Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Education (Opposition motion)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [815/1288-93]
Editorial comments: 2051-2105. MT intervened - expressing dissent - at c1290.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 1765
[column 1288]

8.51 p.m.

Mr. J. D. Dormand (Easington)

The hon. Member for Chertsey (Mr. Grylls) is a little out of date in his last observation, for some of the polytechnics are already doing what he has in mind. He spoke of the North-East. At Sunderland Polytechnic there has been a teacher-training department for about three years, and it is doing splendid work. Perhaps that will be a source of some satisfaction to the hon. Gentleman.

The House last debated education in July last year, when we on this side expressed our disgust at the action—the hasty action—of the Secretary of State in withdrawing Circular 10/65. It was a completely doctrinaire step to take, and [column 1289]many of my hon. Friends expressed great concern. I was not quite so vehement in my criticism of the Secretary of State that day, because I did not share the views expressed by my hon. Friends. I thought that the withdrawal of Circular 10/65 was merely silly.

By 1970, I thought, most people, of all shades of political opinion, had accepted the comprehensive principle, and this acceptance was shared by parents—I know this from experience—by education committees, and certainly by the teaching profession itself, which seems to me to be of some importance.

I was not unduly concerned because I was convinced that there would be no rush by local education authorities to withdraw plans which had already been submitted or were about to be submitted, and events since that date have proved my conviction to be right. By November, 1970, about five months after the announcement of the withdrawal of the circular, no local education authorities had withdrawn their plans, but seven had said that they were reconsidering their original submissions. By January, 1971, every plan which had been submitted contained proposals for some comprehensive schools, and as recently as the end of last month only two local education authorities had told the Secretary of State that they were reconsidering their proposals.

The Secretary of State reminded the House that there are 163 local education authorities. Most of these will now have submitted plans. She gave the figures. I am not a betting man, but I should wager that, by the time they have all been considered, less than half-a-dozen local education authorities will have submitted plans which do not wholly or at least in part include comprehensive education. I hope that the Secretary of State, at the next Tory Party conference, will have the courage to tell the faithful that, in spite of all the hullabaloo about comprehensive education, the Tory mountain of Circular 10/70 has produced a mouse of just two local education authorities.

The right hon. Lady will argue, no doubt, that the principle of freedom for the local authorities is involved, regardless of the number which wish to exercise it. I believe that the motive for the issuing [column 1290]of Circular 10/70 stemmed from the Conservative élitist philosophy, but, quite apart from that, the idea of control as expounded by the Conservative Party is sheer hypocrisy, for the Secretary of State well knows that the Department of Education and Science exercises most stringent control in many matters, both centrally and locally. For example, if a local education authority submitted plans for a new scheme and one of the classrooms was four square feet below the required area, those plans would be sent back to it the next day. That is the kind of minute control which the Department exercises. All the talk about freedom of the curriculum is largely a myth.

Mrs. Thatcher

indicated dissent.

Mr. Dormand

The right hon. Lady shakes her head, but if a headmaster decided to have Russian as half of the timetable he would have a shoal of H.M.I.s on his doorstep, and rightly so. That myth is being spread purely to justify the Government's attitude on comprehensive reorganisation. The argument about whether we should be pro-comprehensive or anti-comprehensive is now sterile. We have moved to the next phase, which is to ask how comprehensive education is working. I am a committed supporter of it, and I am very disturbed by some of the things I know through my previous employment as an education officer and my visits to many parts of the country.

The right hon. Lady will be aware that the returns she is getting omit one very important point. I have questioned her on this matter at least twice. The Department does not ask for returns on whether comprehensive schemes include the admission of the full ability range. The right hon. Lady has made a number of speeches talking about good grammar schools existing with comprehensive schools, as did the hon. Member for Chertsey. I should have thought that that idea was dead long ago. It is a contradiction by definition. A comprehensive school by its very name must have the full ability range. If the top ability range, which is crucial to a good comprehensive school, is being taken elsewhere, then the area does not have a comprehensive school. I greatly fear that that is happening. With the Tory lack [column 1291]of enthusiasm for comprehensive education, it is easy to understand the position.

In addition things are happening in the schools which are giving rise to great concern. One of my hon. Friends mentioned rigid streaming. It is not possible to have rigid streaming in a truly comprehensive system, but that sort of thing is happening inside the schools. Putting the situation right is a job for the next Labour Government, but I hope that I am sufficient of an educationist to want to have something done now and to hope that the Secretary of State will instruct Her Majesty's Inspectors to investigate this serious problem and report at an early date.

The question of a truly comprehensive system is closely connected with the existence of an independent sector in education. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) had the courage to raise this point. One hon. Member spoke about Labour Party policy on the public schools. The Labour Party policy on independent schools is to abolish them. The word “integration” may be found in some of our documents, but my interpretation is that that means the abolition of the independent sector.

The Secretary of State quoted from the second Report of the Public Schools Commission. I was delighted to hear it quoted. I, too, should like to quote from that Report, which was about the independent day schools and direct-grant schools. I am doing this in the context of comprehensive education as I have defined it. The Report said:

“It would be illogical and self-defeating if central and local government were to bend their efforts towards creating a comprehensive educational system while simultaneously supporting schools outside that system which frustrate its development.”

The logic of that argument applies equally to the boarding independent schools.

I shall not tonight argue the case for the abolition of public schools, certainly not with a Conservative Government—the present Government in particular. But I will say something about one aspect—that of teacher supply. It is incredible in a democratic society that the independent schools are permitted to employ as many teachers as they wish, while the public sector is rationed—that is the correct description—by the quota system. I have [column 1292]the figures which show what this means. The pupil-teacher ratio in independent schools recognised as efficient has averaged 12.7 over the last six years; over the same period in maintained primary and secondary schools the ratios were 28.1 and 18.1 respectively. It is little short of scandalous that such a position should be allowed to exist and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will say that he is prepared to look at the situation.

I have done the Under-Secretary of State the honour of reading several of his speeches and, throughout, the message, on which I congratulate him, emerges clearly that the teacher in his view is the most important part of the education system. He put it most graphically in a debate on the Plowden Report in 1967, when he said:

“… it is the flesh and blood of the teacher which I believe should come first.” —[Official Report, 16th March, 1967; Vol. 743, c. 768.]

The public schools certainly know that.

I believe that both my own Front Bench and the Government are too complacent about teacher supply. According to the figures for the last six years, the rate of increase has diminished each year. The average increase up to last year was 4,000; for the current year it is 2,000. That situation requires close examination. It could lead to a crisis if and when the school-leaving age is raised. The right hon. Lady knows that the Chairman of the Association of Teachers in Colleges and Departments of Education has expressed concern about this. At the annual conference of the Association in December, he said:

“Admission figures to be published in February will show that intake to colleges of education in 1970 was 1,600 under target, and registrations for admission in 1971 are 4 per cent. down on those for 1970. These facts must cause great anxiety to all who are concerned about the work of our schools.”

Nor did it help for the right hon. Lady to say in her speech at Buxton to the North of England Education Conference:

“It is a serious question whether, in the second half of this decade, it will be right to continue the output of teachers at the present rate.”

I say at once that in relation to more educational aids and assistants, which was what she was referring to, I think that she was right to ask that question, but she was certainly wrong to be asking it in [column 1293]1971. To be talking about a possible reduction of teachers under training four years ahead may cause a reduction in applications for the teaching profession and it has affected the morale of the already hard-pressed teachers in the schools.

The Under-Secretary of State, in Parliamentary answers to me, has expressed considerable satisfaction at the increasing number of graduates undertaking teacher training. I am not a mathematician but I believe that this is misplaced optimism, because the figures he has given me also show a diminution in the increase over the last two years. I hope that there will be no complacency about that. In any case, as is well known, the number of graduates undertaking post-graduate courses is only about one-sixth of the total number of teachers in training—a considerable minority. However, I welcome the optimism which has been shown, even if I doubt the statistics.

There are many urgent problems in education today which require solution. Because of the time at my disposal, I have devoted myself only to two of the most important—the way in which comprehensive education is developing and the teacher-supply position. The Government are ignoring the first and are too complacent about the second. For the sake of generations of children to come, I hope that they will give more serious attention to these problems.