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 [803/780-88]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 2105-30. MT intervened at c785.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2988
Themes: -
[column 780]

Mr. Fred Peart (Workington)

First, I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment to her high office and also congratulate her Under-Secretary of State. I wish them both well personally. As one who was a science graduate in another Cabinet, I am delighted that a science graduate is in the Cabinet. It is a recognition, I hope, that one day we shall have more people attached to science in positions of responsibility. I should like to argue and debate that on the subject of education.

I pay tribute to all Members who have made their maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Barry Jones) has a great knowledge of education and speaks as a former National Union of Teachers organiser. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Kenneth Clarke), who spoke eloquently about his Nottingham. I am sure that he, too, will make contributions to the House which will be admired not only by his constituents but by his colleagues.

I also pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand). I have a special affection for Easington, and not only because of my hon. Friend's predecessor. My father was a headmaster there. He was an honorary agent when my hon. Friend's predecessor turned out a former Prime Minister. I am glad that my hon. Friend is here. He also has made his name in education.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), who made a very distinctive contribution. I met him many years ago, and I always thought that one day he would make his appearance in the House. I believe that he will be an independent Conservative in the best sense.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing). I am sorry that I did not hear all his speech. I have a personal link with him, though probably he is not aware of it. I sent my boy, who was an 11-plus success, to the Elliot comprehensive school, where he was a master.

I pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Stokes). I am sorry that I did not hear his speech, but I am sure that it was a good one. [column 781]

I should like immediately to debate with the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran). I always found him refreshing when he was in the House previously. I thought that he was occasionally very reactionary, but he was always forthright and I knew where he stood. I shall return to some of his arguments when I come to the great argument about the future of our secondary education. I assure him that I shall answer him without any rancour, but I hope that I shall answer him forcibly, because I disagree completely with his argument.

I feel as though I, too, am making a maiden speech. Fourteen years ago I made my first speech from this Dispatch Box. It seems a long time ago. It was during a Supply debate on education. The arguments we had then have been mirrored today. We talked then about science and technology, more schools, the building programme, nursery education and reorganisation of comprehensive education. The same arguments have been deployed today, but with different emphasis. No doubt they will be deployed again until there is another change of Administration. The Amendment highlights the different emphasis and attitude that we on the Opposition side have on major matters affecting State education.

I am sorry that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had to go to hospital. We all wish him well, even though we disagree politically. We wish him a speedy recovery. He returned to the hustings yesterday by reading extracts from the Tory manifesto. I will not do that too much. I know where the Tories stand on this, and I agree that the Minister is quite right to say that she is going to fulfil what the Tories said they would do. I make no complaint. The country accepted this, although I believe that if education had been the only issue, there might have been a different story to tell. I cannot believe that the vast majority of the people believe that we should turn back the clock and go back, as the right hon. Lady is doing. On the other hand, I accept that democracy has made its decision and that we must seek to reverse it by persuasion and by trying to convince people in local authority areas in many parts of the country to return Labour representation next May. This [column 782]is important, and I am sure that they will.

But I am not ashamed of our policies when we have been the Administration. The Chancellor of the Exchequer criticised them yesterday, but Labour Governments have a good record in education. This year is the centenary of State education, and for the first time the country is spending more on education than on defence. I am not against defence, but the test of a civilised society is the priority it gives to education. Public expenditure on education has risen from less than £1,400 million in 1963–64 to nearly £2,300 million in 1968–69, and last year, as I have said, it exceeded defence spending for the first time.

We now devote about 6 per cent. of our national output G.N.P. to education compared with less than 4 per cent. of a much smaller G.N.P. a decade ago. I take pride in this. A whole series of measures have been introduced in the period of a Labour Government. We have built more schools and extended higher education. I could continue easily to compare our record with that of our opponents.

Mr. Maude

Oh!

Mr. Peart

The hon. Gentleman represents the élitist concept in education, and he has always done so. I do not complain about it. I admire him for his elegance and influence. I have always thought that one day he might be the Minister of Education in a Tory Administration. I am not sure that he would be as Rightwing as his right hon. Friend. I admire him for his clarity of thought, but I disagree with him. I look back at the record of past Conservative Administrations and all the advice that they were given by a series of Committees—the Crowther Committee, the Albemarle Committee, even the Wolfenden Committee on sport—all of which were ignored by the Tories. Time and time again when they were in power they cut expenditure on education. [Hon. Members: “Nonsense.” ] It is no good hon. Members saying “Nonsense” . I can remember Circular 245 which was issued by the late Florence Horsbrugh before some hon. Members opposite were in the House, which cut back education expenditure. I can remember a whole [column 783]series of such circulars—244, 245, 331 and 334. When hon. Members opposite were in power in that period they allowed the momentum of educational advance to slow down. There was no challenge. That was why we had to have the change which was brought about in the first five years of a Labour Administration.

I turn to the issue which has been pinpointed by our Amendment—our approach to comprehensive education. In the past six years 129 plans have been submitted by a similar number of local authorities in England and Wales out of a total of 163. Even Conservative authorities have fitted into this pattern. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison) mention the work which he has done personally in Wiltshire. He defended comprehensive education even though we provoked one of his colleagues, the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings). He does not believe in comprehensive education. He believes in the tripartite system. He believes that children should be divided into three types: secondary modern, grammar and technical. He believes that this sort of segregation should still exist and that we should even now return to the 11 plus. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Devizes for being progressive in this.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) deployed the argument, reinforced by his hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, that comprehensive education is all right for certain areas, and he gave an example from his own constituency, arguing that for Lindsey comprehensive education would not be suitable. He would have the support of the hon. Member for Uxbridge. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) answered him completely when he quoted the area of Weardale in his constituency, a large rural area where a grammar school I know well, because I went there—an old traditional grammar school—is now the centre of a comprehensive school for the whole of the dale.

I could point out many parts of the country—Anglesey is another classic example—where for a whole area which is partly rural, comprehensive education is the ideal solution. The aim inevitably [column 784]must be to have throughout England and Wales comprehensive education in every local education authority. I know that hon. Members disagree. I believe that it is inevitable, that even a Conservative Administration, despite the circular, cannot go back.

The momentum in education is towards a comprehensive solution. I accept that in different areas there may be various forms of comprehensive education, and one hon. Member in a maiden speech referred to the existence of sixth form colleges. We all know of the Leicester experiment. Inevitably the main principle of comprehensive education will be accepted by every local authority in England and Wales.

I argue that it is right and that it is the duty of the central Government to take the lead in this direction. This is why we take issue with the Minister and the circular she has introduced. I believe that the previous circular 10/65 adopted the right approach. No wonder that teachers are up in arms against the right hon. Lady. She has been condemned strongly by the National Union of Teachers, by the Council for Educational Advance, which represents a large section of opinion in the educational world, and I believe that she has been condemned by responsible opinion.

The editor of the Times Educational Supplement, who has attacked her—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may criticise the editor of the Times Educational Supplement but many other writers throughout the country in educational journals have criticised the right hon. Lady. She has reversed a policy which was working. She has also failed to adopt the conventional approach of consultation. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may interrupt and shout but I am surprised that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) should do this. He should know that it is a convention, before a major change is made in the Department, that the people concerned should be consulted.

Mr. Maude

I was not interrupting the right hon. Gentleman on any question of consultation. I merely said that if the right hon. Lady had been attacked by all the people by whom he said she had been attacked then she must be right.

[column 785]

Mr. Peart

When the National Union of Teachers officially comes out against the right hon. Lady, she must beware and take note. No Minister should act arrogantly. I speak as a former departmental Minister. Before I made any major decision, I always consulted carefully—[Interruption.] I made a lot of good decisions in agriculture. I always consulted carefully—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interruptions must be selective, not comprehensive.

Mr. Peart

Right hon. and hon. Members opposite may decry opposition from the teachers, but they are important in our system. Any Administration and any Ministry must work with them.

I warn the Government that we are prepared to take this matter to debate and argument outside. It will inevitably spill over into local government elections when they come, because the decisions will be left to the local authorities. I advise my teacher colleagues who protest against the attitude of the Conservative Administration to work much harder than they have done to bring about a change of representation in areas where Conservatives are in power. I believe that that will happen. Right hon. and hon. Members opposite should not treat this matter lightly when they insult the teaching profession.

I detect arrogance among certain hon. Members, and I understand it. In the right hon. Lady's constituency only yesterday there was a meeting of headmasters arranged by the local education authority to hear their views about the comprehensive scheme which has been put forward. I understand that the vast majority accepted it. I hope that there will be no turning back on that scheme even though it is in the area which the right hon. Lady represents.

Mrs. Thatcher

I make no comment about the scheme, because I might have to adjudicate upon it, but I have a petition, signed by 150 teachers, against it.

Mr. Peart

I am informed that only about four or five out of nearly 80 head teachers were against it. If we knew the number of those who support it in relation to teachers outside, I am pretty sure that we should have a different result from what the right hon. Lady has indi[column 786]cated. I believe that the overwhelming mass of opinion in the teaching profession in her constituency will support the comprehensive scheme.

Hon. Members opposite disagree with our approach on comprehensive education, but the argument that we are trying to impose one pattern is simply not true. The old tripartite system forced many of our young children into a single pattern of education which is completely out of date—and I refer to our secondary modern schools. I have always argued against these schools. Many of our children were condemned to have an inferior education at the age of eleven. Many of our children had their futures decided in an arbitrary way. We believe that this system is wrong. Therefore, many of us have campaigned against it over and over again.

I believe that in a comprehensive school a child's abilities will develop to a far better extent than in a narrow, specialised grammar school or secondary modern school. A comprehensive school can give more opportunities to the child population. If anyone is objective about this, he will accept that comprehensive schools have already improved education standards. Many of our grammar schools were too narrow, too specialised. Fifty to 60 per cent. of boys in the grammar school system did not have the education suited to their abilities because many of those schools were geared only to the sixth form to enable that sixth form, or several sixth forms, to prepare students for the universities and higher education. I believe, therefore, that a comprehensive school approach is far better.

Hon. Members opposite have not been too sympathetic to the State education system. Every advance that we have known has had to be fought for. One can look back through the history of State education over the last 100 years. There are still in our society those who believe in a two-nation system for education. It is all very well for right hon. and hon. Members opposite, in their flowery speeches at the hustings, to say that they believe in one nation. There is a two-nation system and it is reflected still in our education system. Many hon. Members opposite are concerned about this.

I remember the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), who is now Minister of Agriculture, moving a Motion as [column 787]a back-bencher on private public schools. He said that it was wrong to have segregation and that the public schools should not segregate themselves in the way they did. In that same debate the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. G. Johnson Smith), who played an important part in the Tory campaign, strongly attacked public school education and said that he would like to see the existing system changed radically. The hon. Member said:

“I have no doubt that we are the most class-ridden of any highly developed society.” —[Official Report, 16th June, 1961; Vol. 642, c. 868.]

That was said by a Conservative Member and it has been said by other Conservatives from time to time in debate. We still have a class society.

I believe that hon. Members opposite, who in the main still come from that section who are trained still to think in terms of an élite concept of education, have no sympathy with the State system which I am proud to defend and to develop. I know that hon. Members opposite do not like this——

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Prior)

Would it not be fair of the right hon. Gentleman to admit that in that debate what we tried to do was to widen the entry to the public schools and not destroy them, as the party opposite would?

Mr. Peart

It is true that in moving his Motion the right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted a system whereby a percentage of boys from the State system would be put into the public private sector. He quoted, I think, a figure of 10 per cent. His hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead, however, went even further and said that the public schools should be integrated into the State system. They have both agreed, moreover, that public schools were a divisive force in our society. All I am saying is that right hon. and hon. Members opposite, and members of the Administration, have no sympathy with the ideals of our State education system in which hon. Members on this side believe. Every reform has had to be fought for against hon. Members opposite and their predecessors.

Tonight, therefore, we are not ashamed of our achievements in education. We believe that Labour authorities, like the [column 788]old London authority when it had a Labour majority, which started to develop comprehensive schools, paved the way in England. We are proud that many Socialist education pioneers did that also in the sphere of the universities and colleges, trying to convince people that there was need for a momentous change.

We believe that that is right for other reasons, but inevitably Britain in a changed society, a Britain which needs to develop its technology and which needs to expand because of new circumstances and the different rôle from the old imperial past, must have an education system that will match the needs of this dynamic social democracy.

The only way that we can do that is to provide the sort of education system which only a comprehensive system can give. It is for these reasons that we are pleased to support the Amendment, and we oppose strongly the policy of the Government.