Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1969 Oct 31 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Debate on the Address - Pensions and Education]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: House of Commons Speech
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [790/590-608]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1507-1600. MT spoke at cc590-601, 602, 604.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 6599
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Conservative Party (history), Education, Secondary education, Public spending & borrowing, Labour Party & socialism, Local government, Social security & welfare
[column 590]

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

This has been a fairly wide-ranging debate, which is probably one of the reasons why I have been put up to reply. When one has held six portfolios in seven years, one can wind up on almost any subject.

I should like to start by dealing with some remarks by Miss Alice Baconthe Minister about widows' pensions and our record with regard to them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), who taught me most of what I know about politics and particularly most of what I know about pensions, and the then Cabinet took the view that priority in widows' pensions should be given to the widowed mother with young children. I think that they were absolutely right at the time. Because of that decision a great deal of extra help was concentrated on the young widowed mother. In October, 1951, the first child of the young widowed mother had benefit of 10s.; the second, 7s. 6d.; and the third, 7s. 6d. I am including family allowances, because the Minister did. By the time we left office in [column 591]October, 1964, we had increased those benefits to 37s. 6d. for each child. In real terms, that was an increase of 287 per cent. for the second and third children of widowed mothers, and 158 per cent. for the first child. It was a very impressive record. Perhaps it was because we did so much to concentrate on such cases that the hon. Gentleman and his Government have been able to concentrate their activities on different beneficiaries under the social security system.

I promised the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) that I would reply to his point about the over-80s. I expect that he will return soon. It is true that at one time I defended the non-grant of pensions to those who had not contributed to the national insurance scheme. Perhaps I may give a little explanation. I think—at any rate, I remember reading some of the observations of the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton)—and we took a similar view during our time. When the scheme was introduced in 1946 the choice facing those coming up to retirement was whether they should opt out of the scheme or contribute every week for 10 years from 1948 the sum of 4s. 11d. employee's contribution for a pension of 26s. a week. To them it did not seem a very good bargain, and to me at that time it would probably not have seemed a very good bargain either. Many of them preferred not to contribute. Some of them said, “We may not be here in 10 years” and others said “By the time we get it, we shall have paid for it several times over” , and they chose not to contribute.

What happened at the end of 10 years was that, largely due to my right hon. Friend J. Boyd-Carpenterthe Member for Kingston-upon-Thames, pensions had increased many times. We had had several increases by 1958 when the 10-year entrants came in, and it was seen then that the pension was extremely valuable. From that time forward there came to be a certain amount of agitation, but still we said, “Some of you had the chance to contribute and you chose not to do so.”

But there comes a time when a principle has to be abandoned if the reality of the situation is such that some people are suffering hardship. I think that we would all agree with that. I remem[column 592]ber that in 1965 I myself put some questions to N. Pentlandthe then Parliamentary Secretary about the amount which some of the beneficiaries would have contributed. The pre-1946 pensioners came straight on to the new scheme without having contributed extra to it. The figures which the then Parliamentary Secretary gave and which may be found in column 146 of the Official Report for 25th March, 1965, showed that the maximum contributions payable towards his pension by a man aged 65 retiring in October, 1946, and his employer amounted to £30 and that the benefit which this pensioner would have drawn in return for those contributions up to that time would have amounted to £2,000 for a single person and £3,200 for a married couple.

I asked that specific question realising that in these cases the link between contribution and benefit was very tenuous and that there would be a number of people who did not happen to be members of the old scheme who would say, “Look what they have been having for £30; it did not come out of their contributions but from the general contribution of the general body of taxpayers” . At present, there are a number of over-80s who are undoubtedly suffering hardship, I think that we all feel that, because they have no pensions. In some ways, they are the victims of the inflation which has benefited us. I do not think that any of us suggests that they should have the full pension which they would have had had they contributed in the early years, but most of us, on whatever side of the House we sit, would wish that they should have something to recognise the vastly increased amount received by others in return for very small contributions.

At the time, I suggested that all hon. Members would gladly accept 3d. a week on our stamp. I think that we would all wish them to have a small modified pension. It would be a great help to them. The problem is that, although all of us wish it, it is not done.

Mr. Ennals

The hon. Lady has not mentioned the fact that, of course, all these people, if they are in financial need, are entitled to claim supplementary benefits. My impression is that a good half of the category of the people the hon. Lady is discussing are receiving supplementary benefits, which, of course, [column 593]are at a higher level, if they have no other income, than National Insurance benefits.

Mrs. Thatcher

I, too, used that argument in my time, but, as the Minister knows, it is not a valid argument.

Mr. Ennals

Not valid now!

Mrs. Thatcher

It is not valid because inflation has gone on at a faster pace. It still does not alter the fact that a number of people have had the value of their savings substantially eroded and are still suffering hardships partly because of the inflation which has benefited those with earned incomes. I still think that all of us, on either side of the House, would wish to be able to give them some small pension and would gladly pay for it. I promised the hon. Gentleman that I would deal with that point, and I have dealt with it in, I think, a thoroughly Friday afternoon spirit, admitting that perhaps I was at fault as well.

Perhaps I should say one last thing about the contributory principle. If hon. Gentlemen, who were then in Opposition, had been quick enough off the mark, which they were not, they would have picked me up on the contributory principle, because there are people who benefit under national insurance after never having contributed a brass farthing. I will give two examples. One is the guardian's allowance, of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames will know, to which an orphan can be entitled although no contribution by either parent has ever been made to the scheme. The principle is that they shall be of insurable age and is not the contributory one. The other is the industrial injuries scheme, under which one can benefit without ever having made a contribution. Perhaps I could chide the hon. Gentleman a little for not having been fast enough off the mark to trip me up. I do know some of the answers; perhaps the hon. Gentleman will also consider that point.

I should like to answer the hon. Lady the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short), also in a Friday afternoon spirit, rather than with a carefully prepared speech, because I think that is what the House would want and I am not perhaps choosing my words precisely. She spoke about comprehensive [column 594]schools. My impression is that they are very varied. They will vary according to the area they serve and according to the children who attend them, and one will not find that there is equality of educational opportunity everywhere because a comprehensive education system exists.

I think that there will be as great varieties in comprehensive schools as there are in some areas in all types of school. Undoubtedly, in a number of 11–18 comprehensive schools there are not enough sixth-form courses, even in areas where there are no grammar schools. This is one of the problems which seem to be emerging.

I noted that what the hon. Lady wants to do—I think that it is what we all want to do—is to give the best educational opportunity to every pupil. I sometimes wish that we could keep our eyes firmly on that and not so much on the institutions. After all, William Hamiltonthe hon. Member for Fife, West pointed out that in Scotland they have had a system of comprehensive education for many years, including under Tory Governments, because this happened to suit Scotland. I hope that he is not suggesting that this Government should override the wishes of Scotland if it wishes to do so in another sphere.

The hon. Lady also mentioned that the proposed Bill was in the Manifesto. There is certainly some mention in the Labour manifesto and I looked it up quickly during the debate. But what there was not in the manifesto—I think that this is what is now in question—was a whole attack on the concept of partnership between Government and local authority in education. This, I think, is what is really under attack now. Hitherto, it has been partnership, and this went right back to the 1944 Act and is enshrined in it still.

The hon. Lady also mentioned parental choice. Again, may I draw upon my own experience, as I am sure she does on hers? All our areas are different, and this is one of the reasons why we shall oppose the Bill. In my area, there is a certain amount of parental choice between grammar schools and also between secondary modern schools, many of which are excellent. I accept that I am fortunate in that my area has some very good secondary modern schools which offer O-level courses, and in some cases parents can [column 595]choose between the grammar schools and the secondary modern schools.

I have also known parents come to me and say, “We want our child to go to a comprehensive school.” This has been arranged, and if need be, the pupil has gone outside the area to the nearest comprehensive school. I am thinking of one case where a child went over the boundary to a school in Hampstead. In my area, therefore, we have had some parental choice which could operate either in favour of comprehensives, or between grammar schools, sometimes between grammar and secondary modern or between secondary moderns. In some areas there has been very real parental choice.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

When the hon. Lady talks about her area does she mean the Borough of Barnet?

Mrs. Thatcher

My area is, or was, the Borough of Finchley, which eventually became incorporated into the very much larger Borough of Barnet. Within the Borough of Barnet, when I refer to my area, I refer to my constituency because all hon. Members know the education in their constituency intimately. They know how much it differs from any particular average pattern.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Arnold Shaw) asked why, if we have comprehensive schools for new establishments, should we not have them everywhere? As we know, the fact of the matter is that there are still a number of old buildings, and, however much we regret it, there will continue to be a number of old buildings for a long time yet. Some of these are so distributed that they will not and cannot yield a viable comprehensive system.

I understand from Harold Wilsonthe Prime Minister's speech that he intends to make education questions one of the main issues of his election campaign. If this happens I can only put in the excellent educational record of the Conservative Government. Both sides of the House can claim benefit for the Butler Education Act, of 1944, which is the Act governing all other education activities now. We on the Conservative side never looked back. We were always forward-looking in educa[column 596]tion, and with this in mind it was we who initiated the four great educational reports, the Robbins Report on higher education, the Crowther Report on education for pupils aged 15 to 18, the Newsom Report on less able pupils and the Plowden Report on primary education.

We initiated these because we were constantly prepared to look at the changing circumstances of education, to look forward and to see what the requirements were. We have not been able to implement some of the proposals in the Plowden Report because the present Government have inherited them and taken over some of them. These reports and our action with regard to them illustrated our essential concern with education, with the need to develop precious talent wherever it is found and also with the need to provide special help in areas where the children have not previously had such a good chance because of housing or other environmental factors.

The earning capacity of the nation depends on the highest level of achievement in the professions, in science and technology, industry and commerce. This is the wealth of the nation, coming from those who have the most talent. This is especially true and will continue to be true in the future of the development of mathematical aptitudes because almost every sphere of science or economics is becoming more numerate. Every advanced nation is attempting to spot its specially gifted mathematicians and other specially gifted children early.

Whether it is called selection or spotting, what has to be done is to give them the full chance to develop their talent, if necessary long before the age of 11. When I went to Russia recently I was interested to see that they are detecting mathematical talent in children at an early age, taking them to special schools and training them, because they believe that such talent is at its most creative between the ages of 20 and 24. Therefore, before the age of 20 it is necessary to get the children through all its schooling and normal university training.

They are doing it, first, for the aptitude of the child, and secondly, because the wealth and future of the nation will depend, to some extent, on developing the aptitudes and abilities of these children. But if the wealth of the nation [column 597]depends upon these, then the well-being and standards of the country depend on the level of education of all children and the skill of all citizens. It is in this respect that we have been so successful over the past 10 to 15 years in developing the educational abilities of all our children.

Mrs. Renée Short

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Thatcher

I know that very different conditions prevail in different areas, but the figures for the nation as a whole prove what I have been saying.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) pointed to what I believe is the outstanding problem facing us in education. It is not the Bill foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech, but the difficulty of finding enough money and manpower to carry out existing education policies. This is the paramount problem. It will face the right hon. Lady's Government or my Government. We know the enormity of the problem, and this is the problem to which we should be addressing ourselves.

I do not know what figures the right hon. Lady Miss Alice Baconthe Minister of State will advance about future expenditure. The figures in which I am interested are those put forward by Kathleen Ollerenshaw in her paper this year to the I.M.T.A. Annual Conference. She pointed out that although educational expenditure now runs at £2,000 million a year—approximately 6 per cent. of the gross national product—if we are to carry out existing policies, and if we have the same increase in teachers' salaries and in the gross national product in the next 10 years as in the past, then by 1979–80 the cost of the programme will be £5,000 million a year and it will take about 8 per cent. of the gross national product. I have not seen those figures questioned, let alone destroyed. It is a very sobering thought that if we are to carry out existing policies this is what we shall need. This is the problem to which we should be addressing ourselves.

I proposed to indulge in a statistical exercise about the growth of educational expenditure in our last four years of office, compared with the rate of growth in the Government's first four years of office. I will give full details if anyone requires them. All the figures came [column 598]from the 1969 Blue Book. Let me give the results, because it is the answers which are interesting, although I am happy to give the complete calculations. As William Hamiltonthe hon. Member for Fife, West knows, I do not usually come to a debate other than well documented.

In the years 1960 to 1964 expenditure on education rose by 53 per cent. In the years 1964–68, under a Labour Government, it rose by 49.5 per cent. That is at current prices. Taking it at 1963 constant prices and knocking off selective employment tax, which appears on the expenditure side also between 1960 and 1964, while we were in office, expenditure on education rose by 29 per cent. In the first four years of the Labour Government it rose by 22 per cent. I quote those figures to show that our record is good.

Mr. William Hamilton

rose——

Mrs. Thatcher

I have only six minutes left, so I shall be grateful if the hon. Member makes a short intervention.

Mr. Hamilton

Perhaps the hon. Lady would tell us the purpose of this exercise. The selected figures which she is giving are for the last four years of the Tory Government and the first four years of the Labour Government. It would be much better if she took the first four years of the Tory Government and the first four years of the Labour Government.

Mrs. Thatcher

The hon. Member must know that he is talking the most intolerable educational nonsense. That is so because of the way in which pupils progress through the schools. If he makes that kind of assertion I shall never again listen to him with any belief.

The Gracious Speech foreshadows the new Bill in these terms:

“A Bill will be introduced requiring local education authorities to prepare plans for reorganising secondary education on comprehensive lines.”

It is interesting that the Bill seems to be fairly moderate. It is not to compel local authorities to introduce comprehensive schemes but to compel them to prepare schemes on comprehensive lines. I doubt whether that indicates that the Minister intends to stop at the stage of preparation. It is more likely that he has found his powers inadequate under the 1944 Education Act. [column 599]

You are aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I should have preferred longer before coming to the House to speak in an education debate, but at least I came to the House, which is much more than did E. Shortthe Secretary of State for Education, although it was at my own inconvenience.

May I submit very quickly some preliminary observations on the compulsion on local authorities which is foreshadowed in the Bill? First, under Section 8 of the Education Act, 1944, the local authority is the body whose duty it is to provide schools sufficient in number, character and equipment—and this is the important point—to afford all pupils opportunities for education according to their abilities and their aptitudes. I remind hon. Members that education is more about pupils and their abilities and aptitudes than about institutions or some of the other things with which the Bill will be concerned.

Secondly, under this provision many different schemes have been developed, varying with the needs of the locality. Every hon. Member will go to the Minister and say, “But our locality is different and you must make special provision for us.” Under these provisions there have been many varied educational innovations. For example, the Tory-controlled Leicestershire authority was one of the first in England to do away with the 11-plus, and the Tory Government did not interfere with that decision, believing that the true relationship between Government and local authorities is that of partnership of both and not dictatorship by one. That is what local democracy is about. If the electors by their votes indicate that they want a comprehensive scheme—and they may well do so—and that scheme is within the essential requirements of the 1944 Act, one would expect the local education authority to prepare such a scheme, because any elected body which ignores the wishes of the electors does so at its peril, and the peril is very quickly shown.

Under the exercise of his duty the Minister would need to examine the scheme in the light of Section 13 and other Sections of the Act. Our main concern is to see that there is provision for the varying abilities and requirements of the children and that the doors of opportunity are kept open to all children to go [column 600]on, if they are capable, to O levels and A levels and, beyond that, to university. I have never understood why anyone puts forward any particular age of development. Children will develop their abilities at different ages and the task is to spot the ability when it develops and to make the facilities available.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)

That is what it is all about.

Mrs. Thatcher

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That is what it is all about. But we do not necessarily get better education in a comprehensive system than we already have in a number of authorities. Let us take the example of Bournemouth, which has one of the best education records of all local authorities. I have full details of the Bournemouth scheme, which puts all children to O-level courses and some to A-level courses, which benefits the children, which the parents like and which is educationally sound but which does not happen to fit in with the Government's dogma. It is educationally sound and it is liked by the parents. Why should Bournemouth be compelled to change merely because of a Bill, which, incidentally, provides no money whatever to facilitate the change?

It has been said that I dislike botched-up schemes. I am thinking very much of one in my own constituency which, it seems to me, would never have been put forward on educational lines. It is this: a grammar school in a condemned building is to be amalgamated with a secondary modern school in a condemned building one mile away, across two main arterial roads. Neither is adequate. There is a two-tier system: the pupils go to the secondary modern from 11 to 14, and they go to the grammar from 14 to 18. Both buildings are inadequate. Teachers will have to go from one to the other if they are to retain the principle of teaching all ages. There are not enough laboratories in the secondary modern school so some are being provided on a third site.

So I wrote to the Minister, “Even if you are in favour of the comprehensive system, this does not make sense. It would never have been put forward on educational grounds as a viable scheme. Please may I have a purpose-built comprehensive school if you want this kind [column 601]of education?” . The answer is, “No; it is fifth in the order of local authority priorities” . The first four, of course, are getting roofs over heads.

This scheme ought not to go on. In view of my great complaint about the prospective Bill, I ask the Minister whether she proposes to attempt to compel non-viable education schemes to go forward merely because of the principle of compulsion.

My time is up. I have a great deal more to say. There will be another opportunity.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

As the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) has said, this has been a Friday debate which has ranged very wide. It was put down as a debate on pensions and education. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short), in her excellent speech, talked about rising prices, rents, drugs, the division of property among divorced people, equal pay and comprehensive education. I hope she will forgive me if I do not reply to everything that she said.

I want to speak principally on education, and I have only two or three sentences about the rest of the debate.

A few hon. Members asked for details about the new pensions scheme. Well, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) and others who asked about this to await the coming White Paper which my hon. Friend promised would be produced next week. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity then to debate the details.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), who opened the debate, asked for massive increases in public expenditure. We would like all the things which he would like, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) so eloquently reminded him, one cannot ask for all this increase in expenditure and at the same time ask for reductions in taxation.

Mention was made, I think by the hon. Gentleman, about the amount of money spent, and I would just like to remind the House that between 1963 and 1964 [column 602]the total expenditure on social security was £5,157 million compared with, in 1967–68, £7,803 million.

Mrs. Thatcher

Including S.E.T.?

Miss Bacon

I will come to some of the other points in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Arnold Shaw) raised the question of teachers' salaries, but I think he will appreciate that as the Burnham Committee is now sitting considering an interim award asked for by the teachers it would not be appropriate for me to say anything about that this afternoon.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the Select Committee's Report about students, and I would like to thank the members of the Committee for this valuable Report which makes some very far-reaching suggestions for changing the organisation and government of the institutions of higher education. We shall be considering this actively. I am sure my hon. Friend would not want me to declare our views on that today, but we are very grateful indeed for the comprehensive Report and for the work which went into it.

My hon. Friend also asked if I would add the Wanstead County High School to the building programme. I would rather write to him about that at a later date and let him know what the position is.

The hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) asked what the Bill relating to comprehensive education would contain. I shall say a little more about this later. For the details of the Bill we must await the publication of the Bill, which I hope will be not too long delayed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) asked about the mentally handicapped. He will be pleased to know that we shall soon be ready to introduce a Bill to transfer responsibility for the education of mentally handicapped children from the Department of Health and Social Security to the Department of Education and Science.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) asked about the Teachers' Council and also about an inquiry into teacher training. With regard to the Teachers' Council, my right hon. Friend has initiated discussions with teachers [column 603]and others with a view to conferring a greater measure of self-government on the profession of teaching through the establishment of a General Teaching Council. Discussions have been going on. A working party has been hard at work. We hope to be able to put these proposals before the House shortly. Indeed, we hope that we might get a Bill in this coming Session to put this into operation. It all depends on getting the various bodies to agree. I have no reason to believe that there has been any hitch or that there will not be full agreement.

With regard to a successor to the National Advisory Council for the Training and Supply of Teachers, it might be possible for national arrangements which might succeed those formerly made through the National Advisory Council for Training and Supply of Teachers to be incorporated in some way into the new body. We are considering this question. We realise that something must be done. We are considering whether the new Teachers' Council or something allied to it might not have some part to play in this.

One or two hon. Members have raised the question of primary schools. I agree with those who have said that primary school education is most important. We are able to devote more of our school-building programme to primary schools and, because over the next few years the numbers in our schools will not be increasing so rapidly as they have been in the past few years, we shall be able to devote more of the building programme to replacements of old schools than we have been able to do over the last few years or than the previous Administration was able to do. Thus, we shall be able to have far more money available for the replacement of primary schools.

The hon. Lady the Member for Finchley produced some figures. It is said that everybody can produce figures to prove something or other. I have also got some figures with me which I propose to give to the House. These are my figures. In 1963–64 the amount of money spent on schools was £784 million. In 1968–69 it was £1,155 million, an increase of 47 per cent. In 1963–64 £135 million was spent on further education. In 1968–69 £247 million was spent, an increase of 83 per cent. In 1963–64 [column 604]£43 million was spent on teacher training. In 1968–69 £85 million was spent, an increase of practically 100 per cent. On Great Britain's universities, in 1963–64, £159 million was spent. In 1968–69, £307 million was spent, and that represents an increase of 93 per cent. It is sometimes said that one can find figures to suit one-self. If right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite think that that goes for me, it goes even more for the figures quoted by the hon. Lady.

I now turn to comprehensive education. In this debate, interest has centred on the Bill to be introduced this Session to put an end to the 11-plus selection. It might be thought, as the hon. Member for Cornwall, North appeared to think, that it is not necessary again to debate the merits of it. But the history of events, since 21st January, 1965, when this House endorsed the Government policy to end selection at 11 and to eliminate separatism in secondary education, shows that people are overwhelmingly in favour of removing the injustices of selection, with all the wastefulness and deprivation which it involves.

The party opposite does not know where it stands on this matter——

Mrs. Thatcher

Yes, it does.

Miss Bacon

We are told that it is right for some areas but not for others, that parents should have a choice—I believe in that, and I will return to it. We hear people talking airily about “botched-up” schemes and saying that local authorities should please themselves. I believe that these arguments all cloak the extent to which some people would like to keep 11-plus selection.

Why do we want to get rid of selection at 11? I want to get rid of it not because I happen to be a member of the Labour Party but because I have taught in a secondary modern school and have seen the waste of talent that there is among many of our children. Whatever case there was for selection disappeared once educational research had revealed the fallacy of supposing that intelligence is wholly innate and immutable and that a child's potential does not significantly develop during his life.

We know now that all educationists agree that whatever gifts a child may be born with can be enhanced by many [column 605]factors—home environment, and not least by a good and extended education. How monstrously unfair, then, it is to deprive a child who, at 11, was behind some of his fellows, of the opportunity to develop further, to catch them up and perhaps even to surpass them.

First, we see the effects of the 11-plus on the primary school, where parents sometimes press teachers to introduce curricula which the teachers may not like but which are felt necessary to get children through the 11-plus.

There is no satisfactory method of selection. However, what some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite do not understand is that it is impossible at one and the same time to abolish the 11-plus selection and have separate schools for those who pass it. The comprehensive school gives every child a chance, late developers and everyone else. The dividing line between those who get grammar school places and those who do not is very thin. Those who would pass in one town would fail in another. Whether or not a child gets to a grammar school depends more on where he lives than on his ability. The provision of grammar school places varies between 8 per cent. in some areas and 40 per cent. in others.

I come to the question of parental choice. What choice is there today for parents in those areas which still have the 11-plus examination? What choice is there if their children fail to get a grammar school place? Can they go to the local education authority and say, “I prefer a grammar school for my child” ? If they do so, will they get a grammar school place? Of course they will not. The only choice that exists for parents whose children failed to get a grammar school place and who want their children to develop properly is to buy independent education.

Mrs. Renée Short

Like the hon. Member for Finchley.

Miss Bacon

As my hon. Friend says, like the hon. Lady. The main choice that I want to see is the kind of choice that we get in comprehensive schools today. In the comprehensive school a range of subjects is available for everybody. There is a continuing choice throughout a child's school life. Yesterday I checked on the choice of subjects available in one comprehensive school—Tulse Hill. There [column 606]is English literature, English language, British Constitution, English economic history, history, economics, social studies, geography, law, ancient history, Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, applied mathematics and all sciences, woodwork, commerce and accounting, and art. These subjects are available in many other comprehensive schools and give a greater choice even than the grammar school.

I now come to the point about botched-up schemes. The schemes which come to me for approval have been devised by local authorities after great care. Working parties have been set up, including teachers. They often sit for a long time. To say at the end of the day that they have produced botched-up schemes casts a grave reflection on local authorities, many of them Conservative. I remind the hon. Lady that Barnet produced a secondary reorganisation scheme through a local council with a large Conservative majority. They are in favour of comprehensive education. They produced a scheme which we accepted in principle in 1968, but we thought that they were going a little too quickly. They wanted to implement the plan in 1969. We said, “No. Think again. We do not think that you can do it in that time.” When the hon. Lady talks about her local authority I hope that she will realise that the ball lies in her local authority's area and not with us. We did not tell the local authority to hurry with that scheme; in fact, we had to tell it to hold back.

Even in 1965 there was already a good deal of evidence that progress towards abolishing selection was commanding increasing support in many areas. So we asked for the voluntary co-operation of all local authorities. Of the 163 local authorities in the country, 129 have now had schemes of secondary reorganisation approved, 108 covering the whole or the greater part of their areas and 21 covering smaller parts. So about two-thirds of all authorities have plans—many of them in process of implementation. Of the remaining 34 authorities, nine have submitted schemes which are now being considered by my Department, nine other authorities have had schemes rejected—usually because they involve some degree [column 607]of unacceptable adherence to selection—eight have not yet submitted any official proposals, and a further eight have declined to do so. At the very time when a minority of authorities are either ignoring national policy or openly flouting it, many others are making great strides in bringing their plans to fruition on the ground.

It is one thing to accept that comprehensive development cannot be achieved at a uniform pace because of the varying local circumstances and the differing degrees of need for new building, but it is quite another thing to have a handful of local education authorities setting their faces against the planning which must precede any effective action. This is not simply a question of defying the Government. It is defying the main stream of educational progress and arbitrarily sentencing sections of the youth of the country to a loss of opportunity which the majority of their fellows will enjoy.

It is said that it is the local authorities that must decide, and what the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley said is quite true, that in this country we have a national system of education locally administered. From time to time over the years we discuss and change the respective powers and duties of Government and local education authorities. But there are some things which must be nationally decided. We do not say to local authorities, “Please yourself about the school leaving age.” When the school leaving age is raised in two years time it will be a national decision. We do not allow local authorities to say, “In our area there is a great demand for children to go out to work at the age of 14 or 15 and, therefore, we should stand out” . The Government and I believe that such an important matter as the principle of selection at the age of 11 must be a national decision. The Bill will, therefore, empower my right hon. Friend to require local education authorities to submit plans to him for the reorganisation of secondary education in their areas on comprehensive lines.

Local authorities have produced varied and imaginative schemes for ending selection at the age of 11. Local authorities have produced a variety of schemes. Some have produced schemes for all-in 11 to 18 schools. Others have produced [column 608]schemes for middle schools, and others for sixth form colleges. We hope that this variety will continue and that local authorities will be left to produce the schemes which they think are best for their areas. We do not want one pattern, but we do say that the principle of the abolition of selection at the age of 11 should be a national decision.

We have always relied and we shall continue to rely on local education authorities to think out the proposals which, in their view, will best meet the needs of their areas. But this freedom to plan on the basis of local need cannot be extended to become the licence and anarchy implied by no planning at all. We seek to ensure through the proposed Bill that the enlightenment and successful planning of the majority of authorities shall not be marred by the inertia or unwillingness of the few. There is no rational case for seeing the measure as one providing for the formulation from the centre of what ought to be local plans. Local circumstances and local needs will continue to be the main determining factors of all plans for reorganisation.

The hon. Lady has said outside this House that she is a product of a grammar school. So am I. So is my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and so indeed are many of us. That does not mean to say that the system is the best system for this country. We are the lucky ones. We got through the net into the grammar school. I am concerned about the children who do not have the opportunity that we had. About four-fifths of the children today in areas where there is no comprehensive reorganisation do not have the opportunities which were enjoyed by those of us who went to grammar school.

Reference has been made to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about abolishing grammar schools over his dead body. We do not want to abolish anything. We want to extend to everybody the opportunity which is only available for the few. That is why we intend to bring in this Bill at the earliest possible moment.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Ioan L. Evans.]

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.