Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1970 Dec 14 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Secondary Education, Saddleworth (adjournment debate)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: House of Commons Speech
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [808/1084-88]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 2007-2234. Whole debate included on disc.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3140
Themes: -
[column 1079]

Secondary Education Saddleworth

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Weatherill.]

Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise the issue of secondary education in the Saddleworth area. I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State is here to answer in person.

I raise the issue for two reasons. The first is that I am especially interested in education, having taught in a primary school, technical college and university. I wish also to represent the feeling of [column 1080]disquiet in the Saddleworth area about secondary education.

To understand the problem one has to appreciate the geography of the situation in that Saddleworth, although in the West Riding, just completely into the Greater Manchester area. It is cut off almost entirely from the rest of the West Riding by the Pennine Ridge, which in itself raises difficulties.

The present structure is that the area is organised under a district sub-committee. It has a number of first-class primary schools, although it is fair to say that probably an increasing number of children also receive education over the boundary in Oldham. In addition, there is a secondary modern school which has grown rapidly over the past few years and today has a six-form entry. It is a very good school which has had great success in terms of young people staying on and then getting further education in the comprehensive school “Over the Top” . That is the present situation.

The present distress is caused by the system of selection and the results that follow. There is a strong demand in the area for comprehensive education. I realise that one cannot have it overnight and that it has to be developed. But what is worrying is that the local district sub-committee is asking for comprehensive education, the local governors of the secondary school have asked for it on two occasions, the local teachers' union asks for it, and all three political parties in the area support the concept of comprehensive education.

One might ask, what is the difficulty? It is that the West Riding County Council seems vague in the extreme about it. I have written to the Country Council on two occasions asking it to state in writing whether it is its policy for the Saddleworth area to go comprehensive. I have not yet had an answer. My last letter of 18th November remains unanswered.

The situation is causing a great deal of disquiet. Saddleworth is an area which is ideal for comprehensive education in the sense that it is a geographical entity, it is an area where there is a close community spirit and where there is a mixed social group. Perhaps most important, there are also enough students to make the system viable. [column 1081]

The figures which I use to support my argument are my own. The right hon. Lady will appreciate that I have experienced some difficulty in getting official figures from the West Riding. I have been obliged to glean them from newspapers and from the answers to questions that I have asked the right hon. Lady.

According to my information, the secondary modern school has 636 pupils at present. In addition, 135 pupils attend the comprehensive school over in the Colne Valley. It may be worth mentioning that these 135 pupils have been subjected to a form of selection in that they have had to pass the equivalent of the 11-plus, the Thorne scheme, to attend a school which is comprehensive in nature and which all pupils living in the Colne Valley go to as of right. This causes bad feeling in the Saddleworth area.

Apart from those children of secondary school age in the district, a number are selected and receive selective secondary education outside the district. Most of them go to the Hulme Grammar School in Oldham. A small number go to William Hulme's Grammar School in Manchester, with others attending Manchester Grammar School and a few going to religious grammar schools in the area. My estimate is that the total number would be in the region of 45 or 50 each year.

It follows, according to my figures, that out of 210 pupils who attend the Saddleworth primary schools each year—and the figure increases all the time—there are an additional 20 to 30 whose parents live in the Saddleworth area but who go to school in the Oldham area. In addition, 40 or 50 of the 210 receive selective education. In fact, this figure of 20 per cent. or thereabouts is probably a little high because the Director of Education has stated that the children who attend primary schools outside the district do better proportionately under the Thorne scheme than those from within the Saddleworth Urban District.

What worries me and the residents of Saddleworth in particular is the question of whether West Riding Education Committee will inform us if the number 40 or 50 attending selective education is to remain static. Has it remained static? The feeling is that it has, and it is therefore becoming increasingly difficult for the children of the area to get a selective education. I have a case this year of a [column 1082]boy who passed the entrance examination to the William Hulme Grammar School, Hulme Grammar School, and Part One of Manchester Grammar School, yet the West Riding authority does not consider this boy suitable for secondary education. Are these direct-grant grammar schools not up to the required standard or is West Riding cutting down to such an extent that these children, who could benefit from a secondary selective education, are not getting it?

I have taken up a number of other instances of children who, in the past, have gained entrance to direct-grant grammar schools. They have perhaps come from another district into the Saddleworth area, but West Riding refuses to give them West Riding places. Yet these children in the direct-grant grammar schools are placed above the children in West Riding places. This suggests that the process of selection in West Riding is not as accurate as it might be.

The problem is becoming more acute because Saddleworth is an expanding area. The right hon. Lady kindly provided me a few days ago with figures which show that, in 1963, there were 1,125 pupils in the primary schools whereas in January, 1970, that figure had increased to 1,667. It is a fair bet that the figure is now above 1,700. In addition, an increasing number of pupils are attending schools in the Oldham area. The trend is evident from the experience of the past seven years and it is likely that the situation will get worse.

The local authority estimates that there will be another 1,200 new houses on new housing estates in the area, and one can hazard a guess that this will increase still further the number of pupils. Experience suggests that new housing estates tend to have a larger proportion of children of primary school age to start with than other areas. It is, therefore, fair to say that the pressure on the primary schools will increase even further.

The trouble is that the local people feel that Saddleworth has suffered already from rather inaccurate estimates in education. I feel that even now the estimates being made by West Riding are under-estimates. I think that if we checked the figures for this autumn we should find that the original estimate was too low compared with the actual numbers. [column 1083]

At the secondary level, the school now has 630 pupils and by the mid-1970s, by my estimate, will probably have about 1,200. Are we then to be limited to the 40 or 50 places at the direct-grant schools? Colne Valley High School obviously has a restricted number which it can take. It is expanding and with the raising of the school leaving age the problem will become even more acute, and obviously it cannot take an increased number.

When I asked the right hon. Lady on 19th November about this, her colleague replied that he could not give me certain information about the percentage of children who were successful under the Thorne Scheme for the past few years. I was most surprised at this, because the hon. Gentleman said that he could not give information because he had not collected it. Yet he gave me identical information on 23rd July for the next educational district, which shows a very good result for the West Riding, a very good return and a very happy situation.

Of course, when the local people see this, and compare the two, and see the Minister is not able to provide the answer, they obviously fear the worst and they start saying, “Ah, the West Riding has a bad record here, because they cannot tell us.” I feel very strongly, about this. They pay the rates, and they are interested in the future of their children, and that is something which I am sure the right hon. Lady welcomes as much as I do. They feel that they should know.

Perhaps all along the trouble has been that Wakefield is so far away, 30 or 40 miles away, and there is this problem of geography, and public relations are bad. For example, until I raised the matter with the West Riding, the heads of schools in Oldham which send children to secondary schools in Saddleworth under the Thorne Scheme were not consulted until October this year. It seems to me one example of the lack of public relations, which we are finding with the West Riding.

I started by saying that one has to understand the geography, and one has to understand the geography because the Maud Report on local government [column 1084]suggested that Saddleworth should go with Greater Manchester. A lot of the services in the district come from Greater Manchester, and the local rumour, although unfortunate, is, “The West Riding thinks Saddleworth is going to go to Greater Manchester, so it is not going to lose some of its precious allocation in providing schools from which it will get no benefit” . This is the local rumour. It is probably wrong, but things like that have got to be scotched. I am interested in education in that area. So are the parents. I am sure that the West Riding education authority is, but the whole system of communications has broken down. I cannot get replies from anybody. I am not able, except with great difficulty, to see anyone with authority in the West Riding, and I know from the complaints I have had from parents that the problems are there, and for them they are even worse.

So these are the questions which I should like the right hon. Lady to try to answer tonight. They are simply, are we to get an increase in the direct grant school places? Are we to get a comprehensive school in the Saddleworth area? Thirdly, can she do anything at all to persuade the West Riding to try to do something to get across to the parents in the Saddleworth area that it is doing good work and has got the places?

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

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) made it clear that he raised this matter because he was dissatisfied with the reply given to his Question on 19th November. At the outset I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his obvious concern with secondary education—indeed, with all education—in his constituency. At the same time I must record my view that the best possible advice was offered to the hon. Gentleman, for reasons which I shall explain, by my hon. Friend William van Straubenzeethe Under-Secretary of State when, on 19th November, in reply to a supplementary question, he suggested that the hon. Member might like to contact or discuss the situation with the West Riding local education authority.

The hon. Gentleman then wanted to know how many children in Saddleworth [column 1085]were awarded selective places in each of the last five years, and he has raised this matter again tonight. I can quite understand why parents in the area are worried about it. Arrangements for the allocation of pupils to different kinds of school are a matter within the competence of the local education authority. Therefore, detailed questions about these arrangements and the result of them are usually most usefully directed towards the local education authority concerned, subject only to an appeal by an individual parent under Section 68 of the Education Act, 1944, which comes to me. Statistics about particular districts are not collected by my Department, and hon. Members who wish to obtain this kind of information are likely to be best served by direct consultation with the authority concerned. I understand from the hon. Gentleman that he has had considerable correspondence with the local education authority.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had on 23rd July asked a similar Question about another part of his constituency, the Upper Agbrigg division, and my hon. Friend was able to answer it in detail. This was because the local education authority had made the information available, and I can therefore understand that the hon. Gentleman may have been surprised that similar information was not forthcoming about Saddleworth.

The authority has recently confirmed that it is not its practice to give this kind of information publicly for any area. Its view and experience are that unfair comparisons might be made between local primary schools as well as between different parts of the Riding. Moreover, the groups of children are often very small, and this might give rise to considerable variations between one year and another. If the hon. Gentleman asks me why, in these circumstances, the authority provided information in the case of Upper Agbrigg, I cannot give him a precise answer, especially as the authority's policy, as I have outlined it, has operated for a considerable time. It may be not that it was unusual not to get information about Saddleworth but that it was unusual to get information about Agbrigg, or any other part of the area.

The point I wish to emphasise, however, is that, although the authority [column 1086]declined to make the information available in reply to the hon. Member's Question on 19th November, the authority told me that it would be pleased to discuss the matter with him either at county or at divisional level. The authority could then explain the nature and limitations of the statistics it keeps and the qualifications it would place upon them, not only in the context of Saddleworth but in relation to the county as a whole. It was for this reason that my hon. Friend suggested that the most profitable course to pursue was for the hon. Member to contact the authority, and I am still convinced that this is true.

I ask the House to recognise that the statistics of individual Departments, including my own, are already very substantial and very costly. Whenever detailed statistics about local authority provision are required it is reasonable that hon. Members should, as far as possible, refer to the local authorities concerned. I have in mind instances where the Department does not itself possess the information and where the local authority concerned has to be approached in any event.

The statistics which the hon. Gentleman wanted fall into this group. They are not statistics which the Department collects or, as a matter of normal procedure, would be likely to collect. The hon. Member has been in the education service for a long time and appreciates that I have no power to compel an authority to divulge this kind of information, and whenever a particular authority tells me that it will gladly discuss the question with an hon. Member, I cannot conclude that unreasonable attitudes are being adopted.

Mr. David Clark

The difficulty is that I have had considerable correspondence on this matter with the West Riding and I have got absolutely nowhere. I sent a letter dated 18th November—the day before I asked the Question in the House—to which I have had no reply. I think that I should have had a reply in the time which has elapsed since then, and if the West Riding had wanted to discuss the matter or to give me information in confidence, the authority could have said so in reply to my letter. This is why I brought the matter to the House. I was getting no satisfaction in the area, nor were the local people.

[column 1087]

Mrs. Thatcher

Perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman if I required directly from the authority whether it has made an appointment to see the hon. Gentleman about this matter. Therefore, I hope that we might be able to secure an interview for him fairly soon in the future. I am sure that they will be co-operative and informative on the matters which rightly preoccupy him.

The hon. Gentleman also raised one or two general points about secondary education provision at Saddleworth. As he knows, the situation is a little unusual in that the only secondary school for the area is a secondary modern school—a very good one, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. Therefore, all the pupils who successfully apply for places in a selective school have to go outside the area, either to the Hulme direct-grant grammar schools in Oldham, or to the Colne Valley High School, which he also mentioned, in the neighbouring Upper Agbrigg Division. Further, Roman Catholic pupils from the area will usually pass their entire school life in Lancashire.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out the geography of the situation, on which at least we can agree. Saddleworth, although in Yorkshire, is on the western side of the Pennines and, as the hon. Gentleman knows far better than I, looks more naturally towards Lancashire than towards Yorkshire.

The number of secondary school pupils in the Saddleworth area, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is rising, and the local education authority is asking for a major extension of the Saddleworth country secondary school. A reorganisation plan for the area was approved in principle in 1966 and if, in due course, proposals were approved under Section 13 of the Education Act, 1944, and the building extensions were to be authorised, a new situation would emerge. This extension to the Saddleworth school failed to secure a place in the design list for the 1972–73 [column 1088]starts programme, because a number of other claims had higher priority, but I understand that the authority is likely to re-submit the proposal for the preliminary list for the starts programme in 1973–74, and I shall, of course, consider any proposal very carefully.

I have been looking to the future, but I recognise that the hon. Member is concerned with the past and the present. I can tell him, because the authority has informed me, that the number of selective places offered to children in Saddleworth during the last five years has remained reasonably constant. His point, however, is that secondary numbers in Saddleworth are rising, as he knows from the Answer which my hon. Friend William van Straubenzeethe Under-Secretary of State gave to his Question on 2nd December. There has, however, been considerable fluctuation in the last five years in the total numbers.

Therefore, I must go back to where I began by urging the hon. Member to take up the authority's offer of a discussion with him as the most fruitful way of pursuing the question in detail. I will give the hon. Gentleman all the help in that direction which we can offer.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has the satisfaction of knowing that I shall consider very carefully, in the light of all that has been said in this debate, any proposals for Saddleworth which the authority may submit to be. Like the hon. Gentleman, I believe that all hon. Members are concerned for the education of children in their areas. I know that explanations do not always help, but I hope that both he and the parents will appreciate that we have the interests of their children very much at heart and will do everything we can to assist him in getting the information he wants through discussion with the authority.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.