Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1971 Oct 22 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Education (Central Advisory Councils) (adjournment debate)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [823/1187-98]
Editorial comments: 1600-29. MT spoke at cc1193-98. The whole of the brief debate is included on the disc.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3858
Themes: Executive, Education
[column 1187]


4.0 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I wish to raise the question of the Central Advisory Councils for Education, England and Wales. I have to thank the Department of Education and Science for some of the facts which it has made available to me in the last two weeks.

Unlike the debate in which we have just been involved, I hope to make this an entirely non-party matter. On occasions, party views too often obtrude into matters of national educational importance.

The origin of the points that I wish to raise is to be found in the Education Act 1944, Section 4(1) of which reads:

“There shall be two Central Advisory Councils for Education, one for England and the other for Wales and Monmouthshire, and it shall be the duty of those Councils to advise the Minister upon such matters connected with educational theory and practice as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him.”

There are three other subsections, and then one comes to Section 5, the margin note of which reads, “Annual Report to Parliament,” It says:

“The Minister shall make to Parliament an annual report giving an account of the exercise and performance of the powers and duties conferred and imposed upon him by this Act and of the composition and proceedings of the Central Advisory Councils for Education.”

I ought perhaps to add that the last line of that Section was added in the course of the Committee stage.

On 26th July last I tabled a Question to the Secretary of State for Education and Science asking how she discharged the duties laid upon her in those Sections with regard to the Central Advisory Councils, and whether she would make a statement. The right hon. Lady replied:

“The Central Advisory Council for Education (England) last met in October, 1966, and that for Wales in March, 1967. The terms of office of all their members expired shortly afterwards and no further appointments have been made.” —[Official Report, 26th July, 1971; Vol. 822, c. 38–9.]

Unless I am mistaken, here is a clear case of a Secretary of State not complying with the requirements of the Education Act, 1944. It is not in relation to an obscure subsection. It is a matter of [column 1188]central importance in the conduct of education. I hasten to add that this is not a matter for which I lay responsibility entirely upon the right hon. Lady. It has been a continuing matter, and it is one which as I have said, is not of party consequence.

I ought to go back into the history of these councils since, unless I do, the reason why this has happened cannot be made clear. Before 1944, there was an advisory committee, but it could deal only with matters referred to it by the then President of the Board of Education. Generations of students in training colleges and institutions of education have been told that under the 1944 Act there is a Central Advisory Council which can initiate.

In the course of the Committee stage of the Education Bill, Mr. R. A. Butler, the then President of the Board, said:

“Our object then is quite definite; it is for once to attach to the central authority in England a body which can pay some attention to what is taught in the schools, and also pay attention to all the most modern and up-to-date methods and, by reviewing the position continually, consider the whole question of what may be taught to the children.”

Then he instanced some possibilities of what could be done:

“Now we come to the possibility that the Minister might wish to refer to these Councils matters of interest in the conduct of administration generally. It might well be that these Councils would wish to interest themselves in the conduct of secondary education. For instance, it might be interesting to know whether secondary education, either in the Principality or in England, should develop upon a multilateral basis, as it does in some parts of Scotland or whether there should be a form of secondary education in one building, which is successful if you can find the ground and space on which to build your school.”

I should think that these matters are not the only factors for success, but they show the scope and width of vision which the then President of the Board had in these matters, which are still matters of some controversy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies) then a member of that Committee, a little later said:

“Rightly or wrongly, I regard this Clause and the appointment of the Central Advisory Council as being the most important part of the machinery to administer the Bill. If that is so, the personnel of these Advisory Councils would be most important and the composition, personnel and qualifications of the Councils [column 1189]must form a kind of acid test of the spirit and attitude of the Board.”

How right he was! I will not say that the 1944 Act has been vitiated by the absence of this, but I think that it could have worked a great deal better more recently had it been in existence and had the law been kept.

Later another hon. Member complained that Parliament would not know enough about what was going on. The then Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Ede, said:

“We are prepared, if the Committee will accept it, to move an Amendment to add at the end of the Clause these words, ‘and of the composition and proceedings of the Central Advisory Councils for Education.’.”

In other words, the report to Parliament was made a bit stiffer.

The then Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Moelwyn Hughes), who had wanted that, said:

“Indeed, in one way, and I freely confess it, the concession is better than the Amendment.” —[Official Report, 8th–9th February, 1944; Vol. 396, c. 1707–815.]

He had much greater faith in the parliamentary processes than is justified. Not only has there been no report to Parliament in the last few years about the membership or the list of referrals of the Councils to the Department or to the Minister, but there are no Councils at all. This is a matter of some consequence.

In the original few meetings when these Councils operated there were short reports in the annual report to Parliament by the then Minister, although there was no list of the membership or of the referrals of the Councils to the Minister.

Then there was a change. Originally membership was on a rotating basis. People were appointed and retired in rotation so that there was some continuity. There is some merit in this way of doing things. But there was a change in the early 1960's. The then Minister appointed en bloc and we had a trio of Councils, each of which was selected specifically for a particular purpose. We had the Crowther, the Newsom and the Plowden Reports, which loom large in the education world. The difficulty was that they were selected for specific purposes, the assumptions behind those purposes were those of the Minister, and the terms of reference were drawn up by the Minister. Indeed, the Newsom Report, [column 1190]which is a half-and-half document, said that it had difficulty with its terms of reference. It said that at the beginning of the report. I wonder whether any members of that Committee knew that they had the power under Section 4 of the Act to go further than the terms of reference or, indeed, to add a supplementary report which was footloose and not bound within the terms of reference of that Committee which, to many in the profession at the time, were highly tendentious.

I believe that the terms of reference of that Committee have been at the bottom of many of the controversies over the raising of the school-leaving age and the disquiet which has been felt. So, not only has the law been broken most recently, but the spirit of the 1944 Act was broken much earlier and the educational dialogue has been rather poor. Even those who direct and administer education at any level have been the poorer because of this. We have experienced an erosion of the spirit of the Act, with somewhat disastrous consequences.

I hope that the right hon. Lady is forced to review the whole consultative machinery in our educational world because from what I hear and read it seems that she is in some difficulty in one or two matters of current importance. I hope that she will now create these councils—which by law, unless she brings in an amending Act, she should be bound to appoint soon. I hope they will be representative in character and reflect the interests in education. I know that that has its difficulties. It would have its difficulties because of the deadlock that we have been talking about in Brussels. If there are people who have a vested interest in an occupational sense, of course there will be difficulties, whereas the total interest is that of the children and of the country as a whole.

But it need not exist entirely on a representative basis. There can be other representatives who perhaps can act as a catalyst and draw the threads together, and help to reach compromises where they are necessary. Had the right hon. Lady used that sort of formula and taken that sort of precaution in respect of some of the issues before us, had she used the central advisory councils, if they had been in existence, we might not have the sort of difficulties that we have today [column 1191]in respect of the James Committee. I use the word “difficulties” . I hope that we shall not trespass on the subject matter of that Committee, but if what we read is correct, the right hon. Lady may be doing so, as indeed she may be by her circular to education authorities about slow learners. I think that the Central Advisory Councils, if properly used, could have been of great help in both matters.

Another matter of current concern is that of local government reform. I understand that discussions are taking place concerning the new local government structure and whether there should be statutory committees of education. I am surprised that the subject has been raised. I should have thought that that would have been accepted right from the start, but I understand that some discussions are taking place. Perhaps that sort of thing might have been referred to the Central Advisory Councils had they been in existence.

I hope that because of the spirit and constructive nature of what I have said the right hon. Lady will understand that I have not made my speech in a partisan spirit. I believe that in education today we have suffered from a lack of dialogue. Indeed, in my maiden speech in this House I said that I did not believe that those responsible for our education were aware of some of the most important problems that lay before us. We have become seized up at the joints. The lines of dialogue as they existed have been atrophied, and they need some sort of rejuvenation.

I think that not only the letter but the spirit of the Act to which I referred has been broken, and I hope that the right hon. Lady will now perhaps re-assess the whole of the educational dialogue, the whole of the representative structure, if there is one and the advice that she gets. I have recently read of advice coming from several directions. I hope, therefore, that this Adjournment debate will be the means of starting some constructive discussions which will produce the kind of consultative machinery which Mr. Butler and Mr. Chuter Ede dreamed of at the time of the 1944 Act, still not fully implemented until the raising of the school-leaving age. Let us hope that when the time arrives we shall have created the sort of spirit and consultative structure which [column 1192]they then outlined in that great and important Act of Parliament.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I am in a position to say that the House appreciates what my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) has said, and I emphasise that this is not a matter of party controversy. I have been guilty of pungent criticism of the right hon. Lady's predecessors, and, knowing her fondness for new-look Conservatism and her kindness for administrative reform, I hope that she will seriously consider this difficult problem.

If the Select Committee had continued its work, it is more than likely that it would have expressed some views about this matter, and, if it had done so, that would not have been a reflection upon the right hon. Lady's Department. It would have been a comment upon a situation.

What we are really concerned with, within the context of the narrower question of these committees, is the government of education. This is a very difficult problem. It could be argued that the advantage of an administrative Department was that it could fairly hold the balance between the different interests in education and the dichotomy between professional educational interests and outside public interests. There is a good deal to be said for that, but there is even more to be said for a greater direct influence by educationalists.

I do not want to exaggerate, but this applies in the sense that the government of education is fragmented and that there is a good deal of autonomy in the various units which constitute our educational system. But what is lacking is a more direct influence of the voice of education in the central decisions which affect all the constituent parts of education. I hope that the right hon. Lady will look seriously at this question. I hope that she may have an opportunity to look at my remarks recently in the context of teacher training.

But that is only an illustration of a broader question. I would also sympathise with her that there were criticisms of the way in which some of these committees worked in the past. They were not altogether successful, and some of their work may have been discouraging to those in the Department. But the [column 1193]solution was not to dissolve the committees but to evolve a better machinery. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend reminds me that the action which the right hon. Lady has taken is contrary to the law. This is how it appears to some of us on the Select Committee. But I would not advise my hon. Friend to institute proceedings for mandamus, because I am horrified to think what she might do in response to such a move.

We are concerned about the government of education as a whole. I hope that the right hon. Lady will keep this under serious attention and see whether, in looking at the criticisms of my hon. Friend and those which some of us have made along the same lines, she may not have overlooked the cardinal problem of trying to provide for a better system of government of our educational services.

4.18 p.m.

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

I should like, first, to thank the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) for his thanks to the Department for providing him with a most interesting list of the reports which the central advisory councils have published. I also found the list very interesting. It was good to look through the work which they have done in the past. Like the hon. Member, I want to go back to the origins of this committee, all of which are very well known to the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey). In passing, I assure him that I have not only looked at his remarks on teacher training but have the book on my bookcase. I cannot yet say that every word has been read, but I will endeavour to read every word before important decisions have to be made on that topic.

The basic aim of the central advisory councils and of the provisions of the 1944 Act was to establish machinery to replace the former Consultative Committee which, since 1899, had advised the Board of Education on specific matters referred to it by the board. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, its terms of reference precluded it from initiating an inquiry on its own volition. It is true that the functions of the central advisory councils are wider than those of the Consultative Committee and are not confined to considering matters referred to them by Secretaries of State. [column 1194]

This then made very good sense because the 1944 Act represented a major turning point in the education system. It was clear that in succeeding years there would be a ferment of new ideas in education generally and many specific and major issues arising from the implementation of the Act.

Secondly, there was little or nothing at that time in the way of advisory machinery available to the responsible Ministers. I stress that second point for reasons that will become obvious during my remarks.

It was therefore appropriate that in addition to advising Ministers on major issues of direct concern to them the councils between specific remits, should also be able to turn to other matters which they considered of sufficient general interest and moment to warrant their attention. Had they not had this power there would have been a danger that consideration of some topics might have gone by default because of the lack of a suitable body to consider them.

As the hon. Member for Acton knows, there were not many occasions after the 1950s when they turned their attention to other topics, because there were major remits to them. In their early days the councils considered certain matters on their own initiative, but then came other official and more specialised advisory bodies—for example, the National Advisory Council on Education for Industry and Commerce in 1948. Others followed later.

This new factor, combined with the increasingly weighty nature of the matters referred by Ministers, resulted in the work of the councils from the mid-1950s onwards being based exclusively on specific remits, and their most significant and well known reports came after that period.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some well-known names. The Crowther Report on the 15 to 18 age group, the Newsom Report entitled “Half Our Future,” the Plowden Report on primary education and the Gittins Report on primary education in Wales are called readily to mind, but even these great reports were produced against a changing background of advisory machinery. The setting up of the councils was never intended to preclude the setting-up by Ministers of other [column 1195]standing advisory or ad hoc bodies to consider and report on specific references.

Ministers turned increasingly to bodies of this nature. They did so under Governments of both parties—as the hon. Gentleman was generous enough to mention—where the central advisory councils were already engaged or where it was felt, for one reason or another, that they were not entirely suitable for conducting particular inquiries.

In that first category I mentioned the National Advisory Council on Education for Industry and Commerce, which produced a large number of important reports in the '50s and '60s. In that category there is the National Advisory Council on Art Education, which was set up in the late '50s and has since produced a number of major reports, and the Advisory Committee on Handicapped Children, which is currently considering the educational needs of children who suffer from dyslexia.

In the second category—namely, that of ad hoc bodies to consider specific references—there have been the Anderson Report on awards to students, Albemarle on the youth service and Robbins on higher education. These are names of particular committees that spring to mind. There was also the Russell Committee on adult education, set up by Edward Shortmy predecessor in 1969, and the James Committee on teacher training, which I set up last year.

These are ad hoc bodies which are currently at work. I will not venture into the possible reports that will be produced by them. From the back benches the hon. Gentleman is perhaps in an easier position than I am to make such comments. I suggest that it is better to await their reports and read them thoroughly before venturing to comment on any difficulties that might arise.

I have also received reports on special education, as have my predecessors. There is a report on a survey of deaf children who have been transferred from special schools or units to ordinary schools, a report on the education of deaf children and the Summerfield Report on psychologists in education services. In addition to all these standing advisory committees and ad hoc committees, since the 1944 Act there have been autonomous standing councils with a strong advisory rôle, such [column 1196]as the Schools Council—continuous since 1964—and the National Council for Educational Technology, set up in 1967. They have both been established in recent years with remits covering important sectors of education. Added to these there is the increasing programme of educational research sponsored by my Department, some through the National Foundation for Educational Research, some through the Social Science Research Council and some quite independently of both.

There is already an enormous list for the right hon. Member and the hon. Member to consider but, added to that, as the hon. Member knows, a tremendous number of reports are produced by the inspectorate on some of the very topics that the hon. Member mentioned at the beginning of his speech, about what is taught in schools and the way in which it is taught. I mention just a few pamphlets which the Inspectorate has produced: “Language” , “Music in Schools” , “Modern Languages” , “Training of Teachers” , “Teaching Maths in Secondary Schools” , “Science in Secondary Schools” , “English for Immigrants” , “The Use of Books” , “Slow Learners at School” , “The Education of Maladjusted Children” , “Careers Guidance in Schools” , “Health in Education” , “Progress in Reading” , “Commercial Studies in Schools” , and “Towards the Middle School” . There are a whole host more.

Mr. Spearing

I know of many of these but I fail to understand why their existence has meant that the one statutory committee which could report to Parliament has ceased to exist.

Mrs. Thatcher

That is because when that was set up there were not the other advisory committees. There are now many standing advisory committees with the specific task of considering things which, at that time, there were no advisory committees to consider. At that time there was only one advisory committee. Now there are many—not only standing advisory committees specifically to advise the Ministry but independent advisory committees as well, such as the Schools Council and others I have mentioned, and there is also a great deal more research into specific subjects than ever went on before. [column 1197]

It is against this background, which has so vastly changed from that of 1944. That the position of the central advisory committees should be viewed. I appreciate, as will the hon. Member, that neither of us is making a party political point. Indeed, if I err, I err in very distinguished Socialist company, and Socialists err in very distinguished Conservative company, the company of my predecessors if not me.

The background is completely different and it is against this background that the position of the C.A.C. should be viewed now. Against this background there has developed a tendency on the part of successive Secretaries of State during the past 15 years or more to leave the setting up of C.A.C.s until a major topic arises which only a council of this nature can appropriately deal with. [column 1198]A wide range of advisory machinery is now available to Ministers, and the intense and widespread public discussion of educational matters, to which the right hon. Member has made such effective contribution, has become a feature of our everyday lives and serves to ensure that important educational issues are not likely to go by default, even during periods when C.A.C.'s are not active.

The only thing which surprised me in what the hon. Gentleman said was that there was a shortage of dialogue. I find no shortage of dialogue, no shortage of advice or of interest—possibly a shortage of money, because there is so much I want to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.