support the unique nautical training school known as HMS "Conway"? There are two main reasons for the difficulties which have arisen, and these can be remedied.

The study group, chaired and sponsored by the Department of Education and Science, investigated and reported on the situation. To this report the officers of the Department made an important contribution. The whole tenor of the report was that aided status should be given to "Conway". But instead of accepting the report—here is the vital point—the then Minister said that aided status would be granted provided that Cheshire accepted only pupils from education authorities which were prepared to meet the cost. That was the reason why, in 1969, 59 boys suitable for "Conway" had to be refused admission, and another 58 in 1971. Both groups had to be refused because their local councils would not accept responsibility for them. That was the reason for the decline in the numbers at "Conway".

The requirement by the then Minister was fundamentally at variance with the report of the study group which had indicated clearly that, in accordance with the Education Acts, the Cheshire authority would have the right to admit boys from other areas and to recover fees from the local authorities of those areas.

This situation placed the Cheshire authority and the British Shipping Federation in a difficult position. Cheshire, a local authority responsible to its ratepayers, naturally could not be expected to subsidise a national institution. I have here a letter from a member of the county council education committee. I will not give his name, since it was written to someone else. It gives an idea of what members of the county council think of "Conway". He writes : I agree with you that it is a tragic loss to the nation and to the students. The closing will be in my view a disaster, because the school was unique, but I think you will realise that, as a committee, one has to consider the position from all points of view, and the ratepayers' in particular. The county council's motivation is clearly, and rightly from its point of view, the protection of its ratepayers. But in the wider context of the value of HMS "Conway" to the nation and the need to ensure her survival, the position of the ratepayers of one local authority is completely irrelevant. One simple solution, yet not the only one, would be to give "Conway" the full aided status which was recommended by the study group.

The second main difficulty concerns the British Shipping Federation and its link with Cheshire's problem. The BSF as such did not subscribe money to the buildings but it took financial responsibility for "Conway" for a few months in 1968, hoping that the establishment would be self-supporting. The BSF also took the view that too few cadets were making the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy their careers. I hope that I have already put the record straight on that point, and I have stressed the special circumstances during the year 1972–73.

The BSF accepts that "Conway" cadets are of high calibre and much sought after. In addition it recognises that in the case of "Conway" cadets there is a lower wastage rate than with entrants from other channels. The BSF also says that, because the pattern and length of cadet training has changed, the advantages enjoyed by "Conway" cadets over other entrants have been eroded.

First, the "Conway" cadets still have an advantage. Second, the high demand from the shipping lines for these cadets exists not because they are better seamen or navigators than the other entrants, although this may well be so as a result of their earlier sea training. The true reason for the demand is the qualities inculcated in them during their training, of which I spoke earlier.

I was sent a brief from the BSF. I do not know who wrote it but it gives much misleading and incomplete information. One paragraph, however, expresses well the feeling in that body : It must be stressed that it is not the function of the British Shipping Federation to support institutions providing general education. Consequently, any proposal to revert to running 'Conway' as an independent establishment must find support elsewhere. It appears to say that it has paid out enough money and does not want to give any more. But it does not really mean that it does not support an institution providing general education, because the shipowners have been supporting "Conway" for over 100 years, precisely because the type of general education and training given to the cadets makes them sought after by the shipping lines. The BSF is really saying "We object to paying money to educate and train boys who then depart to a career other than the maritime services."

In my opinion, if there was a problem it was the duty of the management committee appointed by the BSF to take action to solve it. It would not have been difficult and "Conway" would certainly have played her part. I confess I get the impression that the present board of management and the BSF are not very interested in "Conway". But I shall have more to say about those aspects and about the parts played by the various authorities on another occasion. In any case, I should like to express the hope that our great shipowners, who have a reputation of far-sightedness and public service, will not allow their judgment about "Conway" to be guided solely by the balance sheet. I am sure they will not allow that to happen. After all, the shipping industry gets a lot of help from public sources. A good example in this regard is set by the livery companies of London, the Drapers, the Haberdashers and many others, who support schools not all of whose pupils enter their trades.

To sum up this part of my case, I would say that for over 115 years "Conway" has seen many changes in the requirements of nautical training. The ship has moved with the times, has kept up to date and can most certainly adapt herself to recent changes in the needs of our maritime service if there is a good board of management.

What can be done to make the future of "Conway" secure and beyond doubt? It could be given full aided status. I quote a letter from the Cheshire authorities. It states : The only possible way of granting a reprieve for the school would be for the Ministry to reverse Miss Alice Bacon's decision and to remove from us the obligation to consult with other authorities and accept boys only with their agreement. That is one way.

In spite of the problems, which I know all about, it could become a direct grant school. May I briefly quote the views of the Under-Secretary's predecessor, who has now gone to the arts? Talking about direct grant schools, he said this among other things : We shall continue to cherish, guard and back you so that you may continue in the future, as you have done in the past, to make a contribution to the education of the nation, both notable and profound. Cannot this maritime nation do that for this unique nautical establishment?

Finally, "Conway" could receive a grant in aid, coupled with an organised appeal for an endowment fund in order that she might become independent. Should this last course be the only possibility, will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give me an undertaking tonight that he will not impede its implementation and that he will help its progress, both legally and financially If he does that, or ensures the future of "Conway" in some other way, I promise him that neither he nor the nation will regret his decision.

1.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Timothy Raison)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) has made an honourable and gallant defence of HMS "Conway". One is bound to be impressed by the moving terms in which he has spoken of the school.

I find this a difficult problem with which to deal. My hon. and gallant Friend has set out the basic history of HMS "Conway". There is no need for me to go into that again. We have to start from the fact that in 1968, after many years of distinguished work, the school found itself in financial difficulties and the school governors made a proposal, under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944, that it should be maintained as a voluntary aided school. As we know, that proposal was accepted by the Secretary of State of the day.

Then the maintaining local education authority, Cheshire County Council, after four years' experience of running the school as an aided school, made a proposal and published statutory notices under Section 13(3) of the Education Act, 1944 to cease to maintain the school with effect from 31st August 1974. The local education authority's proposal was made in November 1972, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows. As he also knows, such proposals require approval, with or without modification, by the Secretary of State before they can be put into effect. The Secretary of State is not empowered to consider alternatives to the published proposal.

In accordance with the usual procedure, the Cheshire authority's proposal to cease to maintain HMS "Conway" was duly considered along with the objections to the proposal. Here I acknowledge that the objections to the pro posal that were received came from every corner of the United Kingdom and many from "old Conways" living abroad. There was no doubt that the type of education they had received was very highly regarded, as were the traditions and discipline of HMS "Conway".

However, my right hon. Friend announced on 10th October this year that, having taken account of the objections to the proposal and of the points made in favour of continuing the school, she had decided on balance to approve the local education authority's proposal to cease to maintain the school. In doing that, my right hon. Friend took careful note of the economic and educational considerations put forward by the local authority.

I must comment about those considerations, First, on the question of the size of the roll, the total complement of places at the school is 210. There had been a steady decline since 1969, and by 1972 the figure was down to 167. I know my hon. and gallant Friend said that about 800 boys applied for entry in that year, but we must face the fact, first, that many of these boys would not be sponsored by their local education authorities and, secondly, that for many of them the standards of "Conway" were too high. These are the standards which "Conway" no doubt rightly set down itself, but the boys were very largely not academically capable of undertaking the courses that were offered.

The decline in the roll has come to mean that the school is very small in relation to its age range of 13 to 18. The school's inability to recruit an adequate number of pupils capable of benefiting from the education offered has meant that from July 1968, when the school became voluntary-aided, to the present date, the authority has sustained a loss of some £242,534, which has been a heavy extra burden on the Cheshire rate fund.

Capt. Elliot

A good many tens of thousands of pounds of that money were depreciation costs, and Cheshire has been using the buildings for its own purposes, and so on.

Mr. Raison

On top of that, however, the authority has had to bear these costs and to bear the fees for the authorities which have not been willing to pay them.

But this was not the only problem which had to be faced. Another problem was that "Conway" boys had in the past, as I understand it, had a considerable advantage in terms of remission of sea service training, but in a sense the other forms of training had caught up with this and this advantage had disappeared.

In addition, there has been a tendency for pupils to seek sixth-form courses leading to university or other further education institutions. The report of the Rochdale Committee of Inquiry questioned the wisdom of beginning serious vocational training before the age of 16 on the ground that a longer and better general education was needed for every child. This is a trend which is widespread in education and is not specific to this area.

There is also the problem that there seems to be an increasing preference for national qualifications rather than for the "Conway" certificate. Therefore, I ask my hon. and gallant Friend to believe that at least there are serious reasons why this decline in the numbers of pupils at "HMS Conway" has taken place.

The question is, what happens now? The difficulty is clear. The Conway Cadet School Company, which provided the premises in which the school is conducted, has been registered as a charity. The company has an interest in the premises of the school by way of a 999-year sub-lease from the Cheshire County Council but, being without endowment, is not in a position to conduct an independent school, nor is there any prospect of a buyer being found for HMS "Conway".

Towards the end of his speech my hon. and gallant Friend came up with the proposal that there might be an appeal with a view to setting up the school on an independent basis. He asked how the Department would react to the legal operation entailed and to the financial side. We would certainly be willing to help with advice on the procedure by which the operation could take place. We have no objection in principle to the notion that HMS "Conway" should go it alone or stand on her own feet. What I cannot do from this Dispatch Box is to offer the second undertaking, that of providing financial support for the scheme. I am aware that my hon. and gallant Friend will be disappointed by that answer, but I cannot go beyond it.

Captain Elliot

My hon. Friend says that he cannot offer that undertaking from the Dispatch Box. I appreciate that, but perhaps the matter can be looked into.

Mr. Raison

I must be very chary ; I cannot honestly arouse hopes in my hon. and gallant Friend's breast on this score, and it would be misleading of me to do so.

If it is not possible for HMS "Conway" to go independent, that does not mean that the premises come to the end of their useful life. The Cheshire education authority would hold the "Conway" buildings for residential education purposes and preserve the name and some of the traditions of HMS "Conway". That would be useful, but I will not seek to persuade my hon. and gallant Friend that it is an adequate substitute from his point of view for something about which he and many other people feel very deeply.

The passing of HMS "Conway", if it comes about, will be a sad thing, but the difficulties which have cropped up seem to me virtually insoluble.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past One o'clock.