Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1970 Jul 8 We
Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Debate on the Address - Education]

Document type: speeches
Document kind: House of Commons Intervention
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [803/716-22]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1759-1816. MT intervened at c721.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2166
Themes: -
[column 716]

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Hitchin)

May I begin my remarks from the back benches, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by congratulating you on your presiding over this debate and saying what great pleasure it gives to some of my feminine colleagues to see you there. [column 717]

May I also congratulate two outstanding maiden speakers, both of whom revealed a great grasp of the subject we are discussing. The hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand), in what I might describe as a series of constructive confessions, may have given a little too much away to the representatives of the Department opposite; I only trust that they closed their ears at the proper moments. It is never easy to follow the trail blazed by a great man, but, having heard his speech, I am sure that most of us are confident that he will succeed better than most in doing so.

I compliment the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) on his speech. Many of us know him already as a distinguished contributor to debates on the social sciences, not least on education. He is perhaps setting himself almost too great a task in representing a constituency which was single-handedly responsible for the creation of the British Empire, but we are sure that if anybody can do it, he can. His was an extremely knowledgeable and well-informed speech on education, and we shall look forward to hearing him again on this subject.

I remind the House of what the Prime Minister said in speaking to the Motion in reply to the gracious Speech:

“Both in housing and in education we are restoring freedom of choice to the individual.”

I emphasise the words “to the individual” .

“… the Secretary of State for Education has already taken action to give local authorities in England and Wales more freedom to take their own decisions and we shall introduce legislation to deal with this matter in Scotland.” —[Official Report, 2nd July, 1970; Vol. 803, c. 92.]

At least for some of us on this side of the House the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the local authority are not necessarily synonymous concepts. A local authority is normally representative of that one-third to one-quarter of the people who actually elect it. It consists largely of people who no longer have the intense concern for the education and future of children that parents have. Although no one who has served in the Department of Education and Science can do other than recognise the legitimate interests of local authorities in education, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends feel that [column 718]there are two other groups with at least as great, a stake, if not a greater stake, in the education of children. One of these groups is the teachers, whom the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Education and Science did not see fit to consult on a major change in education. The other group is the parents, not to speak of the children themselves. It is these other groups that we wish to put forward in talking about the freedom of individual choice. One can make a choice first by an imposed system, which is basically what selection is all about, whether or not it embodies the 11-plus examination. It is an imposed system because in allowing freedom of choice to a minority it rules out freedom of choice to the majority, and this is our main objection to it. Secondly, there is the freedom of choice which can be satisfied by the options offered by the schools.

I protest strongly about the assertions that have been made that the aim of my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Education and Science was for a dogmatic uniformity of education. As he said, there are many choices in terms of types of comprehensive education, and, at least as important, a comprehensive school should offer a wide range of options to the children within it in terms of the courses they follow and, above all, in terms of the delaying of any narrowing of specialisation or narrowing of selection of the kind that the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Longden) claimed he wanted to see.

In addition to this, and quite apart from the fact that the so-called freedom of choice that has been spoken about extensively on the opposite benches is essentially a phrase which stands for nothing of the kind, it is also fair and right to say that a grammar school must necessarily and logically imply the existence of a non-grammar school, and a non-grammar school is not, and cannot be, the same thing as a comprehensive school. It is really a form of semantic “double-think” that the late George Orwell so rightly condemned to talk about a comprehensive school existing side by side with a grammar school. A “creamed” comprehensive school is no longer a comprehensive school. The hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to the situation faced [column 719]by the I.L.E.A. in terms of very small sixth forms. He will know even better than I that most of the comprehensive schools he was talking about were existing side by side with grammar schools and other types of selective schools.

I do not doubt the genuine concern of the right hon. Lady to try to do her best by education, but I should like to ask two questions to which I hope her hon. Friend will feel able to reply in winding-up. Does she believe it right that the per capita expenditure on each child in what she calls a comprehensive school should be the same as in a grammar school? One of the deep divisions of privilege within our society is that those children who most need education have always had the least spent on them. One of the aims of the comprehensive school was to escape from this strange division between what as a society we saw fit to spend respectively on the grammar school child and the secondary modern child. If she means what she says, it follows by implication that the expenditure on the child in the comprehensive school, the grammar school and the secondary modern school must be identical at least up to compulsory school leaving age.

The right hon. Lady referred to the possibility of running together comprehensive and grammar schools not just within different authorities in the same county but within the same authority. I want to refer briefly to the difficulties of doing so within different authorities in the same county. My right hon. Friend has already referred to the problems arising from mobility which the right hon. Lady, as an ex-shadow spokesman for the Treasury, will know very well is something which almost all economists are anxious to encourage. I think that serious mobility problems will arise from totally different systems in different authority areas.

I very much regret the decision of the right hon. Lady not to consult the teachers, although I respect her honesty in saying that they would not have changed her mind on the main point, but she might at least have consulted them on the detail of the circular.

The problem of the mobility of teachers also arises. The teacher, be he right or [column 720]wrong, who is wedded—and the bulk of them are—to the comprehensive concept will be reluctant to serve in a system which he or she believes to be doomed. The right hon. Lady will face considerable difficulties in areas such as the Midlands, which are already seriously under quota, in attracting teachers away from authorities which have already embarked on a comprehensive system.

A great complication which the right hon. Lady and her hon. Friend will have to settle is the problem of the system of examinations at secondary level. We have already seen the complications that have arisen from the attempt to reform the system of secondary examinations. I suspect that if we try to run side by side forms of examination which suit the comprehensive system, the non-academic sixth, the academic sixth and the selective system we shall be in the gravest possible difficulties at the age of 16 and above.

In dealing with the problem of running comprehensive and grammar schools side by side in the same authority areas I wish to put two points. First, the hon. Member for Aylesbury and several other speakers have referred to the problem of having an adequate size of fifth and sixth forms in a small comprehensive school, although it is fair to point out to the hon. Member for Aylesbury that the trend has been towards small schools and away from very large schools of the kind he described. If anything above 5 or 6 per cent. of the age group are creamed off into a grammar school, in order to have an adequate fifth or sixth form one needs a very much larger comprehensive school. The Minister will face an inescapable dilemma; namely, of either severely reducing the opportunities and range of choice for children in the so-called comprehensive schools which will be creamed, or having schools so large that they will run directly against the philosophy which she has described as the ideal size for the school. I do not see how the right hon. Lady can find any easy way out of this dilemma.

There is a further point which touches the confidence of teachers in a system of comprehensive schools and grammar schools side by side. One of the real problems faced by the Labour Government, which is a problem the right hon. Lady and her colleagues will also have to face, is the serious shortage of specialist [column 721]teachers in certain disciplines, of which science and mathematics are the two most serious shortage areas. I fear that her policy will mean that those scarce specialist teachers in the authorities which try to run comprehensive schools and grammar schools side by side are bound to be captured wholly for the grammar schools, with the resultant effect of serious damage to the opportunities available to those in the comprehensive schools.

Since the right hon. Lady looks confused, I will try to clarify what I want to say. The problem is that one either has to use specialist teachers very expensively and uneconomically with small sixth forms in small, creamed comprehensives, or else the range will have to be so narrow that the choice of the word “comprehensive” becomes even more of a mockery than it is already in the right hon. Lady's mind.

Mrs. Thatcher

If I looked puzzled, it was only because I felt that what the hon. Lady said about that matter was the reverse of what she said a little earlier. Previously she said that it would be difficult to attract teachers from a comprehensive to a grammar school system. [Hon. Members: “No.” ] That is what I understood her to say. Then she said that it would be difficult to get good teachers from the grammar schools to the comprehensives.

Mrs. Williams

Perhaps I could clear up the paradox. I believe that it will be difficult to get teachers from the comprehensive to the grammar school system. In those authorities which run grammar and comprehensives side by side, it will be even more difficult to move those teachers from the selective system to comprehensives. I do not think there is any contradiction in this argument.

I should like to say a word about primary education and then turn to higher education, which is a subject not mentioned in the Gracious Speech. The Gracious Speech said, as we expected it to say, that there should be a greater priority for primary education. But the most massive expansion in the provision of primary education by any Government in this country's history took place during the period of office of the last Government when there was an expansion of no less than 160 per cent. in the places [column 722]supplied. We cannot talk about improving primary schools unless we accept that the consequences of doing so will be felt throughout secondary and also higher education.

On the matter of higher education, I believe that one of the greatest difficulties the right hon. Lady will face—and she rightly talked about the need for more resources in education—will be the extreme problem of getting adequate resources to meet the expectations that now exist as a result of the democratisation of educational opportunities at the highest educational level. I would make the plea that I hope that she and the Government will not abandon the attempt to try to expand those opportunities even if it means radical suggestions having to be made to those who may find them uncomfortable. I trust she will not take the easy way of seeking a rapid increase in the standard of entry required. This will lead us into a direct conflict between the legitimate expectation of parents and students in the sort of society we want to see created regardless of party.

I conclude by referring to remarks made by the Prime Minister in a recent speech. He then expressed his philosophy, which he described as “an impossible dream” , in the following way:

“I have always had in my mind's eye a vision about the people of this country. I have wanted to see them look up instead of always looking down. One nation in which the young know they may have their fair share of the opportunities and the elderly know that they may have their fair share of the rewards. One nation knowing its own mind, governing by degrees and not by decrees.”

I do not doubt the Prime Minister's sincerity, but the Guardian commented “It may be that Mr. Heath wanted one nation whereas Mrs. Thatcher is prepared to accept two” . It seems clear that the Prime Minister may be seeking one nation, but that because education by its nature reflects the society of which it is a part, the decision that the right hon. Lady has now taken is a decision to allow that society to reflect a division in education which is neither necessary nor desired by the bulk of the people.