SECONDARY EDUCATION, BEXLEY
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hawkins.]
Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith (Chislehurst)
May I say how grateful I am that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has decided to reply to this debate herself? I am sure that her presence will hearten my constituents and demonstrate the importance that she attaches to the problem which I wish to discuss.
I am concerned solely with the impact of the new all-in scheme proposed by the London Borough of Bexley on the education of children in my constituency. I see on the benches opposite the other hon. Member concerned with the Borough of Bexley, the hon. Member for Erith and [column 1943]Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved). I am sure that I can leave him to deal with Erith's education. I am concerned with that in the half which comprises Sidcup, Lamorbey and the Blackfen area.
This issue has brought me more protests than any other subject, including the Common Market, on which I have been pressed since becoming the Member for Chislehurst back in 1950. I have never had such strong and such well-documented evidence from a mass of teachers who have felt so strongly about it that after deep thought, in their various areas they have put in two alternative sets of proposals to the local authority. I believe that pupils themselves sent representations to my right hon. Friend, though I have not seen them.
I realise that this must be a probing debate and that my right hon. Friend can do no more than take into consideration the protests that I shall voice on behalf of those concerned.
I begin by going back a little in history. Prior to the reorganisation of the London boroughs, my constituency comprised the very large urban district of Chislehurst and Sidcup, and our education authority was that of the County of Kent. We were served with a wide variety of schools to meet the capacities of the pupil population. Many of those schools were built post war.
As a result of the creation of the London boroughs, my constituency was cut in half, that part on the west side of the A.20 coming under the London borough of Bromley and that on the east side under the London borough of Bexley. At the time of the reorganisation, we faced the problem that our girls' grammar school was in the Bromley borough and that our boys' grammar school was in the Bexley borough.
At that time, I received assurances both from my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Social Services, then Minister of Housing, and from the then Minister of Education, now my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Boyle, that boundaries which cut across normal educational areas would not react to the detriment of the children requiring such education.
I have already submitted to my right hon. Friend strong protests, supported by [column 1944]hundreds of parents, about certain aspects of education in the Bromley borough. Today, I deal solely with the effects on the London borough of Bexley, which have produced even stronger protests.
Let me say at once that I am not opposed to properly constituted comprehensive education as such, when it provides the basic principle that all the needs of all pupils of all ages and abilities can be catered for fully in any one of the proposed units under the system. My case is that the hotch-potch scheme being imposed upon my constituents does not provide proper comprehensive education, that it reduces the facilities and opportunities which the children of my constituents have enjoyed hitherto, that it is an aborted thalidomide of a scheme, and that it is not comprehensive education.
I affirm my belief that in this tiny island, having, as we do, to import half our food and with the exception of coal, all our raw materials, we have throughout the ages won fame and reward for Britain by means of our inventive genius. We can look to steam power, radar, penicillin, vertical take-off, nuclear power, and even the cables of communication round the world. These are the products of fine British brains. In my view, our greatest raw material is our brains, and we limit the development of the best brains in the country to their fullest capacity at our peril.
In this debate I am taking the boy's schools as an example. I should not like anyone to think that I am ignoring the equally dramatic problem of the girls, but, limited by time, I am taking this particular example.
We are justifiably proud of the academic record, the facilities and the contributions of staff and pupils to education in the community at the Hurst Road Boys' Grammar School from where, in eight years, 563 boys have gone to university, 145 of them to Oxford and Cambridge. They had been selected by that school on merit from all age and income groups. They had been selected from the widest possible spheres solely on their merit to benefit from the education which the school can offer. Of an original intake for the A-level courses of 1,020 in that period, it means that 55 [column 1945]per cent. got university places and others have joined colleges of education and technical colleges, some of which offer courses leading to a degree.
Hurstmere, our modern school, again with an outstanding staff dedicated to a different type of teaching, aided by more visual aids, by more practical work, and by adequate and fine workshops, has an outstanding record of bringing on the slower boys, of developing the best capacity of the boy who is good with his hands, a great record of encouraging them to leave after 15, and a willingness to transfer the bright late developer to the technical or the grammar school if his aptitude points that way.
Similarly, our technical school has been equipped with appropriate courses and it enjoys a high standard. These three schools, with other schools placed in Welling or Sidcup, are to be thrown into a new scheme of selection of entry from 11 to 14 and then from 14 to 18. I have failed to discover why this new scheme of 11 to 14 and then 14 to 18 is to be imposed on my constituency as one small part of the Division although it is apparently not the panacea for either Bexley or Erith.
I should like to seek advice from my right hon. Friend on an administrative point. In 1966 the then Labour council introduced a comprehensive plan for education over the whole borough. I understand that this was approved by the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short). On the attainment of a Conservative majority in 1968, this was withdrawn. Following the return of a Labour majority on the council three months ago, the present scheme was abandoned and notices were posted on the schools relating to the original 1966 scheme, but with substantial amendments affecting my division. That scheme was for all 11 to 18 entry. The new scheme is for 11 to 14 entry at five schools and 14 to 18 entry at two thereafter.
A new generation of parents has emerged since 1966 and a new intake of children has come on the scene. I am asking that today's parents on behalf of today's children should have the right to present their views to my right hon. Friend. Or can a council decision five years old, and subsequently withdrawn, [column 1946]be imposed on an entirely different interested party?
Henceforward all entry goes to one of five schools from 11 to 14 whether they are equipped to deal with a grammar stream or not. This is wasteful of assets and forces upon teachers trained for specific streams a mixture of pupils where, even if they devise a new mean, it will be too fast for the slow and too slow for the fast. At 14, Hurst Road School will take in all entry. It will take at least a term, probably six months, to sort out and stream the intake. Half of that intake will be boys determined to leave at 15 or, with the increased age limit, 16, frustrated at being pitchforked into a new school. They will have a comparatively short period there. Some will be unwilling and some will be educationally unable, to use the advanced facilities which the school provides, and they will therefore be wasted.
Those in the 11 to 14 group, the potential grammar school stream and perhaps wanting a professional degree, will be in a school where there will be fine workshops and no fine labs. They will not see the fine labs until they move on at 14 to the higher school. At 14 budding craftsmen will lose the workshops which are provided.
It is all very fine sayings that this will be ironed out in five or 10 years' time, but the education authority has said that it has no money for these improvements, and I am talking about today's generation, about next year's intake. We cannot give back to a child five years later what it has lost in being unable to achieve the degree or craftsmanship which it could now achieve in the schools in my division.
Then, because of an outrageous line of demarcation, which runs roughly along the railway line from Sidcup Station, boys who could use the facilities at Hurst Road to the utmost are to be sent to Bexley and Erith Technical School, which is miles away, where they will not find the nine fine advanced labs, where no second language is taught, where there is no teaching of pure maths, where there is no teaching of applied maths, and where they can take only the course for combined maths.
Bang goes any chance of entry to Oxford or Cambridge to add to the [column 1947]145 who have gone there from Hurst Road in 8 years. Bang goes any chance of being a scientist in the eight to 10 branches of higher science. There will be no Latin for the boy wishing to be a doctor or lawyer, and for those wishing to take English or history there will be only the choice of secondary places, in competition with those boys and girls who have had the opportunity of learning two languages. Because of the requirements of the universities, they will have less chance of getting places because the other boys and girls will be able to take with them every qualification towards a degree in history or English. They can take with them their two languages, which will not be available to a large proportion of students from my constituency in these 14 to 18 schools.
I defy any educationist to prove that this mean partisan scheme provides better education and opportunities than are at the moment provided for the children in my constituency, whatever their capacity. It can only reduce the purpose defined education which is successfully pursued at present in first-class schools with devoted staff in whatever group those teachers teach.
I am not impressed by promises that in five or 10 years this will all be sorted out. On any count it lowers the standard of education. It denies the next five to 10 years' school generation the opportunity to maintain the magnificent standard that we have had in Sidcup and Chislehurst. We cannot say to the would-be scientist that he can come back to school five years afterwards. We cannot redress the balance for a history or any other teacher five years after he has taken a secondary degree.
These proposals are opposed by all the schools involved. They are opposed by hundreds of parents whose children are now involved, and by the parents of children who will be involved in the future and want the best for them. I can say without fear of contradiction that the schools in my constituency are well above the average. I ask the Minister to ensure that in any new scheme this provision is not reduced, and that opportunities for children in my constituency are not and shall not be destroyed. [column 1948]
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith), on the thoroughness with which she has dealt with the effect on her constituents of the Bexley Local Education Authority's policies in the field of secondary education. I must also mention that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath), is particularly interested in this matter, and has found time this week to receive a deputation raising the major issue which we are discussing in this debate, and also to speak to me about it.
I fully recognise that the historical changes in the organisation of local government, to which my right hon. Friend has referred—from the Chislehurst and Sidcup Urban District Council within the Kent Local Education Authority's area to a splitting of the division between the London Boroughs of Bexley and Bromley, each a local education authority—add to the complexity of an already complex story. I think, from what my right hon. Friend said, that she realises how complex the whole story is.
The sequence of events with which we are mainly concerned, however, is that which relates to the fluctuations of policy of the Bexley Local Education Authority as a result of successive changes of political control. As the House knows, I have now discontinued the practice of the last Government of giving administrative approval in principle to non-statutory plans for the reorganisation of secondary education. It had become quite clear that the practice of approving these non-statutory plans, which set out authorities' broad schemes for reorganising an area, had tended to create confusion about the statutory procedure under Section 13 of the Education Act 1944, as amended, which alone provides the legal basis for any change in the organisational pattern of schools in an area.
This procedure requires that formal proposals be submitted to the Secretary of State in each case in which it is intended to establish a new school or to close, or significantly change the character of, an existing school. At the same time, public notice must be given of the proposal and a period of two months [column 1949]is prescribed during which local government electors and governors of voluntary schools affected may submit objections to the Department. This statutory procedure provides the means whereby local views on proposals for individual schools may be fully taken into account before final decisions are made.
Moreover, I can give my right hon. Friend an unqualified assurance that, in considering statutory proposals, I can and do take into account educational and practical matters of the kind which she has mentioned. I know, however, that she will readily recognise that it would be wrong for me today to offer any comments on the merits of any proposals which the Bexley Local Education Authority may be formulating.
Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)
I have quite a lot to say, nevertheless. What we have already heard in this debate provides, I think, further confirmation that I was right to decide earlier this year to confine my approval or rejection to statutory proposals from local education authorities. Clearly much of the present complexity of the situation in Bexley stems from the administrative approval and rejection of non-statutory plans under the last Government and, in trying to deal with the questions which my right hon. Friend has put, I shall distinguish clearly between the statutory steps, as distinct from the non-statutory steps, which have been taken at one time or another. My right hon. Friend referred to a number of those steps. I have worked them out carefully and should like to go through them precisely.
The non-statutory plan which was submitted in 1966 and approved in principle under Circular 10/65 in 1967 envisaged a mixed system of all-through 11–18 comprehensive schools, 11–16 comprehensive schools; and four 11–14 schools linked with three 14–18 upper schools. The authority submitted statutory proposals under Section 13 in respect of the majority of secondary schools affected by the plan, including the schools in my right hon. Friend's constituency, and these received approval under Section 13(4) in 1967 and January, 1968.
In July, 1968, the newly constituted Authority passed a resolution withdraw[column 1950]ing the plan with three exceptions which related to the Erith school, the two Crayford schools and the two Bexley-heath schools, but the Authority also resolved to take no further action with the intention to proceed with the reorganisation of these schools on comprehensive lines from September, 1969.
In December, 1969, the authority submitted a revised, non-statutory plan of secondary reorganisation which was rejected under Circular 10/65 in March, 1970. Now that there has been another political change, the parents of Bexley are faced with the implications of yet further changes of policy.
What is beyond dispute is that, since the approval in principle in 1967 of the non-statutory plan for comprehensive development and the statutory approval of a number of individual proposals intended to implement that plan, there was a complete abandonment of that intention. Now, the intention has been reborn. I rather expected to hear the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) say “Hear, hear” at that.
Section 13 was not designed to deal with a situation of this kind and it is not for me or any Secretary of State to decide questions of law as they apply to individual proposals affecting particular schools, but I can say what has been thought appropriate in any comparable situation elsewhere, and the view which has been taken of the spirit of the law as reflected in Section 13 in the context of the Act itself.
I think it is clear that the spirit of the law requires that any local opinion which may be critical of a local education authority's proposal should have the straightforward statutory opportunity of making itself known to the Secretary of State in the form of objections. This has always been true since the Section 13 procedure originated, but the Education Act, 1968, emphasised the importance attaching to the procedure of public notice, the main purpose of which is to give all those affected an understanding of what is afoot and a chance to object.
I think this is what my right hon. Friend meant when she said that there was a new generation of parents and children.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way. I have worked out every step, and I trust that he will allow me to continue.
A Departmental circular dealing with the provisions of that Act emphasised the desirability of authorities supplementing the text of public notices with explanatory statements in untechnical language where the full implications of a proposal might not otherwise be readily apparent to members of the public.
The passage of several years after the approval of a set of statutory proposals, without their implementation, has one or two obvious implications, particularly when the authority has, during that time, made policy decisions in a sense contrary to the approved proposals.
As my right hon. Friend said, many of the parents and children affected will be different and even informed members of the public may find difficulty in understanding the full import of the proposals against the background of the shifts of policy.
A situation broadly comparable to that in Bexley arose last year in the area of another local education authority in regard to proposals for the establishment of a comprehensive school. There, the authority decided to submit and publish fresh statutory proposals so that all those affected might have a full opportunity of understanding and examining, in an up-to-date setting, all that was entailed. Clearly the authority in question recognised the wisdom, in a complex situation, of placing the matter beyond doubt and giving precedence to the need to respect the feelings and opinions of local government electors in the locality.
This seems to me to be the attitude likely to be adopted by a responsible authority. I may mention that the other authority to which I referred, which issued fresh statutory proposals, was a Labour-controlled authority. I would certainly hope that the principles on which the attitude is based are those which all authorities would respect.
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady, but a document has been published by the London [column 1952]Borough of Bexley setting out the scheme in full detail and making it clear that every citizen of the borough will have full opportunities of making representations to the local education authority. On the last page the document says that when the public notices are issued in the early autumn of 1971 there will be an opportunity for formal objections to be made to the Secretary of State. The council is not concealing anything but is asking the residents of the borough, wherever they live, to take advantage of the arrangements that exist and are being made for proper representation and proper consideration of these proposals.
I am in the position that I might have to make a decision under legal procedures. I can, therefore, make no specific reference to what might happen. Any local government elector has the opportunity to make objections which I must consider on a legal basis, as I must consider the educational and other matters to which my right hon. Friend referred. I am glad that that attitude appears to have been adopted by the Bexley Local Education Authority. I believe that it is the attitude that would be adopted by all responsible authorities.
I very much welcome the opportunity which this debate has provided to speak, in necessarily general terms, about a procedural situation which, although fairly rare, can arise occasionally from the fluctuations of political control in local government. It is very important to establish and to emphasise the principles which underlie the procedures provided by the Education Acts. It is these which will determine how a responsible authority, whatever its political complexion, operates those procedures.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I hope that she, the local education authority, her constituents and the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford will find the general picture which I have painted helpful. I hope that other local authorities possibly in a similar position will also find it helpful.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.