Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1970 Jul 8 We
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Debate on the Address - Education]

Document type: speeches
Document kind: House of Commons Speech
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [803/676-88]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1604-37.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 4074
Themes: Conservative Party (history), Education, Secondary education, Public spending & borrowing
[column 676]

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

It is clear from the speech of the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, [column 677]Central (Mr. Edward Short) that he has not yet got over losing the election. I marvel that anyone can talk of intelligence and in the same breath equate authoritarianism with the enlargement of freedom. It is also clear from his speech that local authorities and parents can have views and carry them out only if they agree with the right hon. Gentleman's views, and not unless.

I will try to deal with the matter under three heads. First, the right hon. Gentleman spoke about the withdrawal of his circular. Secondly, he spoke about the existing position under the 1944 Act, as amended. Thirdly, he spoke about my circular. I will follow him in the order that he has taken.

Dealing with point No. 1; when I met the education Press correspondents shortly after Edward Heathmy right hon. Friend appointed me, naturally they asked me what I intended to do. I told them that I intended to implement the promises in the manifesto. In the climate of the last six years, of course, that was news. The pledges on Circular 10/65 were clearly given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a letter to the National Education Association on 13th October, which was published in both The Times on 21st October and the Daily Mail on 18th October. It said:

“Meanwhile you will have seen that in recent statements Sir Edward BoyleSir Edward and I have been very specific both about the repeal of legislation enforcing comprehensive education and the need for continued variety. Certainly a Conservative Secretary of State would not continue to operate Circulars 10/65 and 10/66.”

From the tone of the right hon. Gentleman's speech one would never have thought that the circular was followed by an attempt, which he and his right hon. Friend Harold Wilsonthe Leader of the Opposition lost between them, aided and abetted by their back benchers, to implement the circular by legislation. He knows full well from the many debates that we had—and they were all repeated because he lost Clause 1 and we had to go over it again—that it does not represent Conservative policy on education. But he has deliberately tried to take the matter in as extreme a way as he can.

Against the background of the pledges given by my right hon. Friends, against the background of the manifesto, in which we said clearly that we will maintain the [column 678]existing rights of local education authorities to decide what is best for their areas, I had no alternative but to attempt to withdraw the circular. The right hon. Gentleman knows possibly what I did not appreciate at first, that one cannot just withdraw a circular; one has to issue another short circular, and this one implements, and very quickly, the election pledges which we gave.

Against that background and having just completed the biggest consultation of all on 18th June—[Interruption.]—it would not have been appropriate—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We listened to one side reasonably. We must be fair.

Mrs. Thatcher

—it would not have been appropriate to enter into consultations. I believe that consultation is meaningful only if it is entered into in a state of mind where one intends to be influenced by the representations which are made. Unlike right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, I could not be influenced to go back on an election promise. Moreover, this action in withdrawing the circular and replacing it with a short one was enlarging the rights of local authorities and not circumscribing them.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke as if he had always consulted about every matter in the educational world. But, during the Second Reading of the Bill which he lost, he stood at this Dispatch Box and was asked whether he had consulted the Church authorities. He then said that he would be willing to do so.

The point is that if the consultation was in the future it could not have taken place at the time the Bill was introduced, which had a very considerable effect upon their rights and which would have involved them in considerable extra expense. Further, the direct-grant schools were seriously affected under that Bill but no consultations took place with them.

Mr. Short

I had the longest consultations with the Churches and the direct-grant schools.

Mrs. Thatcher

The direct-grant schools did not even know that the Bill would affect them.

[column 679]

Mr. Short

If the right hon. Lady looks at the records in her Department she will see that I had a very long meeting with the Direct Grant Schools Association.

Hon. Members


Mrs. Thatcher

In that case, I do withdraw. I only say that the direct-grant schools were very surprised and expressed their surprise that they were affected by Clause 1. During the General Election the right hon. Gentleman had a complete party political programme on television to describe his educational policies. It could be said that with his rigid ideas of compulsion he made a positive contribution to his party's defeat. No one can say that the Labour policy on education was not put before the people. The right hon. Gentleman did that and they rejected it.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Not in my constituency.

Mrs. Thatcher

The cardinal issue of secondary reorganisation was whether the existing rights of local education authorities to decide what is best for their area should be upheld.

I will now follow the right hon. Gentleman in trying to analyse those rights as amended many times under the 1944 Education Act. May I remind the House that many of the most positive, progressive and far-reaching educational changes were made by Conservative education Ministers—for example, Viscount Ecclesthe noble Lord who has returned as Minister for the Arts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) and the noble Lord, Lord Boyle—without the aid of Circular 10/65. They were made under the existing legal provisions of the 1944 Act about which the right hon. Gentleman has been so critical. Among those changes which took place without any circular was the movement in the Conservative counties towards a new comprehensive system. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friends took the view that if one has something good to sell one does not have to force people to buy it. It is of interest to know that on 27th November, 1964, the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) said:

“Nearly two-thirds of the secondary school population is already living in the areas of [column 680]authorities that are either implementing or making concrete plans for reorganisation on comprehensive lines.” —[Official Report, 27th Nov., 1964; Vol. 702, c. 1784.]

This was months before Circular 10/65 and its counterpart 10/66 which used the building programme as a form of sanction against those who did not toe the line. It shows that the 1944 Act, as amended, was no passive Measure but set out actively to promote full educational opportunity for all children. That had been the position for many years. Indeed the four big reports on educational advance, including Newsom, Robbins and Plowden, were all set up by successive Conservative Ministers. It is no defect in the Act which has held back educational progress and prevented it from going faster. The right hon. Gentleman knows the reason, namely, that we have never had sufficient resources to do all that we want to do in education.

That is the central issue. It was during the right hon. Gentleman's time and it is now. I accept that his Government did a great deal for schools. He knows now that even if we were to replace for example all the primary schools built before 1903 it would cost £200 million and would take 15 years at the rate at which they were being replaced last year, which was a comparatively good year. This shows the dimension of the problem and the importance that resources play in the future development of education. To return to the duties and rights under the Act of Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the distribution of power between central and local government. He did not leave a great deal to local authorities and attempted to alter the balance which had been agreed over many years.

The position now is as follows. The powers under the Act as they affect local education authorities are expressed in the central provision of Section 8 which places the duty on local education authorities to secure the provision of schools sufficient in number, character and equipment to afford for all pupils—to use the phrase which the right hon. Gentleman did—opportunities for education appropriate to their ages, aptitudes and abilities. Wisely that provision did not lay down the type of institution in which that duty should be discharged. Had it at that time adopted such a rigid policy and [column 681]stipulated the best school system then known, and none other, the comprehensive system could never have developed as it has from the early 1950s.

A rigid system is the enemy of advance. Almost every practical educationist advises one to have policies which are flexible so that one can stand ready to take advantage of new methods and new research. We will continue to discharge our duties in a number of ways. Many of the best educational ideas do not start in central Government but come up from local areas, provided that those areas have enough latitude to develop their ideas. The central Government powers as expressed in the 1944 Act are extremely important.

May I say now a word about the plans for secondary reorganisation. These plans have not and never have had any statutory standing, any legal status. They are extra-statutory plans with no legal status under the 1944 Education Act. When those plans come to the Department for approval that approval has no legal status either. The law comes in when those plans begin to be implemented by closing the schools, significantly altering their character or extending or altering their age group or opening new schools. In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, it might be of interest to him to know that I have just approved the Leeds scheme, for its development of secondary education which is on totally comprehensive lines.

I wish to make it quite clear that there is nothing in the circular which stops this development and where the local education authority wishes it, and it is appropriate for the area, full approval will be given. Leeds has a 5—9, 9—13, 13—18 scheme. It is one which in many ways appeals to me because one of the things I have always feared from some of the early comprehensive schemes is the massive size of school which they produce. I do not believe that all children flourish by being placed in a very large school. Sometimes the transfer from a very small school to very big one can be difficult; and I have, therefore, found this scheme attractive.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

As a Leeds hon. Member, I am pleased to hear what the right hon. Lady says. [column 682]However, is she aware that last Friday it was announced in Leeds that a number of Conservative councillors were saying that in view of the return of a Conservative Government this scheme should now be rejected to fit the new ideas of the new Secretary of State? Are we to understand that that will not happen? Will the plan go forward whatever may now be decided as a result of what was said last week?

Mrs. Thatcher

The Leeds authority said that it wished its existing plan to be considered. I considered it. I thought that Leeds had taken great steps to inform parents and teachers and that there were no major objections to the plan. I therefore approved it under my existing policy.

The legal powers under the Education Act, 1944, come into play when notices must be issued either to close or alter the age grouping of schools. It is then that one must act in a semi-judicial capacity, and the powers we have are these:

“Any proposals submitted to the Secretary of State under this section may be approved by him after making such modifications therein, if any, as appear to him desirable.”

This is when it comes to considering separate, individual schools in implementing a plan.

This is a wide discretion. It must be exercised on educational grounds within the policy and objects of the Act, as determined from its construction. If the effect of the decision was to frustrate the policy of the Act, the decision would, no doubt, be challenged in the courts, as was a similar decision under another Act in the Padfield case in 1968.

My right hon. Friend Quintin Hoggthe last Conservative Minister of Education used to describe the powers under this Section as “reserve powers” to turn down any proposal he thought educationally damaging. That was probably the way in which he viewed the exercise of his discretion.

However, I think that it is safer for me at present to stick to the wording of the Act and to say that all educational factors must be taken into account, including of course—and this is where the reorganisation comes in—other plans for schools in the area, objections from parents and teachers and representations made by educational bodies and so on. I cannot say in advance what decisions [column 683]would be given or enumerate what factors might be relevant or the weight that would be attached to them.

Before leaving this question, it might be helpful if I were to indicate the way in which I shall view the non-statutory plans. I have mentioned Leeds. I think it is fair, in regard to any general plan submitted by a local education authority, to start by presuming that the responsible local authority, being a democratically elected body with statutory duties, has submitted sound proposals.

This presumption can, of course, be rebutted by sufficient evidence to the contrary. In addition to matters such as the disposition and distance between buildings, one will need evidence that the advice of teachers has been taken into account, that parents have been able to express their views and that the explanations given to them have been clear and accurate.

The last point with which I wish to deal under the existing Act is the one raised by the right hon. Gentleman; namely, the age of transfer, whether to a selective or non-selective school. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, there are many ages of transfer under the different schemes. Indeed, theoretically it is possible now to transfer at each and every age, from 8 to 15, because of the many different schemes affecting middle schools.

There will be a variety of schools for many years to come, and it seems to me that, whatever the right hon. Gentleman may say, we could not, even if one wished it to be so, automatically have a totally comprehensive system because, as he knows, the cost of doing that would be, to use his word, “astronomical” . That was the point he made in Committee.

The Government accept the view that the age of 11 is too early to make final decisions about a child's future. The manifesto and the previous document “Make Life Better” were clear about this and stressed the need to provide for late developers. In some ways, the debate about the type of schools has perhaps distracted attention away from what is every bit as important; namely, what happens inside the schools. At present there is a mixed system of schools [column 684]and, because the costs of comprehensivisation would be so great, there will be a mixed system for a long time to come.

When the right hon. Gentleman left office there were 1,137 comprehensive schools, 2,690 secondary modern schools and 1,026 grammar schools. It is up to us, whatever type of school a child is in, to do everything possible to assist it to develop its full educational abilities and not in any way to knock the children or teachers in any one type of school.

I believe that it is possible—the right hon. Gentleman does not—to have a mixed system of both comprehensive and grammar schools—[Interruption.]—along-side. [Hon. Members: “No.” ] I believe this to be so.

Mr. Short

That is a contradiction.

Mrs. Thatcher

This is not a contradiction. There are existing systems, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, so how can it be impossible? It varies enormously with the catchment area. Certainly, with a small rural area, I do not believe that it would be possible to have a comprehensive school and a grammar school, but in some of the very large urban areas it is possible, because the grammar school and direct grant school have quite different catchment areas from the comprehensive school. [Hon. Members: “Impossible.” ] It is of little avail for hon. Gentlemen opposite to say that this is impossible, because it happens now.

Some of the best comprehensive schools are in areas where there are very good selective schools. The right hon. Gentleman is always putting forward Tulse Hill as one of the best comprehensives in London. This school is in an area where there are a number of very good selective grammar and direct grant schools. It has not prevented the grammar, direct grant and comprehensives from being extremely good schools.

Mr. Heffer

I entirely agree with the right hon. Lady that there are local authorities which have the two systems running side by side. We have this in Liverpool. Is she aware, however, that it is a totally unsatisfactory system and that it creates more than enough problems? She must understand that one either has one system or the other. [Hon. Members: “No.” ] The system that is obviously required and that has been [column 685]shown to be totally necessary in the interests of the children is the fully comprehensive one.

Mrs. Thatcher

I obviously disagree with the hon. Gentleman.

I was interested in an article in New Society of 25th June, 1970, by David Donnison following an extensive survey—a much more extensive one than the pollsters did—about what the British public wanted from their schools. He pointed out that the majority said that they favoured comprehensive education and that that majority was growing. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.” ] However, an even larger majority wanted to “retain grammar schooling” . I believe that if one is not doctrinaire and rigid about this it is possible to have the best of both systems. That is the difference between us.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)


Mrs. Thatcher

I must get on. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to express his views.

I come to another subject to which Edward Shortthe right hon. Gentleman referred; namely, the content and significance of Circular 10/70. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not dissent from the aim contained in paragraph 1. We all agree that the aim is that all pupils should have full opportunities for secondary education suitable to their needs and abilities. This is indeed a wide aim, and we shall pursue the aim of increasing the quality of education throughout the system.

Secondly, it points out that we believe that it is wrong to impose uniform patterns. We had this argument during the proceedings on the Bill that the right hon. Gentleman lost. Even he agreed that he would not necessarily impose a uniform pattern, in that there were exceptions, I think for music and ballet. What he would not agree to was that there could be separate schools of excellence to develop mathematical and scientific ability. The right hon. Gentleman also said that there could not be any school in his scheme of things which depended for its entry partially on selection by ability. I also believe that this is wrong. I believe that there is still a [column 686]place for certain selective schools of excellence. Other nations which have largely comprehensive systems have found the necessity to have them. I believe that it is wrong to exclude this from our future plans.

The next point in paragraph 1 is—

“restrictions on the character of secondary building projects will no longer apply” .

Hon. Members will know that if local education authorities did not toe the right hon. Gentleman's line approval was withheld from building projects, even though those projects were part of the basic needs programme and their absence would materially affect the education of the pupils. Three million pounds worth of school-building projects have now been released into the educational building programme so that those children will get the buildings which they need for their proper education.

The second paragraph of the circular points out that authorities will now be freer—this is what the right hon. Gentleman does not like—to determine the shape of secondary provision in their areas. I believe that the best educational schemes have come when authorities have not been coerced and have insisted at every stage on having the proper equipment and buildings. In the book “In Our Experience” this was said by Stewart Mason about one of the best schemes before Circular 10/65, he having initiated the scheme:

“We were unwilling to make the change” ——

that is, to comprehensive—

“unless we had the minimum physical conditions (particularly sufficient practical accommodation in the upper schools-to-be) to enable the scheme to work smoothly. The last selective area in the county disappeared after the Summer Term of 1969—so that what started as an experiment in 1957 has taken 12 years from its inception to spread over the whole county. Our approach throughout has been pragmatic. We have never attempted to follow a holy way from which any divergence would be an act of renegation.”

I believe that that is the way to approach comprehensive schemes and that local authorities do it better without coercion.

The other point in paragraph 2 is guidance as to what kind of schemes for secondary reorganisation will be approved. I tried to be a good deal more flexible than the right hon. Gentleman. At the time of his Bill the journal Education put forward two criteria for [column 687]schemes of reorganisation for schools—first, full educational opportunity and, second, proposals that were cost-effective. I have adopted similar criteria in our slightly different language and added the third of fulfilling local needs and wishes. I have, however, in this circular stressed that where a particular pattern is working well and commands general support I do not wish to cause further change. I fail to see what is reactionary or extreme about that. This applies whether the scheme is fully comprehensive or whether there is another scheme. Where there is so much to be done for schools in deprived and poor areas, it seems to me to be a misuse of resources and efforts to concentrate on upsetting a scheme which is working well when we should be trying to help those where opportunity is less than equal.

Paragraph 3 is a machinery section telling authorities what they can do about their plans if they are currently lodged with the Department—whether they want to leave them lodged or whether they want to have them reviewed. The right hon. Gentleman really does hate local authorities to have freedom, but they must have freedom to reconsider their plans if they were put up against an undue amount of pressure. The journal The Teacher said this on 3rd July, 1970:

“Some of the shoe-string schemes submitted in response to Circular 10/65 were educationally very poor indeed.”

I do not want educationally poor schemes. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman can read on. I want to have good schemes, whether they are comprehensive or other schemes.

The last paragraph says, if I may paraphrase it, that if local authorities are to make changes these must be discussed with teachers and parents, because they are most affected. I emphasise that the changes are not brought about by virtue of this circular. The changes are brought about by virtue of the decisions taken by local authorities. It is in making those changes that the consultation must be extensive, and that is a condition of approving the plans.

In view of the upheaval of the last four years and the great challenge yet to come with the raising of the school-leaving age as planned—the right hon. Gentleman will never forget, as we shall never forget, his and his right hon. [column 688]Friend's action about that—local education authorities have a lot to cope with. In the course of the next few months I shall be taking stock of the present state of secondary education, both its organisation and the problems within the schools. The main purpose of this circular is to honour an election pledge to reject compulsion on democratically elected authorities. I ask the House to reject the Amendment.