§ The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about secondary education in the Metropolitan District of Tameside.
1892 On 19th March 1975 the local education authority submitted to my predecessor proposals under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944. These proposals provided for changes in the character of all its county secondary grammar and secondary modern schools in September 1976 in such a way as to end selection by ability and aptitude and to establish a comprehensive system of secondary education. I approved the proposals on 11th November 1975. Since that date extensive preparations have been made to put the proposals into effect. Much progress has been made in the staffing of the proposed comprehensive schools; teachers have been planning courses for them; building work directly related to changes in the character of some schools has been put in hand; and over 3,000 children due to transfer from primary schools this year have been allocated—without reference to ability or aptitude and largely by reference to parental choice—to secondary schools.
At a meeting on 9th June the authority's representatives told me that the council had on 8th June resolved to continue the 21 schools which were the subject of the proposals approved under Section 13 the five grammar schools as "11–18 academic high schools", and the remainder as "11–16 secondary schools", and accordingly to modify the arrangements already made for the allocation of pupils to secondary schools for the coming year. Their reasons for these proposals were set out in a letter from the chairman of the education committee dated 7th June and the proposals themselves were explained in detail by the authority's representatives at the meeting.
I have given the most careful consideration to the representations made to me. I am satisfied that the authority is proposing to act unreasonably with respect to the exercise of its functions under the Education Acts regarding the provision of secondary education for its area. A change of plan at this stage of the year, designed to come into effect less than three months later, must in my opinion give rise to considerable difficulties. The authority's revised proposals confront the parents of children due to transfer in September with the dilemma of either adhering to secondary school allocations for their children which they may no longer regard as appropriate, or else submitting 1893 to an improvised selection procedure, the precise form of which, I understand, has even now not been settled, carried out in circumstances, and under a timetable, which raise substantial doubts about its educational validity. In addition the change of plan at this time in the educational year threatens to give rise to practical difficulties in relation to the staffing of the schools already made and the construction of buildings for the new comprehensive schools and to create a degree of confusion and uncertainty which could impair the efficient working of the schools.
I am sure the House will agree that the present uncertainty must be removed without delay. In the exercise of my powers under Section 68 of the Education Act 1944, I have to-day directed the authority to give effect to the proposals which I approved on 11th November 1975 and accordingly to implement the arrangements previously made for the allocation of pupils to secondary schools for the coming schools year on a non-selective basis and to make such other provision relating to the appointment of staff to school premises and other matters as is required to give effect to the proposals. I am circulating in the Official Report the text of the letter containing my direction.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Tameside Council in acting as it has done has been fulfilling an express election promise not to proceed with the implementation of the comprehensive school plans of its predecessor and to preserve certain selective schools? The Secretary of State must surely be aware that, far from acting unreasonably, the council put forward a compromise scheme so that in the allocation of school places no child of the 3,000 to whom he referred need be disturbed unless the parents of the child so wished to take advantage of the 240 extra grammar school places to be made available.
Far from the council acting unreasonably, it has acted reasonably, constitutionally and prudently. The Secretary of State is intervening in this matter not for educational but for political reasons, using administrative powers to frustrate the will of the people as expressed through the ballot box and taking a further step down the road to the Iron Curtain State which the Leader of the Opposition rightly accused the Government of doing on Wednesday.
§ Mr. Mulley
I was not here at the time, but I doubt very much that the House inserted Section 68 in the 1944 Act without intending it to be used in appropriate cases. I have used the section six times in the year I have been in office. I get letters almost daily, many from Opposition Members, asking me to use my powers under the section to overrule local education authorities—the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has done that on several occasions—and to interfere with the allocation of school places.
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that the allocations made under the previous scheme would no longer necessarily appeal to parents because their children would be going to secondary modern schools, which are vastly different from the comprehensive schools to which allocations were made. More than 96 per cent. of parents had their first or second choice, and 88 per cent. of parents had their first choice under the scheme put forward by the previous Labour-controlled authority. The only criticism made of the Labour-controlled authority was that in sending out the allocations it was two or three days later this year than it had been in previous years.
There is also still some uncertainty about the sixth forms.
The view I formed was that in the short time involved—less than six weeks —before the end of the school term there was at least a possibility that there might not be a tidy school system ready by September, and that it might not be possible to implement the plans, which were put in the barest outline to the council last Tuesday in time for the opening of the schools next September.
§ Mr. MacFarquhar
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be greeted with great pleasure by hon. Members on the Government Benches in that he has set aside a totally irresponsible election promise which could only have resulted in tremendous confusion for schools, teachers and students, as the 1895 councillors when they put this plan forward at the election must have known? Having got this matter out of the way, will the Secretary of State persuade his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to press ahead with business on the Education Bill on which we are anxious to vote?
§ Mr. Mulley
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his support on other matters which are before the House. I am not concerned with whether I cause pleasure or otherwise on either side of the House. I am trying to carry out as conscientiously and as well as I can the statutory duties placed upon me by the 1944 Act, and to ensure that the local authority is in a position to discharge its responsibilities.
§ Mr. Montgomery
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether he thinks there is any point in continuing to hold local elections? By his action he is deliberately preventing the implementation of the wishes of Tameside electors. A firm pledge was given but now, because of the dictatorial attitude adopted by the Secretary of State, the wishes of the electors are being completely ignored.
Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the actions of the teachers' unions and members of NALGO in that area, who did everything they could to stop letters going out to the parents of the children concerned?
Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the report in today's Daily Mail that he and his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House have had a great row about this? Will he take it from me that we are sorry that he won this battle and the Leader of the House lost it?
§ Mr. Mulley
If the last colourful remarks made by the hon. Gentleman had any resemblance to the truth, I should be surprised. I never have battles with the Leader of the House and we have no differences at all. If the hon. Gentleman's judgment of the situation in Tame-side is derived from the same source as his last remark, I can understand why he is not totally in the picture.
I see no reason why the holding of local elections should not continue. I 1896 could wish the local government structure to be otherwise, but the hon. Gentleman has a responsibility for the present structure, which I have not. It is absurd to suggest that the holding of local elections is put into jeopardy because an election promise written in a manifesto is not carried out. My concern is that although I got in touch with the council within a week of the election asking what its intentions were—because I had representations from many quarters—it took the council over a month——
§ Mr. Mulley
I wrote to the council on 11th May. The hon. Gentleman's recollection seems to be faulty. I took the advice of his hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) to acquaint myself of the workings of the Soviet higher education system. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman's views have not percolated there. The Russians quite understood when I said that I had to cut my visit short so that I could be here to vote to prevent the possibility of the election of a Government in which the hon. Member for Chelmsford might be a Minister. I did not discuss the Tameside issue with the Russians. My answer to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) is that he should acquaint himself more with the facts. That is what I have done, and I have done nothing other than that.
§ Mr. Thorpe
Is the Secretary of State aware that it is an extremely difficult judgment to ensure that elected councillors carry out the pledges on which they are elected weighed against the welfare and the interests of the children concerned? If there is a conflict between those two considerations, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the welfare of the children must prevail? Does he agree that a period of three months is totally inadequate for a complete reversal of the plans which have been laid? For those reasons the right hon. Gentleman should be supported in his action. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept—as I hope everyone who is liberally minded accepts—that the welfare of the children should prevail? If there is now to be a long drawn out appeals procedure in the High Court, would not 1897 that be even further against the interests of the pupils involved?
§ Mr. Mulley
I am in no position to determine whether there will be any legal proceedings. I thought it reasonable to take two days before coming to a view. I agreed with the councillors that my views would be communicated at the earliest possible date, and this is the earliest possible time. I regret having to make a statement in the House on a Friday, but I had to do so because of the abnormal situation. I have been motivated throughout by my duty under the 1944 Act and the welfare of the children. I have acted on that basis and no other.
§ Mr. Cryer
Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of this side of the House on adhering to his original decision of 11th November? Will he accept also that his decision will be greeted with great pleasure by the parents and teachers of children on Tameside?
Will my tight hon. Friend comment on the fact that the Tory manifesto in no way made it clear that the Tories intended to wreck the education system in this way? They promised to put plans of their education proposals before the election, but that never materialised.
Would my right hon. Friend also accept that in three parliamentary divisions which cover the relevant areas the three Labour Members of Parliament had an overall majority of 30,000 and that they were committed to a policy of comprehensive education? That was on a poll of 80 per cent. That was by comparison with the Tories, who, on a 35 per cent. turnout, had a majority of 19 and yet did not even include the details of their education plans in their manifesto as they promised.
§ Mr. Mulley
I believe that it is accurate to say that. Indeed, this last point was confirmed by two councillors—the leader of the council and the chairman of the education committee, who I saw. I should like to place it on record that they were most frank and free in explaining their intention and the difficulties that they had encountered. They said that they had not set out in any way how they proposed to implement the broad policy plank on which they stood—namely, that they wanted to avoid comprehensive education.
1898 My consideration was that, as it had taken them nearly six weeks to get an outline of what they proposed to do, it seemed to me to be inconceivable that in the remaining six weeks of the term they could give practical effect to their proposals. There were also substantial staffing problems. There was also the point about contracts which they had made with teachers for employment under the new system. If they had honoured the contracts and paid teachers more for doing the same job, they would have been in breach of the pay policy. The Government have made it clear that we shall not support local authorities that do not adhere to the voluntary pay policy.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Is the Sectary of State aware that some of us believe that his decision does a grave disservice to education, let alone to democracy? Is he aware that members of his own party in the area have stated publicly that they were forced to vote Conservative at the last local elections to ensure the continuation of the grammar schools in the area and a good standard of education? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there are those of us on this side of the House who will urge the Tameside councillors and the majority on that council to use every device in their power to overturn the Secretary of State's decision, which we believe is very misguided?
§ Mr. Mulley
I am not aware of what motivates particular individuals when they go to the polling booth. Under the system of the secret ballot, I am not able to know how an individual votes, and I do not know how the hon. Member is able to know.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point that I was aware that whatever decision I took today, whether to implement Section 68 or not to do so, would not be wholly uncontroversial.
§ Mr. Pavitt
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the action on Tameside and the vehemence expressed from the Tory Front Bench arise purely from dogma and doctrinaire attitudes and do not represent the more intelligent part of the Conservative Party such as was manifested by a previous Secretary of State for Education—Lord Boyle?
Will my right hon. Friend look at the way in which parents were circulated 1899 from outside commercial premises and will he say whether that is acceptable and whether it is within the parameters of what is permissible under the Act?
§ Mr. Mulley
All sorts of things seem to have been happening. I rested my decision on the decisions of the authority as determined by the full council—and the first decision by the authority as to its plans was only made on 8th June—and the supplementary information given to me on behalf of the authority by the leader of the council and the chairman of the education committee. I have sought not to take into account some of the rather colourful statements which have been made in the locality.
§ Mr. van Straubenzee
Is it not important to identify as the root cause of the present difficulty the highly controversial decision taken by a dying council, knowing its authority to be ebbing, in the last weeks of its life? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the position now is that the question whether Tame-side has acted unreasonably is justifiable? If proceedings are taken before the courts to decide that question, during the process of those proceedings the Tameside authority would be acting lawfully, pending a legal decision, by proceeding as it is with its present arrangements.
§ Mr. Mulley
It would be unwise of me to offer the House free, and perhaps not very sound, legal advice. It would be for anyone contemplating litigation to make his own arrangements to obtain advice.
Two facts need to be stressed. First, the plans which I approved last November were stated publicly in March 1975. The two-month period was still running at the time of the 1975 local government elections. Those plans were endorsed by the majority on that occasion. The councillors would have been in default of their duty if they had not immediately begun to make arrangements to implement the scheme for which they had sought electoral authority in the preceding year.
I must make it absolutely clear that it has been the practice ever since Tameside has been an education district, as in most education authorities, that around the beginning of May notices of 1900 allocation are sent to parents. The only difference this year was that the notices happened to be, no doubt for good administrative reasons, two or three days later than in previous years.
Therefore, there can be no question at all of the authority, as the hon. Gentleman put it, seeking in its dying days to take these difficult decisions. Although it may be the hon. Gentleman's view that there are many people who have both the courage and the acumen to accept a long time before an election that they will lose, this is an unusual political characteristic. As they lost by only 19 votes, it would have been a surprising judgment if in November they had formed the view that they would lose the election the following May by 19 votes.
§ Mr. Lawson
Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement will have repercussions far beyond Tameside and that it will be seen throughout the country as proof positive that this Government have a total contempt for the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box?
Will the Secretary of State answer this question? Had the thing been precisely reversed, had it been a Labour council elected in May and a Conservative council rejected, and had that Labour council decided in fulfilment of a pledge to abandon policies for selective education, would the right hon. Gentleman have taken this same action under the same section?
§ Mr. Mulley
The answer is "Yes". I would not except any authority to behave in this way in the period between May and the beginning of the new term. This was about the only part of the previous local government arrangements that the Tory Government did not change when it reorganised local government. The period between May and September is too short, in my view. I am fortified in this view by what has been said by a Tory spokesman, not that ordinarily I need to call in aid education experts from amongst the Tories. However, some interesting remarks on this theme were made by the Conservative policy leader of the Inner London Education Authority, warning people about his policy for the next year and making it plain that he would not seek in the period between the election 1901 and September to change his policy; although he reserved his position as to what he might do thereafter.
The short answer is "Yes". There could also be constitutional processes which could not in any event be completed in the time.
§ Mr. Lawrence
Is the Secretary of State aware that many people in the country will not be surprised that a Government who have shown such scant respect for the principles of democracy and constitutional proprieties should have behaved in this dictatorial manner'? Will he explain how he equates the principle of betrayal of the local democratically expressed election results in this manner with the principle which underlay the Clay Cross Bill which was introduced into this Parliament and forced through by a Government whose action they justified as being the will of the local electorate in Clay Cross? Can he deny that this pressure has come from the unions and that it is yet another example of the complete power that the trade union movement has over this Government?
§ Mr. Mulley
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has addressed himself as well as I know he could to the real issues involved. Constitutional principles of a broad character are important and of interest, but they do not provide teachers, school premises and an educational system. It is important that, within the law, local authorities should exercise their discretion in the way that they deem to represent the will of their local people, but they have an overriding responsibility to carry out the efficient discharge of duties placed upon them by Parliament, in this case as long ago as 1944.
§ Mr. Townsend
Is not the Government's handling of my education authority in Bexley another classic case of the Socialist Government's belief that the man in Whitehall invariably knows best and that recently elected local councillors are totally unaware of the needs and desires of the local people and, further, are totally incapable of looking after those needs and desires?
§ Mr. Mulley
As I recall, in the Bexley case the burden of the hon. Gentleman's 1902 complaint is that I declined to intervene. I think that the Bexley councillors wanted me to give a directive to cover some activities of theirs. They were on the other side of this argument, and their complaint was that I had told them that as the law stood it was not a matter for me. It was a question of fees for pupils attending schools outside the public sector. I thought that the complaint was as I have stated it to be. If the Bexley authority wants to talk to me about secondary reorganisation, as I said earlier in the week, I should be happy to meet it.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that this may not be within your powers, but can anything be done to stop highly important and controversial statements of this character from being made on a Friday when, of necessity, very few hon. Members can be here? I received 15 minutes' notice that this statement would be made this morning. Could not this statement have been made at a more reasonable time on Monday?
§ Mr. Mulley
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave an undertaking that I would indicate my decision at the earliest possible moment. We should have wished to give fuller notice to the Opposition in the usual way, but I was advised that the usual channels had been closed and that there were no channels for such communication.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I have not yet had a point of order put to me. I have been very liberal in allowing points of view to be advanced. The arrangement of the business is not my concern.
§ Mr. Montgomery
Yes, Mr. Speaker. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, to discuss the statement made by the Secretary of State——
Following is the letter:
I am directed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science to refer to correspondence between the Department and the Authority beginning with Mr. J. I. Langtry's letter of 11 May which asked whether the Authority intended to implement the secondary reorganisation proposals approved by the Secretary of State on 11 November 1975, and, in the event of the Authority deciding not to implement those in September, for full details of the arrangements proposed for the transfer of pupils to county secondary schools in September. On 19 May the Education Services Committee recommended that the Authority should not implement the approved proposals but made no statement of any alternative arrangements for the transfer of pupils for the coming school year. On 20 May the Authority were invited to discuss the situation with the Secretary of State in the week beginning 24 May, but were unable to do so. The Department accordingly wrote to the Authority again on 26 May asking for a precise and detailed statement of the plans which the Authority hoped to put into effect in September. As a result of that letter, a meeting took place on Wednesday 9 June between the Secretary of State and representatives of the Authority including Councillor Grantham, Leader of the Council, and Councillor Thorpe, Chairman of the Education Services Committee.
The background to the meeting is that on 19 March 1975 the Authority submitted to the Secretary of State proposals under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944. These proposals provided for changes in the character of all their county secondary grammar and modern schools in September 1976 in such a way as to end selection by ability and aptitude and to establish a comprehensive system of secondary education. The Secretary of State approved the proposals on 11 November 1975 Since that date extensive preparations have been made to put the proposals into effect. Much progress has been made in the staffing of the proposed comprehensive schools; teachers have been planning courses for them; building work directly related to changes in the character of some schools has been put in hand; and over 3,000 children due to transfer from primary schools this year have been allocated to secondary schools without reference to ability or aptitude, the former selective processes being no longer appropriate, and largely by reference to parental choice.
At the meeting on 9 June the Authority's representatives informed the Secretary of State that the Council had on 8 June resolved to continue the 21 schools which were the subject of the proposals approved under section 13, the five grammar schools as "11–18 academic high schools" and the remainder as "11–16 secondary schools", and accordingly to modify the arrangements already made for the allocation of pupils to seecondary schools for the coming year. Their reasons for these propo-
sals were set out in a letter from the Chairman of the Education Services Committee dated 7 June and the proposals themselves were explained in detail by the Authority's representatives at the meeting.
The Secretary of State has given the most careful consideration to the representations made to him. He is satisfied that the Authority are proposing to act unreasonably with respect to the exercise of the powers conferred, and the performance of the duties imposed, by and under the Education Acts 1944 to 1976 regarding the provision of secondary education for their area and in particular with respect to their powers and duties (express and implied) under Section 8 and 17 of the Education Act 1944 regarding the admission of pupils to secondary schools on transfer from primary schools at the beginning of the coming school year i.e. on 1 September 1976. A change of plan at this stage of the year, designed to come into effect less than three months later, must in his opinion give rise to considerable difficulties. The Authority's revised proposals confront the parents of children due to transfer in September with the dilemma of either adhering to secondary school allocations for their children which they may no longer regard as appropriate, or else submitting to an improvised selection procedure (the precise form of which the Secretary of State understands, has even now not been settled) carried out in circumstances and under a time table which raise substantial doubts about its educational validity. Furthermore it is clear from the terms of paragraph 10 of the resolution adopted at the Special Council Meeting of 8 June, which were elaborated in the course of the meeting of 9 June by the Authority's representatives, that an abnormally high proportion of pupils might need to be re-allocated to different secondary schools during, or at the end of, the educational year beginning in September 1976. This would impose a further measure of distaurbance on top of the present uncertainty. In addition the change of plan at this time in the educational year threatens to give rise to practical difficulties in relation to the appointments of staff already made and the construction of buildings for the new comprehensive schools and to create a degree of confusion and uncertainty which could impair the efficient working of the schools.
In the exercise of the powers conferred by Section 68 of the Education Act 1944, and vested in him by the Secretary of State for Education and Science Order 1964, the Secretary of State hereby directs the Authority to give effect to the proposals which he approved on 11 November 1975 and accordingly to implement the arrangements previously made for the allocation of pupils to secondary schools for the coming school year on a non selective basis and to make such other provision relating to the staffing of the schools, alterations to school premises and other matters as is required to give effect to the proposals.