§ 3.15 p.m.
§ LORD BLAKE rose to draw the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the need to attain the highest standards throughout the educational system and to the importance of strengthening parental rights in education; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It may not seem controversial to draw attention to the need for the highest standards in education or even to draw attention to the importance of strengthening parental rights. Perhaps it is a little like saying that one is against sin or in favour of virtue. Who is not—or, at any rate, who would say that he is not? But the matter is not quite as simple as it seems. The highest standards are not necessarily the only objective which an educational system might pursue. I mean by the attainment of the highest standards the objective of realising the full potential achievement of which every boy or girl is capable, not only in terms of acquiring knowledge and learning but also, and no less important, the desire to go on acquiring knowledge and to go on learning. That is not, however, the only objective which an educational system might have. Education could be conceived as a means of inculcating a particular ideology and there are many countries and many times, including the present, which have done just this. It could be used also to create a particular form of society—" social engineering" is the expression which is sometimes used. It can have the conscious purpose of creating a greater degree of equality between classes and individuals. Alternatively, it can be used to produce a greater degree of separation—a conscious class or racial hierarchy. And it has been used for that purpose,
§ My Lords, I should make it clear where I stand in this matter and where I think most noble Lords stand on this side of the House. We do not believe in the inculcation of an ideology; nor do we believe in social engineering. We do not consider that education should be consciously and deliberately aimed at producing a hierarchical élitist society, nor 555 should it be aimed at producing an egalitarian society. To vary the famous Marxist phrase, my belief is that the purpose of education and one of the objects of education is" to each according to his ability". Let me emphasise that this does not mean giving to the cleverest child the most attention and the maximum share of resources. I am strongly in favour of devoting resources to disadvantaged areas and, in any area, to backward and disadvantaged children. Indeed, my right honourable friend Mrs. Thatcher did just this when she was in Office, particularly in the field of nursery schools. But a desire to help the handicapped and the disadvantaged should not mean neglecting the special needs of those who are very clever, very talented or otherwise abnormally bright. A system of education which in the name of equality allows that category, upon whom so much of the future of our country depends, to become bored, listless and fed up is one that I think should be strongly opposed.
§ My Lords, I suspect that there is a difference of emphasis between the outlook of noble Lords on this side of the House and the outlook of noble Lords who support the Government. I think that noble Lords opposite give priority to equality. At least, that is one of the principal arguments in favour of a universal pattern of non-selective schools. I think I am right in saying that on this side of the House we do not regard equality as the sole or overriding objective of education. If we had one, our slogan would be "quality rather than equality". We should not be prepared under any circumstances to sacrifice the promotion and preservation of the very highest educational values.
§ It is this difference of emphasis which makes it impossible to take education out of politics. Many people sigh nostalgically for an era when education was non-political. No such golden age has ever existed. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, who knows much more about the history of education than I do, would, I think, agree that, from at least 1870 when compulsory universal education was first enacted, education has always been a matter of political controversy—often virulent and very highly charged, just as religion had been two centuries earlier, 556 and, I think, rather for the same reason. In a religious age, religion of the right kind was the path to salvation. In a secular age, education often seems to be considered in the same light.
§ Holding as we do, then, a different view of the function of education from those noble Lords who support the Government, we cannot accept—at least, I certainly cannot accept—the wisdom of Circular No. 4 of 1974. It seeks to impose a system which must be regarded as non-proven. Conservatives are not "anti-comprehensive". If proof of this were needed, look at the number of Conservative local education authorities which have adopted the system. What we are against is the imposition from the centre upon local education authorities all over the country of a system which has never been subjected to the kind of inquiry which is normally made when great changes are in contemplation. It may be that the elimination of selection, the creation of very large school units and the consequential absence of parental choice are the right answers, but it may also be that they are not. We believe that local education authorities should be free to choose their own system and that it is wrong to use the financial weapon to coerce them. Education is one of the most important functions devolved upon local government. At a time when the whole local government system has been recast in order to strengthen local autonomy, it seems ironical to assert central authority in this way in such an important area.
§ I welcome the announcement by my honourable friend Mr. St. John Stevas that the next Conservative Government will withdraw Circular 4/74. I also welcome the announcement made in to-day's Press that they will set up a high level committee of inquiry under an impartial chairman to investigate the achievements of the comprehensive schools. Of course I am aware of the argument that a comprehensive system can be proved to work only if it is universal, and that the very existence of selective schools does not give it a fair chance. An experiment which can be proved only by such a drastic and irreversible process requires an act of faith which I personally would not be prepared to make, particularly at the cost, as it may be, of educational values over the short to medium-term, whatever the long-term consequences might be.557
§ In any case, even if selective schools disappear entirely from the State system, there remain the independent schools, including the direct grant schools. Apart from such considerations as liberty and parental rights in a free society, I assume that expense alone would inhibit any move to abolish these. It has been reckoned that the abolition of the private sector of education would cost the Government, in terms of replacing it from the public sector, the order of £125 million a year at 1973 prices—a figure which any educational budget might jib at.
§ But of course the case for preserving the private sector is not financial alone. I regard its existence as an essential part of the attainment of high academic standards. I know the argument of social justice, and I do not deny that the option to use private education is limited by the purse. I should prefer to see parental choice more widely extended over the whole maintained system, than to see what little choice there is at present whittled away further. Social justice is not the sole criterion of policy. When it conflicts with diversity, variety, academic excellence and, above all, with liberty, I do not think social justice should necessarily prevail.
The independent schools are not just a matter of a few famous establishments that are well-known, such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester but a large number of small schools, also, which serve all sorts of purposes. Something like one million parents are reckoned to make use of them; an ever-changing minority—a minority, it is true, but a not unimportant one. I strongly support the continued existence of the independent and direct grant schools, and I think it is reasonable to ask the Government where they stand on this question. The attitude of Labour spokesmen on this subject in the past has too often been characterised by a line from Alexander Pope:
Willing to wound and yet afraid to strike.
§ I would strongly deprecate any attempt to alter the charitable status of the independent schools. I would be no less opposed to any move to "comprehen-sivise"—if I may use that expression—the direct grant schools. These provide a valuable "social mix", quite apart from their high academic standards, for they enable intelligent children from any 558 class in the community to obtain a place at a low cost, or no cost at all, to their parents. If the direct grant were removed the majority of those schools would almost certainly go independent. They would do so reluctantly and they would regret it, but they would do it. This would have the effect of widening even further the gap between the maintained and the private sectors of education. I would far rather see the direct grant list extended, and the obvious candidates if this were done would be some of the voluntary aided schools.
§ There is much evidence of a rising ground-swell of parental discontent within the maintained sector. An inquiry undertaken last year by the organ called Social Trends—a sort of Gallup Poll—found that families were in general surprisingly contented with their lives and prospects, with one notable exception—their children's education. On this subject there was widespread anxiety and dissatisfaction. One has only to read some of the accounts of violence, increasing truancy and indiscipline in certain schools and certain areas to feel that this acute anxiety has at least some basis, even though one should of course beware of exaggerating or assuming that the episodes which are concentrated upon by the mass media are necessarily typical of the system as a whole. Of course they are not.
§ It is not only discipline that is worrying a great many parents. There is also the content of what is being taught. A disturbing amount of virtual illiteracy and innumeracy must cause one to wonder whether children are everywhere being grounded as one always assumes they should be, in those simple subjects that we tend to take for granted—"the three Rs". I am not so naïve as to imagine that these problems will be solved by withdrawing Circular 4/74. They pre-date the arrival of comprehensive schools, though it is perhaps fair to add that the arrival of non-selective schools has not in any way diminished them—or not so far.
§ Some of these disciplinary problems may be connected with the raising of the school leaving age to 16, and a good many people think that this is so. This whole subject was ventilated two days ago in another place and I do not want to go over it again. The raising of the 559 school leaving age was done in the name of egalitarianism. If—and I emphasise the word "if"—the effect of a minority who bitterly resent being at school at all is to disrupt the studies of those who want to stay on and profit by their extra year or years, this will turn out to be a very bad and expensive form of egalitarianism. But the experience of one year is too short a time to judge the question of the raising of the school leaving age. I would not advocate a reversal of that policy.
§ What I would hope for is, perhaps, a greater flexibility over the actual dates at which children leave school. For example, is there anything to be said for their remaining at school for a month or two after they have taken the G.C.E. or C.S.E.? I should have thought there was a lot to be said for their leaving then. I should also like to see certain types of apprenticeship and, certainly, recruitment to the Armed Services, which surely involve continued education counting for this purpose. I believe that the Secretary of State is looking into these aspects.
§ There are two important ways in which I believe the situation can be improved and some of the current parental discontent removed. First, I should like to see parental choice enlarged and parental participation increased. It must surely be common ground among all political Parties that the right to educate their children belongs to parents and that they only delegate that right to local educational authorities, headmasters and education officers. Too often in the past there have been officers at any rate of local education authorities, who have tended to brush aside parents as irrelevant nuisances—and, of course, from the point of view of a hard-working official, they very often are just that. However, from their own point of view parents are concerning themselves with one of the most important and vital areas of their family lives.
§ I should like to see parental choice defended; not merely choice, which is often unreal, between comprehensive and selective schools, but between different types of comprehensive schools—streamed or unstreamed, single sex or coeducational, religious or non-denominational. I realise that the system of large comprehensives combined with rigid zoning makes such a choice an 560 impossibility. It is for that reason as well as for others, that I should like to see these vast factory-like schools broken down into smaller units. There are many reasons for such a policy, but to make parental choice something of a reality would be wonderful. Perhaps more important in practice is the matter of parental choice and involvement over the various options that arise for a child within a school. This point is often forgotten.
§ The parental home is still the most important formative influence on children, and so parental knowledge of what a school is doing, and what choices are open, is vital. It is most important that parents should have this necessary information. I believe that one way of involving parents would be for them to participate in the actual governing of the school. I should like to see a system in which a proportion of governors—it is arguable what proportion—are elected by all parents of children currently at the school from parents of children at the school. I believe that this would not only allay much anxiety but would also be good for the schools themselves and for the pupils.
§ My second point is the need for a suitable advance in the status and pay of the teaching profession. The great majority of teachers do a splendid job, often in difficult conditions, but they will not continue doing so if they become a financially depressed class. There is ample evidence that the relative position of schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, with regard to the rate of earnings of manual workers and to other non-manual workers, has markedly deteriorated. I do not want to bore your Lordships with statistics, but may I give one group? From September, 1968, to April, 1973, the average earnings of teachers rose, for men by 44 per cent., for women by 38 per cent. The figures for non-manual workers were 54 per cent. and 58 per cent. respectively, and for manual workers 63 per cent. and 75 per cent. It is not surprising that the dropout rate is high. I have read—and I have written in advance to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, to ask whether or not she can confirm this—that one in three men and one in five women leave the profession within five years, having been trained at a cost, in 1973 prices, of the order of £3,000 to £4,000. I have also read that the shortage in certain subjects is so 561 acute that, to take an example, half the teaching in mathematics of the 11 to 16 year olds is done by people who are not really qualified for that purpose.
§ My Lords, it is good to know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who has taken his seat to-day, and whose presence in your Lordships' House will be welcomed on all sides, is to undertake an inquiry into teachers' pay. Whatever he recommends will cost money. I hope that the opportunity will be taken to consider two possibilities: the re-structuring of salaries so as to give a proper career pattern, and—a rather heretical suggestion—a smaller but much better paid profession, with special inducements for specialists in the subjects in which there is a shortage. I am not myself convinced that smaller classes are the panacea they are sometimes said to be. I think this is at least an arguable point and one which might be looked into.
§ My Lords, along with these improvements I suggest that close attention should be paid to what is actually being taught in teacher training colleges. For example, discipline is becoming a really difficult problem. How much guidance do teachers get, and to what extent are the techniques of teaching the elementary arts of reading and writing imparted to all teachers. Finally, there were some valuable suggestions in the James Report on teacher training. Perhaps I can ask the noble Baroness when she replies to say what is happening about the implementation of that Report. It may be inattention on my part, but I have not heard or seen anything about it for a long time.
§ My Lords, I have deliberately concentrated on schools. Before I sit down I should like to say something very briefly about higher education. My view is that there should be no major expansion in this field for the time being. In a world of limited resources there are matters which take priority. Having said that, I consider, of course, that universities should remain centres of academic excellence. I am certainly against comprehensive universities, or "polyversities", or whatever the expression is. If they are to remain centres of academic excellence there must be some limit to the financial cuts which they can be expected to sustain. I am quite sure that these have gone too far, and further than was really intended.562
§ This is not a Party point at all; my criticism, in fact, is directed at the previous Government not at this Government. What happened was that supplementation for inflation during 1973, as regards all expenditure other than academically related salaries, was cut out altogether. This was drastic enough, but it appears—I say that it appears—from the figures that the Government assumed, when this was announced just before Christmas, that inflation during 1973 had been running at 7 per cent. whereas, in fact, it has been running at over 10 per cent. This has meant much more drastic cuts than the Government of the day expected. I have not given the noble Baroness notice of this question, but I would ask her to look into that matter if! she could, and perhaps I might write to her about it. It is a complicated and technical question which it is difficult to expound here.
My Lords, there is a gratifyingly large number of speakers on the list to-day—far more distinguished people than myself. I make no apology for having raised the matter. I am not an alarmist, I do not think education is on the point of collapse, and I recognise that highly publicised incidents are not necessarily typical. However, education is immensely important, even if its problems do not have the immediacy of some others such as inflation. There is certainly no cause for complacency. Perhaps I could end with two quotations from Disraeli: He said:
The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity.
Again on another occasion he said:
Upon the education of this country the fate of this country depends.
§ My Lords, it is because I believe that both of these sayings are profoundly true that I beg to move for Papers.
§ LORD DAVIES OF LEEK
My Lords, before the noble Lord finishes his interesting speech, with much of which I agree (he was blaming the teachers about discipline) may I ask whether he would look into that matter in a little more depth? Magistrates' courts and others deal with truancy as though they were dealing with blackberry gathering rather than the reality of truancy. Teachers need the support both of parents and the magistrates' courts if there is to be proper teaching.
§ LORD BLAKE
My Lords, I have finished my speech, but I agree with what the noble Lord has said. I think there is much truth in that.