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, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [803/740-47]
Editorial comments: 1906-26. MT intervened at c744.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2621
[column 740]

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Stokes) in a notable maiden speech. I am sure that the electors in his constituency will be well represented. Perhaps I may issue a word of warning, that it is dangerous to mention Dr. Johnson and patriotism in the same speech because it brings to mind Dr. Johnson 's remark about patriotism:

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

I am sure that latter word cannot be applied to the hon. Gentleman.

I was delighted at the very close knowledge on educational matters that was brought into the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing), whose constituency had hitherto, I must admit, been known to me primarily for the fact that a by-election in which his predecessor got here was the first occasion on which any candidate had to change his name by deed poll in order to register his party on the ballot paper. The Liberal candidate fought the election as Frank Liberal Davies. However, the last Parliament changed the law and there was no need for the hon. Gentleman to change his name in order to sound his party allegiance. Our educational debates will be enlivened by the hon. Gentleman's obvious knowledge of the subject.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) has departed from the Chamber because I am one of those who always listen to his speeches. He complained on several occasions that no one ever listens. I frequently listen to his speeches. I am always entertained by them. I find that they act as a kind of springboard against [column 741]which one can bounce one's more sensible ideas. I should have liked to put the hon. Gentleman right on one point when he said that it was a terrible thing to destroy something which had grown up over the centuries. He seemed to be under a misapprehension that the selective schools had been with us for centuries. I would have referred him to my last speech on this subject, which I have no intention of repeating, in which I took that argument apart. This whole idea of selection is very recent. The grammar schools were not brought into existence to educate an élite at all.

Although this debate has tended to be about secondary education and its reorganisation—I will come to my own views on that in a minute—there are other matters in education to which I should like the right hon. Lady to give her attention, the first of which is the primary sector. I welcome the reference to this matter in the Gracious Speech because I have been arguing in education debates in the last four years that much greater priority ought to be given to the primary schools, the Plowden proposals, nursery schools and pre-school playgroups.

I hope that the right hon. Lady will do more than her predecessors did, especially for the pre-school playgroups, which are starved of cash and need encouragement. Will she make clear at an early stage that local authorities are already empowered by the various Acts under which they promote education to help pre-school playgroups with cash? Some of them, notably Cornwall, unfortunately, are under the impression that they are not so empowered, and I want her to put that plainly on record.

The words in the Gracious Speech about

“priority for the improvement of primary schools”

are splendid as they stand, but I hope that the right hon. Lady knows what that means. Giving something priority means that it has priority over something else. This is the difficulty. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon raised this point today when he said, as I have often said, that we cannot continue to advance consistently over a broad front in education. We shall have to pick out certain sectors of the system and advance in those, which must inevitably mean that we do not advance as fast in other sectors. The [column 742]hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of not advancing as fast in further education, which, I fear, may well have to come about, terrible though it may be.

I have in the past seriously questioned the policy of raising the school-leaving age as a fundamental priority. I should very much like to raise the school-leaving age, and I should be delighted if it were raised to 17, as, I gather, the right hon. Gentleman had been minded to write into his White Paper had he been allowed to do so, but I wonder whether we are right even now in saying that we should add an extra year to secondary education when the primary schools are so desperately starved of cash. If the right hon. Lady can guarantee that the primary schools shall have the cash they need—I know how starved they are in the rural areas of Cornwall, just as they are in the big urban conglomerations—and at the same time raise the school-leaving age, that will be fine, but I do not believe she can. I am sure she will run up against this snag. There is no need to be radical about raising the school-leaving age. This is not a flag which every progressive educationist must necessarily wave. I consider myself a progressive educationist, and I do not wave it very forcibly.

If we have to cut back on advances in further education—it may be inevitable that we do, though without actual contraction—perhaps we could link the two together, leaving the school-leaving age where it is at present but bringing in compulsory part-time education up to at least 18. We have made a start with the industrial training boards. Already, about 30 per cent. of people in that age group now go on to part-time education of one sort or another. There is no reason why we should not make it compulsory as an alternative, and it would save cash to do so.

I take issue with one of the right hon. Lady's observations about secondary education. She said that if one has something good to sell one does not normally have to force people to buy it. The same argument can be used about compulsory education itself, and it was so used in the past. In 1847 there was a tremendous debate in this place, when John Bright and Thomas Macaulay had a real ding-dong on this very question. I think that the right hon. Lady makes the [column 743]same mistake in using that analogy as Macaulay said the Government of the day were making in mixing up arguments proper to commercial considerations with arguments not at all proper to educational considerations. He said:

“There has arisen in the minds of persons who are led by words, and who are little in the habit of making distinctions, a disposition to apply to political questions and moral questions principles which are sound only when applied to commercial questions. ‘If’, they say, ‘free competition is a good thing in trade, it must surely be a good thing in education’ … Never was there a more false analogy. Whether a man is supplied with sugar is a matter which concerns himself alone. But whether he is supplied with instruction is a matter which concerns his neighbours and the State.”

I have behind me a long history of Liberal tradition to back my view that it is wrong to consider the reorganisation of secondary education in 1970 in the same way as the right hon. Lady's colleagues may well be rightly considering the reorganisation of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation.

The fundamental question of this debate is this: is non-selection accepted on all sides, or is it not? The Conservative manifesto was somewhat equivocal on the point, saying—this is page 20—that

“… in most cases the age of eleven is too early to make final decisions which might affect a child's whole future.”

When the right hon. Lady quoted that in her speech today, she left out the words “in most cases” . I thought that rather interesting, and I tried to interrupt her at the time to ask in which cases the age of 11 is not too early to make final decisions which might affect a child's whole future. As I see it, there can be absolutely no such cases, except, perhaps, the Yehudi Menuhins of this world, the child prodigy at the piano, violin or whatever it might be.

Does the right hon. Lady want selection at 11-plus abolished, does she want it part abolished, or does she want it retained? She cannot have it all ways. It is clear that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon wants it retained in entirety. He would hate to see it abolished. I am sorry that he is not here to answer these comments, but I have listened to his speeches today and in other debates, I have read his pamphlet on the subject and many of his other utterances, and I am sure that he wants [column 744]it retained. He believes that selection is good per se.

I do not believe that that is the right hon. Lady's position, but if she wants it abolished, she must act as though she accepts the responsibilities clearly laid upon her by the 1944 Act. The word “promote” , to which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) pointed in his speech today, is there for all to read. The right hon. Lady has to promote education.

I should not relish the thought of even the promoter of a bingo game who did not care about the system under which it was played. I hope that the right hon. Lady realises that she has to care about the system and that she must promote a certain system, not being vague about it.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is not the hon. Gentleman making just the mistake against which he warned me, importing commercial analogies into arguments about education.

Mr. Pardoe

What a blow was there given—a hit, a palpable hit.

I come now to the question of local option. It seems to me that the right hon. Lady is in this context using arguments about States' rights which may be appropriate to California but are hardly appropriate to this country. I am all in favour of giving power to the people—it is a banner under which the Liberal Party has campaigned for years—but power to the right people. Parents should participate in decisions which affect their children's education and their future. No one wants this more than I do. But why should non-Parents participate in the decisions? Are local councillors elected for their knowledge of education?—good heavens, no. Often, absolutely the opposite. Those councillors who do have a real interest in education and who gravitate to the education committees will now be overruled, as they have been in many areas, by their wilder brethren who will wave sentences from the right hon. Lady's speeches and reverse the decisions of reasonable and moderate men.

Mr. Charles Curran (Uxbridge)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument closely. Does he say that decisions [column 745]about education should be taken by parents only, and that non-parents have no right to express opinions or reach decisions?

Mr. Pardoe

I was coming to that point. I should myself like to see a tremendous extension of parental democracy in the government of education in this country. I do not believe that parents can properly be consulted under the present system. I go further and say that I should like parents to play a much greater rôle, even to the point of being responsible for appointing headmasters for a limited term, even to the point of appointing staff, and taking over all the duties of the local education committees, which give us really no kind of democracy at all.

If it was left to parents to decide, there is no doubt about how they would decide. Many of us may be sceptical about the value of surveys, but the right hon. Lady quoted hers and I see no reason why I should not quote the one which was carried out for the Liberal Party two months ago by National Opinion Polls. It showed clearly that, whereas a majority of people preferred comprehensive schools as opposed to those who preferred separate schools, the proportion of parents who preferred comprehensive schools as opposed to those who preferred separate schools, the proportion of parents who preferred comprehensive schools rose to 56 per cent. compared with 36 per cent. who preferred separate schools. The figure was even higher among parents with children who would have to make the decision—in other words, children under 11 or even under 16 years of age. I see no reason why we should allow this fundamental decision about the future of our children to be made by people who are no longer in the child-bearing age group.

We shall have the banner of freedom of choice thrown at us. But what choice? The Amendment tabled by myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel), which you, Mr. Speaker, in your wisdom have not called, indicates that all this business about freedom of choice comes down to the fact that the Government are placing the choice of the few before the freedom of the many. That is what it boils down to. What choice? Who will be able to choose for their children between different types of schools? Only those who are well-off [column 746]and well-cushioned will be able to do so. The average parent will not be able to exercise any choice. For me, equality of opportunity is an essential freedom; I hope that it is for the right hon. Lady, too. It is the freedom to develop human personality, and that is what government and education are about.

The Government claim that they have a mandate for withdrawing Circular 10/65. I disclaim that view. They have no mandate for it because they fought two parties, both of whom were resolutely opposed, and have been opposed for a great many years, to selection in secondary education. The candidates of those two parties amassed 2 million more votes than the right hon. Lady's party. If we take Birmingham, where we understand the more reactionary elements of the Conservative Party are wont to lay their heads—[Hon. Members: “Shame.” ]—the total Labour-Liberal vote was 227,000 and the total Conservative vote was 213,000. I would not dream of quoting the figures for Bournemouth because they would go against me. But no civilised man ever expected a mandate for sanity from Bournemouth.

So we come down to the phrase “the comprehensive experiment” which has been used by several hon. Members opposite. I do not believe that it is an experiment. It has been proved. If we look in a fair-minded way at the evidence which has been amassed—the U.N.E.S.C.O. report of 1964 and more recent evidence produced by Professor Pedley—we see that the results in comprehensive schools are every bit as good as they are in selective schools and that it does not do the high flyer any damage to go to a comprehensive school. How one judges the success is anybody's guess. We can do what Dr. Rhodes Boyson has done and add up three figures, like A-levels and O-levels and the proportion going on to university education. But even if we do this we still get a very creditable result from comprehensive schools, and the trend is going the right way.

The right hon. Lady has made a grave error in withdrawing Circular 10/65—not because by withdrawing it she has made any great fundamental change in policy. Let me hasten to say that we should not be having this debate if the [column 747]right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central and his party had done their job several years ago. There is a fatal flaw in the character of members of the Labour Party and that is the irresolution of their radicalism. That fatal flaw has meant that when they issued the circular they did not take powers to implement it. They did not set a target date. If they had done so and had gone on with their policy resolutely we should not have needed to have this debate.

I hope that the right hon. Lady will have second thoughts about this matter. Although she has withdrawn the circular, she has not changed anything fundamental. What she says and does in the next few weeks will far more set the tone and organisation of secondary education than the mere act of withdrawing the circular. Unlike her predecessors as spokesmen for her party on education, she does not have to prove to her backwoodsmen that she is a real Tory. They know that she is a real Tory. I hope that she will use her position of strength within her party to ensure that the heads of the backwoodsmen are knocked together and policies of sanity are adopted.