Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Debate on the Address - Education]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [825/497-527]
Editorial comments: 1105-1223. MT spoke at cc497-510, 513-14, 517-18, 519, 520, 521, 522, 527.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 10779
Themes: Education, Private education, Primary education, Secondary education, Higher & further education, Employment, Public spending & borrowing, Health policy, Trade unions
[column 497]


11.5 a.m.

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

The Gracious Speech had this to say about education:

“The substantial programme of replacement and improvement of primary school buildings will be continued. Steps will be taken to raise the school-leaving age to 16. Grants to direct grant schools will be increased. Provision for higher and further education will be improved and expanded.”

I shall start by referring to school building. In August the Department published Report on Education No. 71 which set out the main facts and figures about school building since the war and also looked ahead over the next two or three years. Today I want to pick out some of the main points from those figures.

The major school building programme in England and Wales—leaving out minor works, on which I shall say something later—will be running this year and next [column 498]at record levels. The total value of work to be started in each of these two years, £179 million, is about half as much again in real terms as the average for the second half of the 1960s.

Within the total there is, of course, first, the special programme of £125 million spread over three years for raising the school-leaving age which was authorised by the last Government and is now being carried out. Second, there is the programme for other basic needs; that is, the provision of new places to meet the increase in, and movement of, the school population. In some areas the number of pupils in primary schools is already falling, and over the country as a whole there will be no significant change between 1970 and 1975 in the number of children of primary school age. This means that the basic needs programme is being devoted increasingly to secondary schools.

The Government are continuing to give high priority to the improvement and replacement of old primary schools. The resources available for this purpose, nearly £190 million in the four years beginning in 1972–73, are very substantial. In those four years alone, it should be possible to replace or improve getting on for 2,000 old primary schools.

I know that there has been some criticism of our decision to concentrate on primary schools to the exclusion, in 1972–73 and 1973–74, of the improvement of old secondary schools. There are two reasons for this. First, we believe that it is right to shift the emphasis in favour of the primary schools, the foundation on which all later education and training are built. Good school building are not everything. But if children at the age of 5 are given a chance in buildings properly designed and equipped for primary education, there must be lasting benefits.

Second, it is not generally realised how much more has been done for secondary schools than for primary schools since the war. By the end of 1970 the number of new secondary places provided since the war was equivalent to well over 80 per cent. of the secondary school population. The corresponding figure for primary schools was little more than 60 per cent.

Two more figures bring out the same point. One million—1 in 5—of our [column 499]primary school children are in 19th century schools. This is true of only about 1 in 20 of our secondary school children. When we have made more progress with the replacement of the worst old primary schools, I hope that we shall be able to devote resources to the improvement of secondary schools.

Before I leave school building, I should like to mention three other points about minor works, nursery provision, and rural areas. I deal first with minor works.

From next April a minor project will be one costing up to £40,000. We are allocating well over £30 million a year for minor projects which local authorities can carry out at their discretion. A large part of this has to be devoted to the provision of extra places at schools where the numbers involved would not justify a major project, but many local authorities are able to carry out minor improvements of both primary and secondary schools from their allocations. This process will be speeded up by the Government's decision to allocate about £5 million extra spread over this year and the next for minor works by local authorities and voluntary bodies in areas of high unemployment.

Secondly, as my hon. Friend W. van Straubanzeethe Under-Secretary of State stated yesterday in an answer in this House, a further allocation of £1.2 million has been made for the provision of nursery places. This will be administered through the urban programme as part of the Government's plans to assist areas of special difficulty, and is in addition to the 5,000 places announced last January.

Thirdly, a word about the improvement of primary places in rural areas. Although the 1972–73 programme was weighted in favour of socially deprived urban areas, the improvements programme for 1973–74 includes many rural primary schools as well. I have asked the Inspectorate to let me have by the end of the year an assessment of the handicaps imposed on children in rural areas by bad school buildings, and, conversely, of the benefits which new buildings can bring.

Now I should like to say something about school milk. It is constantly being overlooked in public comment that milk is still supplied free to all pupils in special [column 500]schools, to pupils up to the end of the school year in which they become 7 years of age, and to pupils between 7 and 12 years of age who have a health requirement and who are in primary or middle schools.

I realise that in the first term of operation school doctors had a difficult task initially in considering which children should be given free milk on medical grounds, but in subsequent terms the problems of examination and certification will be much easier. I am sure that doctors, as professional men and women, would not have wished the Department to tell them on what specific medical grounds children should be considered to need milk.

Meanwhile, plans have been made through the Chief Medical Officer's Sub-Committee on Nutritional Surveillance to monitor the position generally over the coming years. The new arrangements came into effect at the beginning of the autumn term. I shall not know till the results of the autumn census are complete how many local education authorities have yet been able to make arrangements to provide milk for sale to pupils under the new power conferred on them by the Act. They have not yet had long to consider whether to do so. Clearly, no local education authority will supply milk till it has assessed the extent of demand, and this may take a little time yet. I believe that many parents are quite willing to pay for the milk and would like it to be on sale in schools. As I said in the departmental circular of August, I hope authorities will be prepared to supply milk for sale where there is a sufficient demand to justify making the arrangements. Some authorities are already doing so.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

In considering the results of the survey, would the right hon. Lady also take into consideration the price which is being charged for school milk in schools in those areas where it is being sold? Is she aware that the retail price for 1⅔ pints, at one-third of a pint a day, is 9.6p a week? At Southampton, to take one example, the charge is 13p per week for one-third of a pint of milk a day because the authorities say they have to meet all the administrative charges and costs. Would the right hon. Lady look into that?

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Mrs. Thatcher

This involves, for school milk, local authorities charging the price of the milk and any administrative costs arising from its sale.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrew, West)

I am wondering whether the right hon. Lady or the Department has followed up a point which she made in a letter to me of 20th August in which she said:

“There is nothing in the Act which requires a medical officer to wait until there is overt sign of malnutrition before giving a certificate and in this sense preventive considerations may be a factor in his professional judgment in the individual case.”

Has it been made clear to medical officers of health or individual authorities that the preventive consideration should be applied in the medical judgment? To certain doctors, clearly, the preventive consideration would apply to all children.

Mrs. Thatcher

I think I have dealt with that point already in that part of my speech on school milk when I said that we were not giving specific advice to doctors about how they should make their judgments. They are professional people, and they have not had specific advice about how to carry out their duties, and I think they are well able to take their own decisions themselves.

In the related field of school meals I am aware of recent Press articles about take-up since the new term started in September. The fact is, however, that the official returns from local education authorities which relate to take-up on a day during the period 4th October to 15th October are only now reaching the Department. Too few have yet been received to form any useful comparison with the results of the census last May. When the complete results are known, I shall, of course, make them available to the House.

It is right that we should be concerned with the number of school dinners served both on payment and free to the pupils, but we should not be preoccupied exclusively with numbers. Circumstances have changed a great deal since the present pattern of the school meals service was established well over 25 years ago. These changes are reflected to some extent in the moves in some secondary schools towards the provision of meals other than the traditional school dinner, and there have been considerable [column 502]advances in food technology in the last 20 years.

I think the time has come when we ought to review the aims and methods of the school meals service. My Department has already had a preliminary discussion with officers of the local authority associations, and I shall shortly be inviting their chairmen to discussions with me about how the school meals service can best be developed to meet modern conditions.

I turn now to that part of the Gracious Speech which deals with the raising of the school-leaving age. I have spoken on earlier occasions about the raising of the school-leaving age but this reform is of such importance that it is right that I should give the House a progress report.

As we approach the operative date it is essential that all of us involved should check our readiness more and more carefully. The purpose of the Department's Circular 8/71, issued last August, was to set out in precise detail the impact, timing and machinery, and to ask authorities to examine their preparations and to consider as a matter of urgency what remains to be done. I am satisfied, in general terms, that the resources which have been committed nationally are adequate and are being effectively applied, but I have asked all authorities to let me have by 1st December reports on the state of their preparedness. Where these reports show matters requiring further action I have asked that they should also indicate the nature and timing of the methods proposed.

It is natural that there should be fears that when the school-leaving age is raised schools will find they have an increased problem to deal with in the presence of pupils who do not want to stay on at school and may be tempted to stay away. The authorities and the teachers are well aware of the need to ensure that the curriculum for the secondary school course is seen to be relevant to practical objectives and, particularly in the final year, to career prospects. The circular has a good deal to say about curriculum development in this context.

The problem of truancy needs to be treated seriously but it should be kept in perspective. It involves only a small minority of pupils, and it certainly does not justify second thoughts about the wisdom of raising the school-leaving age. [column 503]

The House may like to be reminded of the practical implications of raising the age. The effect is to substitute 16 for 15 in all the provisions of the Education Acts which deal with the upper limit of compulsory school age. The change will be made by Order in Council which will be laid before both Houses of Parliament and will be subject to negative Resolution by either House for a period of 40 days. The Order will be expressed to come into operation on 1st September, 1972. It is intended to lay the draft before Parliament as early as practicable in 1972. The change will affect all pupils at ordinary maintained, direct-grant or independent schools whose fifteenth birthday falls on or after 1st September, 1972—pupils at special schools already stay on until they are 16—who would, under the present law, be entitled to leave school at the end of either the Easter or Summer term 1973, depending on the precise date of their birthday. The effect of the change is that they will have to stay at school until the end of the Easter term 1974, if their sixteenth birthday falls on any date from 1st September, 1973, to 31st January, 1974, and until the end of the Summer term 1974 if their sixteenth birthday falls on or after 1st February, 1974, and before 1st September, 1974.

Those pupils in school during 1972–73, other than those at special schools, who attained their fifteenth birthday before 1st September, 1972, will be entitled, if they wish, to leave school at any time.

I have already mentioned the school building allocation of £125 million spread over three years for raising the school-leaving age. Virtually all the projects covered by the allocation for the first year started on time.

When the decision to raise the school-leaving age was taken in 1964, it seemed probable that immediately after the age was raised there would be a sharp deterioration in pupil-teacher ratio. This now seems unlikely to happen. The size of the teaching force is increasing faster than ever before, and in 1973/74, the year in which the extra burden falls on the schools, the increase in teachers numbers should be very nearly, if not quite, sufficent to match the rise in the number of pupils in the schools, so that the pupil-teacher ratio will worsen, if at all, by only a small amount. In the following [column 504]year the improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio should be resumed.

Curriculum development, with the raising of the school leaving age in mind, has been stimulated widely in recent years by the Schools Council, and the establishment of nearly 500 teachers' centres has provided, throughout the country, the means whereby local curriculum development work is going forward. Since 1964 the Schools Council has given a high priority to a programme of activity in preparation for the raising of the school-leaving age and facts about that programme are set out in a leaflet published in September 1971, “Schools Council and the Young School Leaver.”

At this point I should like to touch on the subject of work experience schemes for older school children because it is related in one respect to the raising of the school-leaving age.

For several years past there has been a growth in secondary schools of the practice of sending pupils to take part for short spells in the work of factories and other industrial and commercial undertakings. This is different from the observation visit or conducted tour. The object has been to give pupils greater insight than can be given in the course of a short visit into the world of work, its disciplines and relationships. “Work experience” of this sort has been confined to pupils who have stayed on at school after reaching the minimum school-leaving age of 15. This is because the law, as it stands at present, does not allow pupils below minimum school-leaving age to participate in the work of factories and commercial undertakings.

There are a great many arguments in favour of this type of scheme as an introduction to the world of work. However, raising the minimum school-leaving age would have the effect of excluding the 15-year-olds from taking in this sort of experience unless the law were changed. I have consulted the educational interests, the local authorities and the representatives of employers and workers on the desirability of such a change. I am at the moment considering with my right hon. and hon. Friends, in the light of the views expressed by those interests, the possibility of such an amendment.

Before I turn to the subjects of further and higher education I have something [column 505]to say about the direct grant schools. We gave an election pledge to encourage these schools, which give such excellent educational opportunities to pupils from many differing backgrounds. We now redeem that pledge. [Interruption.] I said “pupils from many differing backgrounds.” We now redeem that pledge.

Two changes will be introduced from next January. First, the capitation grant payable for each pupil in the schools will be increased by £32, from £32 to £62 per annum. This increase restores the cut of £20 imposed by the previous Government and makes a contribution to increases in costs since that date. The necessary statutory regulations have been made, and will be laid before the House next week. [Interruption.] I will give the total cost later. The schools will be required to reduce the fees payable by a corresponding amount.

Secondly, I propose to amend the income scales under which parents whose children do not have one of the free places at these schools may qualify for remission of tuition fees.

An example may help the House to see the effect of the revised income scale. A family with one child at a direct-grant school and with an income of £1,500 per annum, will have to contribute £12 per term towards the tuition fees instead of nearly £30 at present. With two children at the school the fees would be £13.50 per term—£6.75 each child—compared with £41 per term at present.

These two changes, taken together, will mean that higher Government grants are being paid. But the extra funds will all be applied to the reduction of fees and will not be at the disposal of the schools to use in other ways. [Interruption.] This is the usual way with direct-grant schools. This will make it easier for parents of modest means to benefit from the education which these schools can offer their children. The net additional cost to public funds will be about £2 million in a full year.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

Will the right hon. Lady tell us how much school milk could be provided or how many school meals could be subsidised for that money?

Mrs. Thatcher

I think the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that children at direct grant schools have as much right to be [column 506]educated as children elsewhere. The excellence of these schools has been recognised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

The right hon. Lady said that children at these schools have as much right to be educated as children elsewhere. But that is not what the subsidy is for. It is for fees. It is not going to improve the quality of education.

Mrs. Thatcher

The quality of the education is excellent. That is one reason why these schools should be preserved. I wish that hon. Gentlemen would concentrate on keeping what is good, instead of destroying it.

I have felt that the House would wish me to devote the greater part of my speech today to the schools. But I must refer also to plans for further and higher education, which are no less important.

First, the universities. We expect that there will be about 238,000 students in the universities in the academic year 1971–72 which has just begun. This is an increase of 10,000 over 1970–71 and compares with the target of 220,000 to 225,000 set by the previous Government and with the Robbins Committee's recommendation of 204,000 students. Figures for expenditure are equally striking. In the current financial year the universities' recurrent, equipment and capital grants are likely to amount to over £300 million compared with £210 million when this quinquennium began in 1966–67 and well under £100 million 10 years ago.

The universities' next quinquennium starts in August 1972 and ends in July 1977. At the suggestion of the University Grants Committee we are following the same timetable for settling their grants as the previous Government did for the current quinquennium. The first step is to give the universities a provisional allocation of both recurrent and equipment grant for the academic year 1972–73 so that they may have 9–10 months in which to make their plans. I hope to be able to announce this provisional allocation very shortly. Meanwhile, the universities have now submitted their proposals to the U.G.C. for the whole of the next quinquennium. The U.G.C. is now analysing these proposals. It expects to offer the Government advice early in the spring of [column 507]1972, and the grants will be settled later in the year.

The reason why it is not practicable to speed up this timetable is that the U.G.C. thinks it essential, in the universities' own interests, to give the most accurate and reliable information it can about the pattern of university expenditure. Figures for 1970–71 are not sufficiently up-to-date for the purpose. In the U.G.C.'s view, it was well worth waiting for universities to produce forecasts of their budgets for 1971–72, as they have now done.

In considering the future shape and pattern of higher education we shall have to look very carefully at the question of student residence. On the one hand, there are the advantages which are thought by many to arise from living away from home and moving in some sense towards greater independence. On the other hand, it is a very expensive element in the higher education budget. This is one of those subjects which the House is particularly good at discussing, and I should very much welcome its views. Student accommodation will certainly be an important factor when we settle the rate of expansion of higher education over the next 10 years.

Before the war over 40 per cent. of university students lived at home. Despite the cost of providing residence, despite the shortage of lodgings and despite the increase in the number of institutions—which means that far more people are now within easy reach of a university—the percentage of day students has fallen steadily. In 1969–70 it was down well below 17 per cent. This is quite a remarkable change, and I suggest that it puts a rather different complexion on the problem of student accommodation.

Students naturally want to be independent of their parents and to have the experience of living and working in new surroundings. Nevertheless, it is open to question whether the general public, which has to foot the bill, would accept that all, or almost all, students have a right to accommodation in a distant university even though there is one offering similar courses within travelling distance of their homes. Equally, students might ask themselves whether by remaining at home for their higher educa[column 508]tion studies they could not have avoided the difficulties in which some now find themselves.

The House will already have taken note that I have this week issued, as a basis for consultation, a document setting out some possible changes in the methods of financing student unions. I would emphasise that this is a consultative document. That is to say, it does not announce decisions but it sets out proposals for consideration by the various interests concerned—notably the local authority associations, the University Grants Committee, the Vice-Chancellors' Committee, the various student bodies, and others. The aim is to establish the financing of student unions on a new basis with effect from the academic year 1972–73.

The proposals are certainly not intended to weaken the position of student unions as bodies representative of student opinion and as centres of student activity within the academic community. But I share the concern which has been expressed in the House and in public about the way in which some, though only some, unions run their affairs. Certain other proposals have been canvassed, but first I want to consider fully with those who would have to administer it, all the implications of the scheme put forward in the document. I am sure that it would work best if there were close consultation between governing bodies and student representatives in individual institutions and, as the consultative document makes clear, once the institutions have taken decisions on the resources to be made available for student union facilities, students could still have full responsibility for managing these facilities.

While I am on the subject of higher education I should like to refer briefly to the speculation and comment which is being freely offered about the possible recommendations which are to be made to me by Lord James and his colleagues on the future of teacher training. I am sure the House will readily appreciate that it would be quite wrong for me to comment at this stage. We must await the report of the Committee, which is expected at about the end of this year, and I can assure the House that I will publish it as soon as possible after its receipt, and that I will consult interested bodies about its recommendations before taking any decisions on them. [column 509]

I turn now to further education. I know that the House and the local education authorities and governing bodies are anxious to be informed of our plans for future of these institutions as part of the wider consideration we are giving to higher education. Although I cannot cover all this ground today, I am glad to be able to announce some significant steps forward.

First, the Department is notifying authorities of about £25 million worth of projects on which building is to start in the financial year 1972–73. Eight million pounds of this will be for major projects at polytechnics.

Second, starts worth £37 million are to be authorised for further education building in 1973–74. Of this, £16 million is intended for major projects at polytechnics, and the Department is getting in touch with individual authorities about specific projects on which planning and design work can proceed in expectation of a building start in 1973–74.

Third, starts in the two following years will be even larger to match the continuing rise in student numbers. We are aiming at a total of about £140 million for the three years starting with 1973–74, and this compares with £80 million for the three preceding years.

Fourth, authorities are being notified of new standards for use in the planning of polytechnics and for fixing expenditure limits and at the same time existing standards for other further education colleges are being improved in many ways. In particular, the new standards will enable libraries to be planned on a more appropriate scale than hitherto, and provision will be made for adequate working spaces for academic staff and communal facilities. These changes will come into effect in 1973–74, and are taken into account in capital allocations from that year onwards.

There is one further general point I should like to mention on which I know concern has been expressed. It has a particular bearing on the ability of the education service to carry out these immensely important tasks. I refer to the statutory requirement on local education authorities to establish an education committee for the discharge of their functions. Concern has rightly been expressed at the prospect that this requirement might [column 510]be abandoned. I am happy to end my speech by drawing attention to the relevant provisions of the Local Government Bill published yesterday, from which it will be seen that the requirement is to continue indefinitely after reorganisation in 1974.

The main priorities, therefore, to which the Government are allocating resources and effort in education at this time are improving primary school building, raising the school-leaving age and strengthening further and higher education. These policies represent a vigorous programme for the expansion of education—a far more vigorous programme than ever achieved previously.

Mr. Kaufman


Mrs. Thatcher

If the hon. Gentleman ever looks at the facts, which is doubtful, he will find that to be so.

11.39 a.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

The Opposition have chosen education as one of the subjects in the six-day debate on the Address for two reasons: first of all, because we believe, even if the Government do not, that education is one of the most important public services; and, second, because there is growing disquiet—indeed, dismay—throughout the country about the Government's education policy or, in some cases, utter lack of policy, as I will show in a moment.

I want first to draw attention to one issue in the small print in the Government's programme for this year. I myself believe, and we on this side believe, that it is a monumental error to have education as a function of the lower tier in the metropolitan counties.

We are all acquainted with the growing and rather daunting task of finding the resources for education. There can never be, in the nature of the service, a plateau of expenditure. It is self-generating—the more provided the more demanded, and rightly so.

At present, educational expenditure amounts to roughly £50 per head of the total population, and this will continue to increase. Provision for higher education alone—I shall talk about this later—must be doubled in the 1970s. It will increaseingly be the case that only the larger local authority units will be able to [column 511]develop the service as it ought to be developed.

The Department of Education and Science gave evidence to the Royal Commission on Local Government, and said—this figure was not prompted by any ministerial intervention; it emerged from the Department itself, and I assure the right hon. Lady about that—that the population base for a viable local education authority was ½ million. In the White Paper on Local Government, the Government said that it was desirable to think in terms of ¼ million, and only in special circumstances should a local education authority have a smaller population than ¼ million. That was the Government's view in the White Paper.

In the Tyne-Wear metropolitan county there are to be five metropolitan districts, of which three will have a population of fewer than ¼ million, the Government's figure, let alone being anywhere near the D.E.S. figure of ½ million. In the No. 7 metropolitan county area in Yorkshire—and what a tragedy it is to break up the West Riding Education Authority—two out of four district authorities will have fewer than ¼ million. Of the 34 metropolitan districts throughout the country, 11 will have a smaller population than the figure which the Government said was the absolute minimum.

Most of the decisions about the layout of the education system are taken locally, or they were until the right hon. Lady came along, as we know in the case of school milk and a number of other matters that I shall talk about shortly. Our system, as a result, is developing in a number of rather diverse patterns. No one wants uniformity in a service of this kind, but in this age of high mobility of labour it places a considerable difficulty on parents who move from one area to another, and the fewer local education authorities there are the better. I have been in local government and I understand the pressures to which any Government setting out to reorganise local government are subjected. But they really must be resisted.

This pandering to parochialism can only harm education in the decade ahead. The small population metropolitan district authorities will have increasing difficulty in finding the resources to develop their service unless there is a [column 512]radical change in the financing of education, unless a very much bigger share of the cost is borne by the central Government—which is hardly likely under a Government whose whole existence depends on the three card trick of reducing taxation by increasing rates, fares, rents and prices.

This is one example, and there are many others, of the downgrading of the education service under this Government. I was about to refer to a second example, but I am very pleased that the right hon. Lady has removed it by what she said at the end of her speech about the statutory education authority.

I want to refer to one aspect of this matter. I must protest on behalf of the education service—someone has to speak for it if the right hon. Lady will not—at the composition of the working party. There are four clerks and two treasurers, but why no director of education of the working party? Education is the biggest service administered by local authorities and by far the biggest spender. Why does not the right hon. Lady defend it in the Government? Why did she not see to it that there is a director of education on this working party?

Secondly, I must protest at the gross discourtesy with which the associations which have submitted their views have been treated. I think that the right hon. Lady knows about this. The Department of the Environment wrote on 12th August to the T.U.C. and a number of other bodies inviting written evidence on local authority management structures—I repeat, the Department wrote on 12th August—asking for comments by 8th October. We have become used to attenuated consultation periods under this Government. This one was extremely short, but I understand that most of the associations and the T.U.C. sent in their views by that date. In spite of that, we now know that the working group completed a report by 16th September although it had asked for comments by 8th October. To add to this discourtesy, it had the cheek to say, in an addendum to the Report, in terms, that it had reached agreement on all the main points three weeks before that date, on 26th August. What an amazing way to consult anyone, to ask for their views and not only to ignore them but to have the brazen effrontery to tell them that one has ignored them and has not [column 513]bothered to wait. Only a Tory Government could be guilty of behaviour of that kind. Here is something in the small print of the Government's programme for this year which indicates clearly the way in which they evaluate the education service.

I turn to the two parts of the Gracious Speech which mention education. It is typical of life under a Tory Government that we should read in the same week that the central Government aid to direct-grant schools is to be increased and that the children at a Birmingham primary school have been scavenging for crusts in the pig-swill bins. I read that in the papers the same day. I note that the Tory chairman of the Birmingham Education Committee has said that the headmistress who revealed this is unfit to hold her job because she has made this fact public. This is another example at local level of Tory philosophy. May I say, in the House of Commons, that Miss Violet Legge, who is known to many of us, is an excellent, compassionate headmistress, who has not only the right but the duty to comment publicly on the social background to her school?

Is it not typical that the Government should cut out primary school milk in order to save £9 million and should now give a quarter of that money, roughly, to the direct-grant schools? The country can now see why primary school milk has been stopped. It was to increase the Government's grant to the semi-independent sector, subsidising education for better-off people at the expense of the poor. What a miserable, shabby redistribution of income! How can the right hon. Lady ever hold up her head again in educational circles?

The right hon. Lady was proud of it today. I am afraid that she is really beyond redemption. The £2 million is about a quarter of the £9 million the Government save by cutting out primary school milk. There are four age groups in the primary schools, and, therefore, they could, with that money, have kept milk for the 8-year-olds. They could have raised the age from 7 to 8. Why did she not do that if she had £2 million to throw away?

Mrs. Thatcher

Would the right hon. Gentleman say how much he saved by cutting out secondary school milk?

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Mr. Short

The right hon. Lady knows and has paid tribute today to what I spent it on—getting more teachers for the schools?

Mrs. Thatcher

The primary schools?

Mr. Short

The right hon. Lady has paid tribute to it. She said that it was the one thing for which she would pay tribute to me.

Hon Members

How much?

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)


Mr. Short

We all understand the right hon. Lady's haste. She knows well that one local authority after another will become Labour-controlled in May 1972 and that if they have their secondary schools reorganised they will stop taking places in the direct-grant schools. She is simply going over the heads of the local authorities, as she said she would at the Tory Party Conference in 1970 when she said that if they would not finance schools in their towns, she would. That is all that this is about.

Why should the taxpayer be lumbered with this potentially large financial commitment when he as a ratepayer in many towns has decided that it is no longer necessary? This is the Government which was to set the local authorities free. Here the right hon. Lady is simply going over the heads of the local authorities and saying that if local authorities—Labour councils—will not support direct grant support schools, she will. That is all she is doing.

Mrs. Thatcher

This is absurd.

Mr. Short

It is not absurd. This is precisely what the right hon. Lady is doing.

The second mention of education in the Gracious Speech is about primary school building—the right hon. Lady's only fig leaf. She came into office in June 1970 at a time when the basic need element in the building programme—that is, roofs over heads—had reached its peak and had started to turn down. It had risen from £70 million in 1964–65—I am using the right hon. Lady's own figures—to £117 million in 1970–71. That is the roofs over heads part of the building programme.

The right hon. Lady's programme estimates that it will fall to £90 million in [column 515]1973–74. She has decided to use this element of the programme no longer required for roofs over heads to replace nineteenth century primary schools. I have told her, and I tell her again, that I believe this is the wrong priority. This is not only my view. It is the view of the Plowden Report. It is the view of most educationists.

If the right hon. Lady wants a completely independent view, she will recollect that the Brookings Report on Britain's Economy of 1968 said this:

“Disparity in local educational provisions which Britain shares with other countries is the second major area requiring attention. Substantial regional differentials generally favour the faster growing regions, partly because new school building has been focussed there. As elsewhere, these differentials broadly reinforce disparities in students' backgrounds, because local resources for education vary enormously with local incomes. The most obvious disparities are in building sites and equipments. It” —

that is, this problem—

“will take a large rise in expenditure, properly allocated, to make the poor schools adequate. The Plowden Report calls for positive discrimination in favour of deprived or problem areas, especially in industrial cities, a recommendation familiar in a similar context in the United States. Even if the objective were only to level up to adequate provisions, the resource requirements go beyond the previous recommendations and beyond official expectation.”

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in welcoming my right hon. Friend's emphasis on the replacement of bad schools in rural areas, which in some cases are very bad indeed, and also welcome the inquiry which my right hon. Friend has set up into this question? I am sure that the right hon. Member will join me in hoping that when my right hon. Friend is considering this question she will not overlook the vital importance, both educationally and as regards travel, to young children of maintaining schools in villages. Such schools provide a vital focal point for a scattered rural community.

Mr. Short

That is an abuse of the right to intervene. I usually give way to hon. Members, but if hon. Members intervene in that way I shall stop doing so.

In my view and, as I have said, in the view of many others, the first priority is to replace schools, whether they are primary or secondary, in areas of depri[column 516]vation. That is the first priority if there is any money to spare. A quite disproportionate part of the right hon. Lady's programme on replacements has gone to better-off areas where an old school building may be undesirable but is much less harmful than an out-of-date school—primary or secondary—in a slum, where the school building adds one more deprivation to an already multiply-deprived child population. To give an absolute priority to primary schools to the exclusion of secondary replacements, as the right hon. Lady proposes in 1972–73 and 1973–74—with no secondary building at all—cannot be justified on educational grounds, and it certainly cannot be justified on social grounds.

Indeed, for 1970–71 and for 1971–72 the secondary school replacement programme has been run down to £4.5 million. So in a four-year period all that the right hon. Lady is devoting to the building of secondary schools is £4.5 million. [Interruption.] I am not talking about the money for the raising of the school-leaving age. That is different. I know about that. I was the person who allocated it. It started under me. Just what is the right hon. Lady up to in messing about the school building programme in this way?

We have a pretty good idea. The right hon. Lady gave two reasons. I will give a third. I am not the only person who gives this third reason. In a letter to the right hon. Lady written in September—this letter was quoted in the Teacher—the National Union of Teachers, talking about running down the secondary replacement programme to almost nothing, and indeed to nothing in two years, said this:

“… the Executive believes this” —

that is, the running down of secondary replacement

“will have a serious effect on the reorganisation plans of many local education authorities and will lead to the continuation of very unsatisfactory working conditions in a substantial number of secondary schools.”

This running down of the secondary replacement programme is in furtherance of the right hon. Lady's Circular 10/70 policy. The right hon. Lady gave two reasons for it, but she did not give the real one.

I want to make two important points on this. Authority after authority, including, to their credit, some Tory [column 517]authorities, including even the right hon. Lady's own authority, have defied her and her Circular 10/70 and gone ahead with their secondary reorganisation. This is one of the right hon. Lady's methods of stopping them. There is another which I will mention later.

The right hon. Lady knows that building is essential for a good many schemes to be carried out, but she refuses to permit it. She is making a mockery of secondary education for tens of thousands of children for purely ideological, élitist, reasons.

Perhaps the most striking example of a great many which I could produce—I have had letters from all over the country about this—of the effects of this policy is the right hon. Lady's refusal to allow the I.L.E.A. to proceed with the building of the Thomas Calton School. As the right hon. Lady knows, I am sure—she will have heard a great deal about this school—the school is now trying to function with no fewer than five separate buildings, shortly I understand to be increased to six or seven separate buildings, on separate sites. The two main ones are now over 80 years old, having been built in the 1880s. The right hon. Lady has refused to allow the school to be replaced.

In this case, the new school was to house a very imaginative major experiment on the integration of the school with the community. This is one example—there are many others—of the effect of the right hon. Lady's policy. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) is much more conversant with the plight of this school than I am. I mention it as an example—not a rare one by any means—of the consequences of this policy.

Mrs. Thatcher

I thought that this question might be raised. I have with me the latest Inner London Education Authority handbook entitled “Secondary Schools in Southwark in 1970” , which describes this school in the following terms:

“After extensive adaptation, re-equipment and reorganisation the school now has good facilities and provides for academic studies in the arts and sciences, as well as special studies in engineering and commerce.”

The I.L.E.A. is there saying that the school has good facilities after extensive adaptation.

[column 518]

Mr. Short

I take that to refer to the quality of the teaching. Does the right hon. Lady disagree that this school is on five separate sites at the moment, shortly to be increased to six or seven? Does she disagree that the two major buildings were built in the 1880s? Does she want to intervene now?

Mrs. Thatcher

I quoted the Inner London Education Authority's own description of the school, which was that

“After extensive adaptation, re-equipment and reorganisation, the school now has good facilities” .

The right hon. Gentleman left me with so many schools with bad facilities that the schools with good facilities must wait a little longer.

Mr. Short

Mr. Gladstone left the right hon. Lady with these. The right hon. Lady has not answered my question. She knows that this school is impossible to work in. However, if my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will pursue this particular example. There are many other examples, too.

The right hon. Lady has talked a great deal of nonsense on the subject of educational building. Her Department, with the skill which I know it possesses, has, by issuing disconnected dribs and drabs of it, has made the fog so dense that it is extremely difficult to see through it all and find what the total picture is. However, some of us have recently been looking at this and we find the amazing fact that the actual amount of school building going on has dropped this year if the steep rise in building costs is taken into account. I wish the right hon. Lady would stop talking such nonsense about the size of the building programme.

I turn to the right hon. Lady's second device, a much more serious one, for defeating the authorities which have defined Circular 10/70—the use and, in fact, the abuse of her powers under the 1944 Education Act. First of all, I remind her of what “A Better Tomorrow” said about local government freedom from Whitehall dictation:

“We think it wrong that the balance of power between central and local government [column 519]should have been distorted, and we will redress the balance and increase the independence of local authorities. Under our new style of Government” —

that is a good one!

“we will devolve Government power so that more decisions are made locally …” .

I repeat the right hon. Lady's comment in the House on 8th July, 1970. She said:

“… authorities will now be freer … they must have freedom.” —[Official Report, 8th July, 1970; Vol. 803, cc. 686–7.]

On that occasion she was devoting most of her speech to the theme of local authority freedom. Her theme was that Circular 10/70 was an eminently reasonable little document: it would set them free and end the wicked Labour dictatorship on secondary reorganisation.

But what has happened since then is not like that at all. Something quite different has happened. Authorities, much to the annoyance of the right hon. Lady, continued to submit sensible, viable schemes for approval. Authorities such as Barnet, in her own constituency, which, as we now see, were expected to withdraw their schemes altogether, did no such thing.

Mrs. Thatcher

indicated dissent.

Mr. Short

Of course the right hon. Lady expected them to withdraw the schemes. Why is she shaking her head? They did not withdraw them. They did something more sensible. They had a referendum in which 28,000 parents voted, and of those 28,000 parents 80 per cent. were in favour of going ahead with the scheme for secondary reorganisation. But 24,000 parents in her own constituency were not to deter the right hon. Lady in her ideological war. She used her powers under Section 13 of the Act to prevent the local authority from proceeding with very important parts of the scheme. So much for local authority freedom. Perhaps I could remind her once more of what she said on 8th July:

“… authorities will now be freer … they must have freedom.”

They had a referendum and 80 per cent. of 28,000 said “Go ahead.” When they went ahead the right hon. Lady said “No.”

To make matters worse, as the right hon. Lady knows, last year she delayed [column 520]her decision quite disgracefully. She delayed it until parental decisions and choices of school had been made, and as a result there was utter confusion in her own constituency. This is an example of what she is doing. I hope she will tell the country—

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

Get up.

Mrs. Thatcher

I am being urged to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman on the question of Section 13 notices.

Mr. Hamilton


Mrs. Thatcher

The decision about Barnet came through more rapidly than some decisions in other areas. I should like to give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. Between 1st July, 1970, and 30th September, 1971, a total of 2,862 statutory proposals have received my approval. Some which have not yet been dealt with still stem from December, 1970. [Interruption.] Barnet, which stems from that date, has been dealt with. There are still some outstanding. As I said, 2,862 statutory proposals have been received. This compares with only 27 proposals which have been rejected. [Interruption.] There are—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interruptions from a sedentary position are intolerable. Mrs. Thatcher.

Mrs. Thatcher

There are at present 350 cases under consideration. This takes a great deal of time if they are to be dealt with properly.

Mr. Short

I do not want to be unfair to the right hon. Lady, but she must agree that in the case of Barnet parents were required to make a choice of the comprehensive schools. They made a choice, and then she rejected the Section 13 proposals. This created utter confusion.

Mrs. Thatcher

Local authority confusion.

Mr. Short

Local authority confusion?

Mrs. Thatcher

Caused by the local authorities.

Mr. Short

The right hon. Lady is accusing the Barnet local authority of causing confusion.

Mrs. Thatcher

I wrote to them in December.

[column 521]

Mr. Short

I will not pursue this matter. This is obviously a row between the right hon. Lady and one of her local authorities.

Perhaps the right hon. Lady can tell us where any authority in the country has taken more trouble to consult the public or where a scheme had such massive all-party support as the one in Barnet, and yet she rejected major parts of it. Whose advice did she follow? She followed the advice of a tiny Rightwing minority in her own constituency in turning down the Section 13 proposals. As I said before on local government reorganisation, the trouble with the right hon. Lady is that she has never been prepared to stand up to the Tory backwoodsmen, whether on local government reform, the direct grant schools, student unions—about which I will speak in a minute—or anything else.

However, the right hon. Lady has gone very much further than rejecting Section 13 notice. She has also, I believe, in another case abused her powers and acted unlawfully. I say this after taking very careful and sound legal advice. She has acted unlawfully. Surrey is a Conservative-controlled county which, to its credit, is going ahead with secondary reorganisation. One of its proposals was to establish the Rydens Country Secondary School as a comprehensive school and abolish selection in its catchment area, a very sensible proposal. When the proposal came to her, she, or one of her officials, wrote to the Surrey County Council and said that the right hon. Lady was using her powers of direction under Section 68 of the 1944 Act to direct the authority to retain selection for grammar schools outside the area where this school was established.

The educational consequences of this decision for the Rydens School are bad enough because it will not be a comprehensive school. But the right hon. Lady's decision is even more serious than that. What it means is that the right hon. Lady substituted her opinion for the local authority's opinion on a purely educational issue. For a local authority to act unreasonably—it must be shown that it has acted unreasonably before she can exercise her powers of direction—there must be an element of perversity.

Mrs. Thatcher

indicated assent

Mr. Short

The right hon. Lady agrees with me?

Mrs. Thatcher

indicated assent.

Mr. Short

I am astounded. There must be this essential element of perversity in the decision taken by the local authority. The right hon. Lady is nodding her head, so I assume that means that in her view the Surrey County Council was acting perversely. [Interruption.] When the right hon. Lady nodded her head I said that it had been assumed that for a local authority to act unreasonably there must be an element of perversity. What she is admitting is that the Tory County Council in Surrey acted perversely, that there was an element of perversity in their decision about the Rydens County Secondary School.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)


Mr. Short

The hon. Gentleman has not been here throughout my speech and I do not see why I should give way to him.

Does the right hon. Lady accuse the Surrey County Council and all the Surrey teachers and members of the public who supported it—in no county in England has there been more support for secondary reorganisation than in Surrey—of acting perversely? I tell the right hon. Lady plainly that if she does that with any Labour-controlled council in Britain, her decision will certainly be challenged in court. My advice is that in this case her decision would have been reversed had it been taken to court. It may still go to court, of course.

It really is the limit when a Minister plays fast and loose with her statutory powers for ideological ends. Here, once more, as in Barnet, at whose behest did she do it? She did it at the request of a small Right-wing group of Surrey county councillors. I can tell her when it was. They approached her on 3rd February in St. George's Hill Tennis Club at Weybridge—that was where it happened—and the group was led by Mrs. Habershon, a lady not unknown to hon. Members.

Mrs. Thatcher

Absolute nonsense.

[column 523]

Mr. Short

It is not absolute nonsense. I have the news cutting here, if the right hon. Lady wishes to see it. Once again, she has ignored public opinion. She has ignored the teachers. She has ignored the Tory local authority, and she ignored even the Tory group on the council. She followed the advice of a small Right-wing group in that authority.

I turn now to another subject, and I call attention once more to the Government's utter failure to give any indication whatever of their thinking on the expansion of higher education. The right hon. Lady cannot get away with what she said today. She talked for five or six minutes about higher education but said nothing at all. She cannot get away with that—saying nothing at all, except to raise our alarm at her inaction even more.

Here are the simple facts. We know from the Department's own projections—I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State is here, as he deals with these matters—that the number of students qualified to go to higher education will double by the beginning of the 1980s, by about 1981. As I said in one of our previous debates, I believe that the assumptions on which that estimate was based were far too modest and that, in the event, it will more than double—that is, that there will be more than twice as many young people qualified to go into higher education in 1981.

Children who are now eight years of age—there are a lot of them—will want to enter higher education in 1981, and there will be more than twice as many of them as there are in 1971. Will there be places in 1980, 1981 and 1982 for those children who are now seven, eight, nine or 10 years of age? Unless arrangements are made now, at the beginning of the 1970s, there will not be places for those primary school children of today.

As regards the global figure, it is fatuous of the Government to keep saying that they are waiting for the James Report—we know already what the James Report will have in it—and we know from what the right hon. Lady has said previously that she does not intend to expand the colleges of education, whatever they may be called and however they may be organised in the future. It follows, therefore, that the other sectors, the universities, the polytechnics and the [column 524]regional colleges will have to more than double in capacity before the end of this decade—and one year of the decade has nearly passed already—if today's eight-year-old is to have the same chance of getting in as his predecessor has in 1971.

I am not inactive in these matters. Having made some inquiries, I understand that the quinquennial settlement, which begins next year, will cater broadly for an increase of one-third in student numbers by 1977. This is quite inadequate. It does not meet the size of the problem at all, if that be correct. But is becomes alarmingly inadequate when we learn that even this expansion is conditional upon living accommodation being available and, by and large, upon using existing teaching capacity. For all the universities I know, and I know a lot of them, it will mean that the 33 per cent. expansion in five years cannot be achieved.

The right hon. Lady and her hon. Friend cannot go on saying nothing on this matter. Parents of young children want to know what the chances will be of their children getting into university or polytechnic in eight or nine years' time. We have waited long enough for a policy. The right hon. Lady has been in office for 17 months but she has not given us even a glimmer of her thinking, except one miserable hint today about home-based students. The parents of these young children now demand to know.

I come now to one other specific point with reference to higher education, a point raised by the right hon. Lady herself in her consultative document on student unions, sent out on Wednesday. We had a debate on the subject recently in the House. I hope that there will be an opportunity to debate this document, because it is an extremely serious document, as I shall show. At this stage, I have one comment to make.

The theme of my speech today could almost have been to call attention to the way in which the Secretary of State, throughout the past 17 months, has over and over again given way to the back-woodsmen, the reactionary elements, in her party. That has been and will be the mark of her tenure of office at the Department of Education and Science. Of course it was not unexpected, as she is one of them, but she might have stood out here and there against them. [column 525]

The right hon. Lady's document about student unions shows exactly the same pattern. She has given way to her reactionary back-benchers, who have been harrying her and putting pressure on her hon. Friend for months. I appealed to her hon. Friend that when we had a debate, he would not take tasty action on the basis of a few quite untypical incidents here and there in the country. I remind the House again, as I did the other day, that there are 700 student unions, and the occasions when they do foolish things are few and far between compared with the number of unions.

I have read carefully the whole consultative document, not just the Press hand-out. Plainly, it is inherently hostile to the student unions. It says nothing about their invaluable role in the universities and in college life. As I said the other day, college life and university life would be fairly miserable in many of our provincial universities, with students living in lodgings miles from the university, if it were not for the unions. No tribute is paid to that. The document contains no commitment about their continued existence. If it is implemented, a great many of the smaller unions will, I believe, pass out of existence. The document contains not a word aimed at improving the student unions. They will have to compete for funds in the universities with other requirements, and it is more than likely that some will cease to exist.

Membership of societies will depend upon each student making a voluntary subscription.

Mr. Rost

Hear, hear.

Mr. Short

The hon. Gentleman says “Hear, hear.” Does he realise what will happen if it is made voluntary? Most of the societies will cease to exist. I suppose he says “Hear hear” to that too. [Interruption.] Of course they will.

Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Short

Of course they will. If the right hon. Gentleman knows anything about our colleges and universities, he will know that a great deal of the richness of university life derives from the pattern of societies in the union. Perhaps the right hon. Lady and her hon. Friends know about the book allowance which [column 526]students receive—about £5, I think it is. Do they know what happens to it? Impoverished students spend it not on books but on other things. If a small allowance is made in the grant for this purpose, as proposed in the document, it will be spent not on joining societies but on food.

Central to the whole exercise—this is the point which I hope hon. Members will appreciate—is a massive attack on the National Union of Students. This is what the exercise is about. If union membership is to be voluntary, as is proposed in the right hon. Lady's document, but if non-members can still use all the union facilities, what does opting out mean? It can mean only one thing: that the opted-out students will not be affiliated to the N.U.S. It means that in future if a university has X students and Y opt out, the number affiliated to the N.U.S. will be X minus Y. So a student, simply by signing a document, can refuse to be affiliated to the N.U.S. in future.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Why not?

Mr. Short

That is the object of the whole exercise. The document is in exactly the same mould as the Industrial Relations Act. It is a blatant attack on the organised students and is dressed up in spurious garments of reform.

The right hon. Lady will have seen the reaction of the Vice-Chancellors. It is quite something if they react to anything, but they reacted yesterday. Even the President of the Conservative Students reacted against the document and called it authoritarian. I hope that every university, every polytechnic, every college, every trade union and every trades council will oppose it for the reactionary proposal it is. I remind the right hon. Lady of the promise she made to one of her hon. Friends—she did not repeat it today—that she would proceed in the matter by agreement.

These are some of the items on the growing list of education issues on which the country is getting thoroughly fed up with the Government. There are many others. For example, what is the right hon. Lady's policy on class size? Why will she not accept the target I set at Swansea in March 1970 of a maximum of 30 in a class for all schools? What has happened to the proposal she made at the N.U.T. conference for help for [column 527]the slow learners? We have heard no more about it.

Mrs. Thatcher


Mr. Short

No, we have heard nothing at all about it.

What will the right hon. Lady do about poor working conditions in schools? She received an excellent memorandum from the N.U.T. in July, I understand. Many of us received it. What will she do about that?

I received the Teacher by this morning's post. Under the headline

“Minister refuses to outlaw slum schools” ,

it says:

“Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the Education Secretary, told the National Union of Teachers this week that she would not enforce the regulations on school working conditions.”

Why not? That is another problem causing disquiet throughout the country, as is the question why the right hon. Lady has halved the previous Government's rate of expansion of nursery places. There are many other such questions.

Today the right hon. Lady made a long speech, but she said nothing at all to allay the disquiet or remove the dismay felt throughout the country on education. The truth is that the country has had enough of the present Government in education and in everything else.