Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1971 Nov 5 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Debate on the Address - Education]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: House of Commons Intervention
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [825/543-58]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1314-55. MT spoke at cc545, 546, 553 and 556.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 5227
Themes: Private education, Pay
[column 543]

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I cannot follow the hon. Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) in many [column 544]of the points which he made, but I thought it rather interesting that he linked knowledge of primary schools which he had in his constituency to the General Election. Those who visit polling stations know the reason for this. I am not sure whether his observations told us more about schools in Gainsborough or the hon. Gentleman who represents the area.

The only other point which I thought had any relevance to the main subject that we are debating today was his mention of the Criminal Justice Bill. We too often forget that failures which are the responsibility of teachers or the education system become the responsibility of the Home Office. Certainly I am only too well aware of that factor in my own professional experience.

I wish to speak to what I understand to be the coherent philosophy of the present Government in regard to education. I do see a coherent philosophy, strange as it may seem, but it is certainly not one that I share. I wish to show it this morning by a number of examples, which may appeal to some hon. Members and the right hon. Lady opposite. In a recent Adjournment debate I told the right hon. Lady—who, I am glad to see, is here—that so often party politics occur in education where they are best kept out.

I hope that what I am going to say this morning is based on sound educational criteria. This House has responsibility for the education system of the country as a whole, and for the people as a whole. I know that the right hon. Lady shares that view, as does one of her hon. Friends who may catch the eye of the Chair later on.

The Gracious Speech has shown that the Government intend not only to maintain privilege in the education sector but, indeed, to extend it. Those who are already under-privileged in one way or another will become more under-privileged. That is the keynote of the exchanges that we have had so far in this debate. I am not against privilege, as such. Nobody in a democracy can really claim to be. No hon. Member can say that he is against privilege, because it is talked of here—sometimes a bit too often. We are in a very privileged position. But we also have responsibility. What I am against is privilege which [column 545]is used without corresponding responsibility. I think that in the actions which she has taken in the last year the right hon. Lady has used her privileged position in what I, at least, would judge to be an irresponsible way.

I want to talk a little about direct grant schools and the announcement that we have heard this morning. I suggest that in the past the ethos of this system has somewhat distorted the whole of our educational perspective, and may continue to do so for some time in the future. I want to say a word about the controversy over the school-leading age, the controversy over teacher training, the controversy over secondary and primary school replacement, and, indeed, on the question of the freedom of local education authorities themselves. I believe that this reflects the present trend by the Government towards authoritarian decision-making, as distinct from democratic decision-making, as I understand it. I believe that this dichotomy will become plainer and plainer to the country as time goes on, not least in respect of the issues that we were debating last week.

On the subject of direct grants, I wish first to have a few facts confirmed by the right hon. Lady. I put down a number of Questions for answer yesterday, but unfortunately, the right hon. Lady could not answer them. That was a pity, because I think that she had some information readily available. As I understand it, about 60 per cent. of direct-grant pupils are supported by fees paid by local education authorities, and about 40 per cent. of pupils are fee payers.

The right hon. Lady said that a sum of £2 million was being devoted to this scheme. Are we to understand that all this money is going to relieve the 40 per cent. of fee-paying pupils—those whose fees are paid by their parents? Or will some of that £2 million go towards reducing the fees paid by education authorities to direct-grant schools?

Mrs. Thatcher

The answer is that the increase in capitation fees goes across the board and makes free places cheaper for education authorities as well as fee-paying parents.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making that [column 546]announcement. She said something about an increase going towards a reduction in fees. I therefore assume that schools would not have more financial resources to devote to education purposes which, of course, include the raising of salaries for teachers.

Mrs. Thatcher

One of the main reasons why capitation grant was raised was that the last Government did not give any increase to direct-grant schools when teachers' salaries were increased.

Mr. Spearing

I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for that information, because it is important to clarify the point.

The right hon. Lady mentioned a sliding scale for parents earning £1,500. One of the questions which I hoped she might have answered yesterday was whether she would publish in the Official Report the sliding scale to which she referred. We are not clear how this will change. Hon. Members may not realise that the fee-paying element in direct-grant schools is subsidised, or gets some support from the right hon. Lady's Department, on top of the capitation grant, according to an income test.

One of the significant points rightly brought out in the right hon. Lady's announcement was that, where parents defray fees, or part of the fees, of their children—if they have two or three children at the school—they do not have to pay twice or thrice the nominal amount; they get additional help for every additional dependent child in the school. Therefore, I hope that at some stage we shall be able to calculate the extent to which parents will be helped with school fees, because I understand that it is a deliberate direct subsidy to fee-paying pupils.

Mrs. Thatcher

I should like to clarify the point about income scales. The old income scale will appear in the Written Answer to the hon. Gentleman's Question. It is on its way to him. I am sorry if it has not already arrived. The new income scale is being placed in the Library. I agree that it is complicated, but the basis is that parents pay according to their income and family commitments.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for clarifying the issue. [column 547]I am afraid that the action which she has taken will throw these schools back into the political arena. I agree that that is almost inevitable because of the history of our schools, to which I shall refer later.

We have a historical problem, the significance of which has not been properly grasped by the right hon. Lady. I think that she would agree that no governor or head of any school can operate the policy of the school, particularly concerning admissions, without having regard to the effects of that policy on the rest of the educational system.

The sine qua non of the direct-grant system, although many types of schools come within that heading, is selection. Only two out of over 100 direct-grant schools are not scholastically selective in the sense of 11-plus section. Indeed, it is sometimes claimed that whilst maintaining scholastic selectivity they can have great influence upon society because they encompass a wider social mix.

Some people say that direct-grant schools are a bridge between the independent and the maintained systems. I suggest that far from being a bridge, in the usual sense of that word, they are a drawbridge. One normally thinks of a bridge as carrying two-way traffic. A bridge allows the exchange of information and views, and trade and commerce which would not otherwise take place. But the direct-grant system at the moment—particularly in respect of the 25 per cent. which are prestigious schools—operates over a drawbridge. There is a competition every year, marshalled and organised by those in command of the schools. They let down the drawbridge every September, a chosen few are let into the fastness of the keep, and up goes the drawbridge again.

If that is not an exact parallel it is a psychological analogy of some weight, because the demand for entry far exceeds those who can be accepted. I question the statements of those who say that these schools have a desirable effect in the educational system because of their deliberate selective policy. Of course, the more prestigious they are the more they pursue selectivity.

I said that I wanted to go back in history. This House has a significant [column 548]rôle to play in future as it has played in the past in the development of secondary education. We are often told by right hon. and hon. Members opposite of the great 1902 Balfour Education Act—the foundation of secondary education—but if they look back in history, particularly if they find out about a gentleman by the name of Robert Morant, whose spirit still seems to haunt Curzon Street, they will find that the Act was in many ways reactionary, because far from creating secondary education for all it cut off some of the promising developments at the end of the last century which were providing secondary education for large numbers of pupils. Instead, it introduced by law a limited elementary system.

That situation continued up to 1944. At that stage the direct-grant schools, which are now being brought back into the political arena, were fulfilling a valuable function. In many areas they were an important part of the secondary system. After that, super-selection began to intensify. I know that not all direct-grant schools operate this system intensively, but the leaders of the so-called direct-grant movement do.

The report of the Public Schools Commission which we had two years ago suggested that a quarter of these schools make super-selectivity their business. They scour the area for talented pupils and produce a school which, we are told, attains very high educational standards. I suggest that that is wrong. The scholastic standards may be of an extremely high order, but it does not necessarily mean that the educational standards are equally high. There is a distinction between educational and scholastic standards. Failure to understand this distinction has bedevilled secondary education ever since 1902, and particularly in the last few years.

A good educational standard means that the school meets the needs of the pupil, whatever his scholastic ability and other attributes. The effectiveness of the school, educationally, is in meeting those needs. Scholastic standards are part of that need, although I do not go along with some of the fashionable jargon which we hear in education today. To suggest that because a school gets so many open scholarships to Oxbridge, or so many “A” levels, it is of an educationally high [column 549]standard, is utter nonsense. It is not true. But it has seeped so far into the educational psychology of this country that it is even affecting our attempts to create a viable system of secondary education, particularly at this time of raising the school-leaving age.

I wish to give some examples, because this idea has gone so deep into our thinking. Some years ago I was speaking to a pupil from a very prestigious direct-grant school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufmann). He was being asked about the subject of geography—a very important subject today. It is the study of man in relation to his environment. When asked about it he said: “Let me see. Geography? Oh yes. We all took it in the first two years, but then only the duds did it” . That is, only the duds at Manchester Grammar School. That was his unconscious, unspoken attitude.

I recall that two days ago the Evening News contained an article about a school in London which was having difficulty with its pupils. It implied that the teachers thought that if only they could get some of the more able pupils into the school all would be well. That is nonsense. The idea that by getting able pupils into a school all will be well just does not work. It is basically unsound.

The vice of our secondary education over the last 20 to 30 years has been orientating the internal priorities of school administration round the third scholastically most able in the school, the others often being placed at a disadvantage. That happens in some of the best educational direct-grant establishments today.

I will not go into personal details, but I know this very well. When we talk about educational standards, we do not merely mean scholastic attainment—which is a questionable matter anyway; we are talking about how well the whole system for which the right hon. Lady is generally responsible meet the needs of the pupils. That is the touchstone by which we can judge.

In the past we have gone off beam on this matter. Two or three days ago I was criticising the right hon. Lady for not keeping going the Central Advisory [column 550]Councils. I pointed out that the Newsom Committee continued inside this psychological straitjacket when it was asked to review the education of those of “average and below average ability” . Since that debate I have spoken to a member of the Committee. He told me, “We had a lot of trouble with the terms of reference, because they were scholastic and not educational” . When I asked, “Did you not realise that under the Act you had powers to put in a supplementary report rejecting those terms of reference?” he said that he had not realised that, and did not think that the other members of the Committee had realised it.

The Newsom Report, which could have produced a really sound basis for the future of our secondary education, failed to meet the challenge because the whole system was twisted to get scholastic results. That is why, when we are facing the raising of the school-leaving age, many teachers do not know quite what to do. Ten years or more ago there were teachers who worked hard to try to present the alternative concept, but they were not listened to because education officials at every level—and even some heads—were so wedded and so brought up to the idea that educational standards meant the same as scholastic standards that they could not understand that view.

I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) murmuring agreement. I am sure that he will agree that our problem is now one of motivation, and not selection. If educational research during the last 10 years had paid one-tenth as much attention to motivation as to selection we might be getting somewhere.

I have mentioned the general élite approach to education. I do not discount scholastic standards; they are very important. But the fact that they have been a fulcrum around which all has gone has distorted our judgment. When the right hon. Lady decided to appoint a commission to consider teacher training she chose as chairman a noble Lord well known in the education world. I have never had an opportunity to meet the noble Lord but I should relish the chance to tell him what I understand by education.

The noble Lord's experience of education has been rooted in the élite attitude, [column 551]and I therefore do not think that his presiding over the investigation into teacher training for schools of which he has had no very great experience can get us very far. Some of the difficulties ahead are rooted in the fact that the right hon. Lady has made some assumptions from the past and the noble Lord also has some inbuilt assumptions. We have here the concept of an élite which is not a chosen élite, as we in this House are, but an élite which is self-perpetuating. That is at the root of some of our difficulties.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) has shown that an imposed policy can bring anomalies. I am the first to agree that primary schools are very important, but we are talking not about the placement of new primary and secondary schools but the renewal and replacement of existing buildings by local education authorities, with their own money. It is not generally realised that the Minister's restriction is not one of largesse. It is often assumed by the public that the Department of Education and Science is paying for all this via the Exchequer. That is not so. It is a matter of the Minister's properly exercising some control over what local education authorities can do. There must be that sort of control: the question is, how is it exercised?

I should have thought that in looking at the way in which national resources had to be allocated, and finding out that she could devote £X million to renewal and replacement of schools, the right hon. Lady would have tried to find out the priorities. The money is to be spent, whether it is spent on primary or on secondary schools, and she could have tried to ration that money among local authorities so that one did not get ahead of the others, which is one of the functions she must have.

If the Minister decides that a local education authority can spend up to £X on replacement or renewal of schools, it is reasonable to say that she should allow that authority to choose, inside its own area, what it spends on secondary schools. Quite clearly, because of the need to replace many of the old primary schools, a great deal of the £40 million a year, or whatever the sum is, will be devoted to that purpose, and it is [column 552]certainly right that it should. But for the right hon. Lady to say that not one pound can be spent on any secondary school replacement anywhere by any authority seems to be utterly illogical and indefensible.

It would be illogical and indefensible in any case, but not long ago the Minister told the House that one of the keynotes of her régime would be to give freedom to local authorities. To take away that freedom where that freedom is obviously right and can have no disadvantage does not tie up at all with her statement. I too, am driven reluctantly to the conclusion that what she is doing can only be for motives other than those which she professes. That is a great pity, because a great deal can be done locally by local authorities using their initiative.

I wish to conclude by showing how Government policy has produced terrible anomalies in my constituency. The right hon. Lady is handing out £2 million for the support of schools in a very small educational sector which is characterised by a certain amount of privilege and some scholastic and social selectivity. I do not think that she will say that these schools are doing badly in respect of resources, space or playing fields, or that the money is not sufficient for their needs, though obviously they may want more.

In the north of my constituency we have one of these schools. It has served the area well for a long time, and particularly before 1944. It is run by the Haberdashers Company, a charity, which would like to move the school many miles away for reasons which my local parents find rather difficult to understand. Negotiations to this end have caused local concern, particularly, as I say, as this organisation is a charity.

In the south of my constituency we have the Cardinal Newman Roman Catholic Secondary School, which is occupying premises built for elementary education in 1888 by the Action School Board. It would like a new building. When I asked the borough education officer whether he had applied to the Ministry for a new building, he replied: “Yes, we applied, but we were told that it was not worth it because the political decision had been made.” [column 553]

So within my own constituency the right hon. Lady is giving an already-privileged school—and no one will deny that the Haberdashers Girls School is privileged—a greater privilege, while by her administrative fiat she is keeping even further down this already under-privileged school, housed in an 1888 building, which is trying to provide comprehensive education.

I have tried to be objective and to keep away from the higher reaches of party political polemic, but I am afraid that in most of what she has done in the last few years the right hon. Lady has brought politics into education as never before. In view of her action, many who are not of any political persuasion will agree with me that my speech could have been made by someone not a supporter of my party—

Mrs. Thatcher

Not really.

Mr. Spearing

When the right hon. Lady says “Not really” I am most interested, because I can tell her that she is in for a terrific surprise. Many people in Britain, especially those concerned with education, would say, if they happen to read what I have said in Hansard, that there is very little with which they would disagree. One of the greatest dangers to education in Britain is the right hon. Lady's idea that she knows about it. I can tell her that thousands upon thousands of teachers up and down the country, not only of my party but also of hers, are saying that she does not know. That is why we hope that this Government will go very soon and that she will go with it.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South)

I shall be able to follow only part of what was said by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing).

I warmly welcome, as many both inside and outside the House have welcomed, the statement in the Gracious Speech that

“Steps will be taken to raise the school-leaving age to 16.”

Although this topic has been proposed, opposed, intensively discussed, postponed, and finally given a firm date for implementation, it is supremely important that all concerned make a real success of this major alteration in the education service.

We are getting plenty of evidence, from both Britain and our major industrial [column 554]competitors, of the rapidly changing pattern of industrial needs, industrial training and employment generally. We now know for certain that men and women in employment will be called upon to learn new skills and grasp new processes many times during their working lives. Such adaptability presupposes the literary, numerary and trained intelligence which only a sound education can make general. Our increasingly sophisticated economy will show that people who lack the capacity of adaptability will become almost permanently unemployable. One has only to look at the United States to see the serious social effects of such a situation. We should further remember that the secondary school is trying to prepare the child for some of the complexities of the many impersonal relationships in modern society, such as between parents and education officer, taxpayer and tax collector, and the homeless and the town hall.

The extra year at school will require considerable ingenuity by teachers and local authorities in accommodating and interesting those who would not normally stay on. As the date for raising the age has come nearer, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that some local authorities have been giving extra attention and priority to secondary school rebuilding projects. Faced with the need to adapt the secondary school both to the raising of the leaving age and to the needs of the 1970s and early 1980s, we have seen authorities preparing for new experiments in education, such as team-teaching, learning by discovery and integrated courses, and they have been preparing to make fully effective use of the latest developments in educational aids and technology. In addition, and more important, some authorities have seen their secondary rebuilding projects as a chance to build a community school which would form the nucleus of community life, which is so obviously absent in densely populated and under-privileged industrial areas of the country.

With the tremendous emphasis on primary school building, some secondary school rebuilding programmes may have to be postponed. If such postponements last for any length of time, there is a danger of an unsatisfactory beginning to the new age limit for staying in schools. [column 555]My right hon. Friend knows that this problem is absolutely enormous. There have been some useful suggestions made about 15 to 16-year olds. One is that they should have some outside work experience while still at school, a sort of day-release pattern in reverse. I was glad that my right hon. Friend touched on this in her speech.

Second, I hope that my right hon. Friend will do all that she can to encourage local technical colleges to take classes for which the secondary schools lack the necessary equipment. A 15 to 16-year old still at school might enrol for vocational courses run at the local technical college or gain industrial experience at a Government training centre or local firm.

We are just at the beginning of an era of great challenge to the secondary schools. We have to face the fact that with the numbers of children coming from broken or disturbed homes a much greater responsibility falls on the school to prepare them for outside life. Secondary schools, now more than ever, will have to find the right balance between normal classroom lectures, group discussion and more practical forms of teaching. I believe that at last we are beginning a meaningful discussion as to what is taught and how it is taught rather than about what particular type of secondary school we should have.

To make the raising of the school-leaving age the success it deserves, the Government must do three things. First, they must redouble their efforts to attract more mathematics and science graduates from Government Departments and industry into the secondary schools. Second, they must try to ensure that the emphasis on primary school building will not long defer secondary school rebuilding and innovation. Third, they must continue, by research and discussion with those concerned, the vital task of improving the secondary school curriculum to meet the needs of the rest of this decade and the beginning of the 1980s.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Wandsworth, Central)

I am sure that the House listened with interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel), who made three points. [column 556]Possibly he could also have included another one; namely, that his Government will see that there is an extension of employment for young people now leaving school so that they will not be in the position in which so many throughout the country now find themselves. He has touched on a very important point. I hope he will excuse me if I do not take up all that he said, because I want to be brief.

We have heard many comments today about the problems which still exist in many local authorities about the changing policy of the Government on primary school milk. But we have heard no comments about the next stages of charges. Next April school meals are to be increased by another 10p per week.

Mrs. Thatcher

No, that is nonsense. The hon. Member must have got it wrong. He may be referring to 1973.

Mr. Cox

Sorry—1973. But as the number of school children who stopped taking school meals when the charges were increased was about 13 per cent., I hope that we shall hear from the right hon. Lady and her Department in the coming months the kind of thinking that has to occur about these proposed charges and the possible effects that they may well have on other children.

I think that the right hon. Lady agrees that for many youngsters the school dinner is very often the most important meal that they have. If we are going to get into the kind of confusion in which many authorities have been because of the policies dictated to them by the Government over school milk, this will be a very retrograde step, not only for education but for the welfare and benefit of young children.

There is a continual lack on the part of the Government of an extension of provision for nursery school education. We have heard of the difference between the moneys that are to be allocated firstly to nursery provision as against improvements to be made in the moneys for direct-grant schools. It is scandalous that the Government should regard the needs of direct-grant schools as being of greater priority than provision for nursery schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor), who has long campaigned on this subject, will be equally disgusted at [column 557]the announcement of the right hon. Lady today.

In spite of all the talk we hear from the Government about their great concern for improving primary school education—and I am sure that the whole House welcomes this; no one denies that there is an urgent need for improvement in primary school education—I do not see how the Government can say that that is a priority and, at the same time, ignore the fact that in the very areas where they are seeking to improve primary school education there is a need, and in some cases a greater need, for an introduction or extension of nursery school provision. It will not come. The right hon. Lady must know from her contacts with the teaching profession, especially teachers in priority areas, of the difficulties they face when youngsters start school, difficulties caused by home environments. This opportunity, if taken, would be of great benefit to youngsters and to the profession, and much greater use would be made of the priority she is giving to the primary schools. Yet she ignores this vital link in the education of children.

Mention has been made of the reports which appeared in yesterday's Press of conditions under which many youngsters not at school are being looked after by unlicensed child minders. That report, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, says this:

“Mothers, forced to work to make ends meet, ship their toddlers to unregistered minders, paid to keep an eye on them in cramped rooms, with no toys'”

or other things of interest by which these youngsters could be encouraged to take an interest in their surroundings.

“The minders were unsure of the children's names and addresses. Nine unofficial minders and five who were registered had no idea where to contact the mother during the day in case of emergency.

Heating was chiefly by oil stoves. Hardly any of the women concerned had taken any safety precautions. One-third said they left the children alone if they wanted to go out shopping.”
That we can allow such conditions to exist in 1971 is an appalling indictment. This should have been the right hon. Lady's priority. She should not have given £2 million to an already privileged section of society.

In my constituency I face pressures from parent-teacher organisations which [column 558]have asked for nursery school accommodation to be provided. These are not the type of people who are content to sit back and complain and say that it is time that the Government or the local education authority did something. They have organised fêtes and gone on a sponsored walk to raise money to clear a site as an indication of their anxiety to have this accommodation provided for their children. After much pressure they were successful. They have now been promised that nursery accommodation will be provided.

Another area of my constituency, which possibly has greater social problems than that which has received nursery provision, has been told that it cannot be granted the money; and, therefore, there is to be no nursery provision in an area where it is urgently needed. The request for it in this area is supported by the local education authority.

These disappointed people will be up in arms at the right hon. Lady's announcement today that more moneys are to be allocated by the Government to direct-grant schools instead of providing nursery accommodation. These people will say, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) has said, that the right hon. Lady unfortunately is not the most popular of Education Ministers. The action she has taken today will heighten the point which has been made, not only by the profession but by the vast majority of mothers, that she does not understand the problems of the vast majority of mothers who want better education facilities for their children.

The right hon. Lady's action today will support the view now held that the only knowledge that she has is of the privileged sector of education and that the only sector to which she wishes to give her attention and the Government's financial priorities is that privileged sector. I agree that the sooner the right hon. Lady and the Government depart the better it will be for the country generally and for youngsters at school.