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 [825/581-91]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1505-34. MT intervened at cc585, and 586-87.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3567
Themes: Private education, Health policy
[column 581]

3.5 p.m.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrew, West)

I start, rather unexpectedly in view of some of the things which have been said this morning, with two pleasant tasks. One is to thank the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). He is right to pose directly to both Front Benches the question of free school education. I shall have something to say about that. I very much agree with what the hon. Member had to say.

My other pleasant task is to welcome the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro)—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education in Scotland—to the Front Bench. It has been a favourite saying of my right hon. Friend the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dumfries appears as the “silent senator” . That is because he has for so many years been a Whip. It is almost a red letter day that now, after long silence on behalf of his party, he is coming here to speak. I welcome him, and I only hope that he gives us a few better answers than—south of the Border—the right hon. Lady has been giving us, because I have been appalled at some of the things that she has said and appears to accept as given assumptions in education field—when, for example, she told my hon. Friend the Member [column 582]for Acton (Mr. Spearing), from, I think, a sedentary position, that he was speaking very much from a Labour Party viewpoint. I think that my hon. Friend said that he was not giving a specific Labour Party viewpoint, but the right hon. Lady felt that he was.

Mr. William Hamilton

There is nothing wrong with that.

Mr. Buchan

What my hon. Friend said was in the mainstream of educational research and thinking during the past two decades. I must tell the right hon. Lady that she has only two really authoritative sources for her beliefs—one Sir Cyril Burt and the other the Black Papers on which her case largely rests, because she has never yet understood the simple point put forward by her hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North that with a change in the environment, with a change in education, and with a change of mental attitudes, jobs availability change, too.

That is the one supreme, fundamental fact in education that the right hon. Lady must learn. I do not think that she has understood it yet.

It is no use the right hon. Lady's smiling. She always thinks that she is misjudged. The main burden of the article in The Guardian on Tuesday, is that she thinks she is misjudged, and it is no help to the education world to judge her any more kindly when she makes the sort of statements that she made this morning.

I recommend the right hon. Lady particularly to look at a piece of research done in America and entitled “Prometheus in the Classroom” , which shows quite clearly that the expectations of teachers were aroused when it was predicted, supposedly falsely, that a group of pupils was about to bloom, to flower. The pupils did bloom, and they did develop—and more than other children there. The assumption of the teachers was that they would move forward; so they did. It is a very curious thing that when children are told that they are doing badly, and will do badly, they do badly, and that when they are told that they are doing well, they do well. We do not want what my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) called an educational [column 583]apartheid. Whatever the structure, one does not need to say to children, “You are doing badly” , when they are on one side of the road, and are then sent across the road to the comprehensive school because “You are not doing so well” , because still they will not do so well. One of the great fundamental social tasks in education—if we are to get the right kind of response from our children in a society which is cruelly divided and which the Government are daily trying to make more divided—is at least to enable our children to try to overcome this division.

I am relieved that, in a sense, Scotland figures so little in the Gracious Speech, because it figured largely in the last Speech. One education Measure relating to Scotland was concerned with division, and it was most extraordinary. It gave the right to local authorities to charge fees for local authority schools. We spent five months in Committee on that piece of legislation. It started in November and did not finish until the end of July. How many local authorities have decided to take up the option which they were offered—is it one, or is it none?—yet the concept of division was given.

I find this a curious situation, because the argument in favour of the introduction of fee-paying schools is relevant to the argument about milk. The argument in favour of introducing fee-paying schools in Scotland was precisely to give freedom to local authorities. Indeed, right hon. and hon. Members opposite, from the Minister downwards, argued that it was nothing to do with fee-paying in schools. Far be it from them to argue whether fee-paying was better or worse; it was only to give freedom to local authorities.

That was said by the Conservative Party before the election. The then Leader of the Opposition, for example, said:

“The most urgent reform of local government is to get the Government spanner out of the works. Under Labour there can never be real reform of local government for they will always seek to use their powers to bend the local authorities to their will. It will be for a Conservative Government to restore to the local elector and the local councillor the freedom of action he needs to make life better for himself and his fellow-citizens and to control his own destiny and that of his community.”

[column 584]

No wonder The Guardian, in requoting this in June, ended by commenting:

“Who is bending whom to whose will now?”

Both on the organisation of secondary education in England and on the subject of milk, how a member of the Cabinet like the Secretary of State for Scotland can have the nerve to refuse discretion to local authorities concerning milk after his educational argument for five months had been to give freedom to local authorities, I cannot understand. I do not understand how he can now send out a letter threatening local authorities in Scotland who are seeking no more than the right to feed their children. They are not even saying that the Government should provide the milk; they are saying, “Please let us give the milk.” The threatening letters are coming out.

When the right hon. Gentleman came forward with that fee-paying proposal last year, I do not know whether the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Education and Science warned that they were going to clobber the local authorities regarding milk. Perhaps he walked into it blindfold. Whatever can be said south of the Border about refusing discretion to local authorities, clearly there is no case in morality—the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) was worried about morality; it may be that they have been seeing too many bad films in the Scottish Office—for refusing discretion to local authorities north of the Border to issue milk. The whole population of Scotland knows this, and will react accordingly if the Government carry on with the kind of hypocritical threats they have made in the last few months. I can speak more confidently about Scotland, but I have no doubt that there will be the same reaction south of the Border as well. So much for Tory freedom—it works only until it come up against the Tories' own class interests and privilege.

The right hon. Lady wrote to me on the subject of milk and its preventive aspects, saying:

“There is nothing in the Act which requires a medical officer to wait until there is overt sign of malnutrition before giving a certificate …   .” .

In the sense of milk being a preventive medicine, am I not right in saying [column 585]that it is open to any medical officer of health to look at every child, unhealthy or healthy, and say: “In my opinion, for preventive reasons, this child requires free milk” ? Is it not the case that under the right hon. Lady's own legislation 100 per cent. of our children could receive free milk?

Mrs. Thatcher

I spelt out the attitude when I spoke earlier today. I take the view that doctors are quite capable of carrying out their own professional duties without the hon. Gentleman's advice or mine.

Mr. Buchan

I am not asking the Minister to give advice; I am asking here to admit that in the light of her letter to me—not a circular—it is open to a medical officer of health to say that even a healthy child should get milk, because that is what “preventive” means. I believe that it is possible—I think that the right hon. Lady has confirmed it by her letter—for every child in England, Wales and Scotland to be given milk if the medical officer of health says so. Why are they not saying so? They tell me: “We quite appreciate that, but clearly the Government could not have meant that, otherwise they would not have passed a law saying that these children should not get milk unless they are ill-nourished.” Therefore, the medical officers of health are trying to interpret the Government's meaning, because the Measure put it so badly, but I say that the Act allows them to do this and that the right hon. Lady has confirmed me in my opinion. I hope that the message goes out from the House.

What does the right hon. Lady mean when she talks of an examination of the school meals service? These are to be economic meals, of course. She wants them charged at the cost of production. That is exactly in line with Tory philosophy. I am surprised that she does not bring together an organisation called, perhaps, The Finchley Company Limited. What are the Government's intentions? Does the right hon. Lady want to turn over the school meals service to private caterers? Will she confirm that she does not intend to turn over the service to private caterers under contract?

Mrs. Thatcher

Until the hon. Gentleman mentioned it I had not even thought of it.

[column 586]

Mr. Buchan

One of my hon. Friends says that someone probably has the concession already, but we shall see whether that is what she has in mind. We will remember that she has just said that it was not in her mind until I mentioned it. It is an awful thought that I may be having even more reactionary ideas than the Government have.

With regard to direct grant schools, I can only say that the Department, whose responsibility and function is to deal with all our children, spends a very great deal of time dealing with a very minute group. Five months was spent on educational legislation in Scotland last year, and now again virtually the only mention in the Gracious Speech is the direct-grant schools. It will cost £2 million extra for a privileged sector—a sector which is already privileged—not to improve the quality of education but to give what amounts to yet another tax cut.

This is in the situation in which the school meal charges were introduced. They have been introduced before, but bitterly regretted by the people who introduced them and by their supporters on this side of the House. They were brought in for economic exigencies, but no one in their senses ever attempted to introduce them as an ideological piece of dogma. By saving the money—this curious dogma—the Government have been able to release money from the general sector to go towards relief for the private élite sector.

Just as in the Budget proposals and the social welfare measures, so, too, in education, we are seeing this redistribution of actual money, with the increased cost of school meals, the cutting of free milk, and so on, and the saving, on the other side, of the privileged group, so that even within education redistribution of cash takes place from this most reactionary of all Governments.

In the same way, and following that, comes redistribution in educational rights. That is what is happening to all our children.

Mrs. Thatcher

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I will try not to interrupt him again. I take it from his argument that he would not dream of advocating that his party should either take over the direct-grant [column 587]schools or the independent sector because it would cost such an enormous amount of money to do so.

Mr. Buchan

I have already made clear my view. I am glad that I was asked that question. We in Scotland—I have not yet discussed this with my right hon. Friend, but he has made his views pretty clear—accept completely the arguments of the Public Schools Commission on Scottish schools. They say:

“We believe that public feeling and educational opinion is now clearly opposed to selection for secondary education …” —

this is dealing with the selection part; they go on to discuss fees later—

“… and few would wish a return to the old selective system.”

The “few” includes the members of Her Majesty's Cabinet. Those are the few left in Britain who believe in selection. I have already said that we will accept the recommendations for the grant-aided schools north of the Border, and will no longer increase their grant, but that it will be progressively reduced. We have said that they will have the option of going totally independent or being absorbed into the State structure.

But one thing at a time—as our former colleague, Sir Cyril Osborne, once said. I am concerned with the direct-grant sector, because that is what it means to the others. It is no use saying that they, too, deserve an education. What a thing to say! All children deserve an education. I am not so sure whether some children deserve an education at the expense of other children, but that is what happens.

A perfect case in point concerns the City of Edinburgh, which happens to be bedevilled with a rather large number of fee-paying schools, some of which are completely independent—Fettes, the Merchant Company School, and so on. Some are direct-grant schools and some are local authority fee-paying schools. Let us see what happens.

In all the secondary schools in Edinburgh in the first-year intake—the English call it a form; we call it first year—about 23 per cent. of all the children are in fee-paying schools. But by the time they reach the fourth year—taking the fourth year of all the secondary schools—the percentage in fee-paying schools is [column 588]40 per cent. In other words, unless they go over the compulsory leaving age 40 per cent. are in fee-paying schools. That is the year when they start doing their O grades in Scotland. When they reach the fifth year—taking the fifth year of all secondary schools in Edinburgh—the year when they begin studying for qualifications in higher education, university entrance, and so on, 60 per cent. of Edinburgh's children are in fee-paying schools. Seventy-five per cent. of all Edinburgh sixth-year pupils are in fee-paying schools, so 23 per cent. rises to 75 per cent.

This not only illustrates dramatically the existing unfairness that comes from the social divisions in our society but it has another consequence in that it narrows the size of the top in these schools. In other words, with only 25 per cent. of all sixth-year pupils spread amongst all the State schools in Edinburgh, there is perhaps only one pupil taking Russian or Spanish, for instance, and no teacher. It has a direct effect in drawing off staff and resources, of removing some of the better positions and limiting the possibilities of the pupils.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) repeated the myth that has got around that milk will be provided free for hardship cases. That is not so. Milk will not be provided free for hardship cases. Milk will be provided free only on considerations of health.

Mr. John E. B. Hill

Surely the fact that a higher proportion of pupils stay on longer in fee-paying schools is an index of the parental determination that their children should continue at school. The hon. Gentleman's picture would be fairer if we were told something about the number of children who have left the maintained sector in Scotland and gone into further education. Many of those who have left will be doing post-school education.

Mr. Buchan

I am not altogether sure of the significance of that point. That statistic would certainly be useful, but I have not got it. It would be useful to know the percentage leaving the fee-paying schools and going into higher education and the percentage of children leaving State schools and going into higher education. On the face of it, that statistic would underline my point. I [column 589]accept that some of those who leave school at 15 will be going to one or other form of higher education.

Mr. Spearing

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that I have received the Answer to the Question to which I referred earlier. The right hon. Lady tells me that in the present year the grant to direct-grant schools is £5.4 million, so her increase of £2 million on that represents nearly 37 per cent. In addition to the direct grant, another £1 million this year goes towards remitted fees. So this is a substantial increase proportionately.

Mr. Buchan

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. I have not added it all up, but it is clearly a substantial whack of available money on top of the present amount going to this section.

I have spent a rather long time on this question. I had intended to ruminate like an old Scots dominie on the important things about education but I have been forced by the divisive nature of the policies put forward by the right hon. Lady to make a rather more polemical speech than I had intended.

The hon. Lady the Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) presented a reasoned and reasonable case on the question now facing the students, but I do not altogether agree with the hon. Lady. The students certainly will not agree with her. This action will be seen by students, and they will be right so to see it, as an attack upon the National Union of Students and the effectiveness of that union.

The real worry is that allowing this so-called conscience right, or whatever it is, to withdraw from the union while recommending that the student still gets the facilities—we used to talk about power without responsibility; this is giving comforts without responsibility—is an attempt, as the Government have done with their Industrial Relations Act, to weaken the strength of the union, which will no longer be able to claim to bargain on behalf of all students. I am not sure that the Tory Party have been pushed into this by their backwoodsmen. I think that the backwoodsmen are on the Front Bench.

Mr. Kaufman

Surely what they have been pushed into doing is against the [column 590]consciences of many Conservative university students. The Manchester University Conservative Association, for example, is totally against what the Government are doing.

Mr. Buchan

That is absolutely true. They know the situation better than either the Conservative Party conference or some of the hon. Members from whom we have heard on the back benches. The fact is that they have never really forgiven the working class for entering the universities, preventing them from continuing as gentlemen's clubs, and giving money to the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.

The students have another point. They feel very strongly that something analogous to the James Committee should be established in Scotland. They feel that the statutory body which exists to review the future of teacher training, the General Teaching Council—of which I was not a member but for which I agitated—is rather sectional in its composition. Therefore, the students argue that there is a case for an independent review of teaching training within Scotland. I must say that I have now reluctantly come round to agreeing with the Scottish Union of Students. I believe it is right in saying that the G. T. C. is not of itself yet the powerhouse of education that some of us had hoped for and that an independent committee is necessary.

One reason for that is this. Apart from the students who are already in the colleges, we must recognise that this year something like 300 students, including many girls, who had sufficient qualifications to enter college were turned away. The Government are now talking in terms of a sufficiency of primary teachers. How many may be turned away next year—500, 800, 1,000? That is what is worrying me.

The students argue, with justification, that the training colleges should be seen much more properly as a sector of higher education and not merely as the vocational training centres that they are at the present time. We must consider this very carefully to see whether the colleges in Scotland, with the beginnings of a degree course, could not be expanded in a slightly more imaginative and useful direction in the future. This point I shall follow up in due course. [column 591]

I have a lot more to say but I will not say it. It is a habit to begin speeches with a text, especially in Scotland, where education came from John Knox and such people. I will reverse the position and end with a text. My text will come from the New Statesman and Nation. In view of the nature of some of the things which have been said on the benches opposite, my text will come from the “This England” column. It is a quotation from the Coventry Evening Telegraph, and I should like to know whether the right hon. Lady approves of the structure of secondary education in Scotland. The quotation is:

“The new scheme, which has taken months to prepare, will mean a completely comprehensive system of education in Coventry, except for the grammar schools.”