Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1971 Nov 18 Th
Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Education (Opposition motion)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: House of Commons Intervention
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [826/748-58]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 2059-31. MT intervened - to indicate dissent - at c748.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 3689
Themes: -
[column 748]

8.59 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

We have had a quiet debate after a rather stormy start. I do not know what got under the right hon. Lady's skin, but she will need to discipline herself a bit. I had more than a feeling that she was not so much replying to a speech which had been made today as to a speech which had been made a fortnight before. If the Government cannot so organise their debates to put someone up at the end of them to reply to questions, they must accept that they will lose out on the debates.

I sincerely hope that tonight the Secretary of State for Scotland will not consider that his task is to speak purely about the building programme in Scotland, the problems of the school leaving age, and all the other matters which affect us, but that he will address himself to the many detailed points in the informative speeches which have been made, some of which have been very surprising in the attitudes which have been taken.

I have a certain measure of sympathy for the right hon. Lady. Some time ago she gave an interview to The Guardian, in which she rather bemoaned the fact that she was misunderstood. She said that people got the wrong impression of her.

Mrs. Thatcher

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ross

Those were the right hon. Lady's words. I have the report here, and I could read it if necessary. I do not think that the right hon. Lady is entitled to say that people get the wrong impression of her. They form an opinion of her from what she says and does, and she will have to accept that. I do not think that any Minister of Education has been better known, or less liked, than the right hon. Lady.

The right hon. Lady's unpopularity stems from her actions over various matters, and today we heard valid criticisms from my hon. Friends the Members [column 749]for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark), and others, of the right hon. Lady's attitude to ordinary schools, and particularly her action over school meals and milk. The right hon. Lady will have to live with that.

I remember the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when we debated his statement of 27th October, talking about the sacrifices which Ministers had to make. He said that every Minister had to sacrifice his pet schemes. I said then that what the Secretary of State for Scotland had sacrificed was Scotland itself. The right hon. Lady's unpopularity stems from the fact that she willingly made cuts in school meals and milk, and from her lack of action in replacing secondary schools in England. I do not know where the right hon. Lady will find a friend to support her action over school milk. It is no good her saying that she made that cut in order to provide more primary schools.

I have here a copy of the Glasgow Herald, which I have already shown to the House today in another context. I am sorry to remind the Secretary of State for Scotland of his past misfortunes, but the day after the Chancellor made his statement this newspaper said:

“Chancellor wields the axe. Cuts in welfare services—and 6d off income tax.”

That was a condition for reducing income tax and one has only to see how the P.R.O.s fed this to the Press. They said that the cuts in school meals would save so much per year, but when it came to what the Government were going to do it was found that they were to spend £25 million extra over three or four years. They minimised the damage they were doing, but maximised the benefits to be provided by the extra money.

Perhaps the Secretary of State for Scotland will give me some figures for England and Wales. Why should I be parochial? The benefits to be provided in the form of primary school replacements and modernisations have to start in 1972–73. The right hon. Lady spoke as though she had done something about these 6.000 primary schools. The fact is that she has done nothing. The programme extends over four years, and I am prepared to wait and see what happens. I shall be the first to congratulate the right hon. Lady if she succeeds. [column 750]

But if nothing is done about secondary schools, which in the opinion of the local authorities have, within their needs, priority, then of course she will be blamed for that. It is all very well saying, “I will concentrate on the tiny tots” , but the tiny tots do not stay tiny tots for ever. What matters most to them in regard to their future is what happens after that—what kind of secondary school they go to and whether there will be places for them in higher education.

The right hon. Lady rode away on some remarks about distortion and did not answer the main points, but the outstanding feature of her speech was that it contained no detectable philosophy of sincere belief in progress in education and in the need to change the educational structure. When we get suspicious of her over the secondary replacement programme, she must appreciate that to the extent that she denies replacement and expansion of a particular secondary school she holds up reorganisation in that area.

So the right hon. Lady is achieving part of the unstated philosophy of the Tory Party in this—she does not like secondary reorganisation and the development of comprehensive schools. To that extent, my hon. Friend who said that she was a relic from a bygone age is quite right. The Tory Party are clinging like limpets to an educational past. It might have been relevant in mid-Victorian and Edwardian days, but it is not relevant to the needs and aspirations of people today. She is way behind the people, in the same way as the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Last year, we spent nearly a whole year returning to Glasgow and Edinburgh the discretion to apply fees in local authority schools—not private or grant-aided schools, but local authority schools—which was abolished in England in 1944. This handful of schools [Interruption.] I will come to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) in a moment. He said that he was going to be brief. He was not quite so brief; if one is going to be controversial one is likely to spread oneself a little.

We spent that year on that Measure. But we sorted it out. In Glasgow, a Labour council was returned, so it did not [column 751]work there. They have just been discussing it in Edinburgh. The beacons have not been burning all over Scotland about this. Such was the enthusiasm for the return of fee-paying in Edinburgh that it was carried on Edinburgh council by one vote, with two Conservatives voting with the Labour side. Yet this House and Scottish Members slaved for nearly a year on it. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is proud of himself.

I will come back to the Edinburgh position, because I want to disprove some of the things which the hon. Member for Stratford-upon-Avon said. I was rather sorry, because he and I have been seeing eye to eye on one or two things lately. I hope that he will listen to me and be persuaded in this matter.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has left us. She made a delightfully reactionary speech. Mind you, we did not expect anything else from her. She was predictable. She has been waiting until today, her ears and eyes tight shut, to be persuaded about the desirability of raising the school leaving age. I will leave that to the Secretary of State for Scotland, but he will need to improve on his past efforts if he is to persuade even his hon. Friend.

I hope that the hon. Lady heard the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis), who was congratulating his right hon. Friend because the buildings and teachers were there. Did the Secretary of State do it? [Hon. Members: “Yes” ] Hon. Gentlemen opposite should know better. It was the Labour Government who did it, and I had the advantage of being Secretary of State for six years.

I recall the state in which we found the teaching profession when we took office in 1964. It was that crowd on the benches opposite who decided to raise the school leaving age, but from Scotland's point of view they had made no preparations either in buildings or teachers. [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite need not answer for the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is capable of answering for himself.

We had the Wheatley Report, which drew attention to the grave difficulties in the teaching profession. It pointed to the fact that the Tories had done nothing about them. We had a serious position [column 752]in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and elsewhere in relation to the number of unqualified teachers in part-time education in schools in Scotland. There was the Roberts Commission. All led to the conclusion that the teaching profession was in a sorry plight because the Tories had done nothing.

They left us to tackle the problem, get the teachers trained and start building, not just new schools for raising the school leaving age but for the reorganisation on comprehensive lines. I am glad to say that there appears not to have been any interference, direct or surreptitiously, by the Secretary of State for Scotland in that direction. This is not a matter for controvery in Scotland, outside of delinquent Edinburgh.

In his anxiety to show how virtuous he is, on someone else's efforts, the Secretary of State has been rather euphoric. He should let the teachers know that he recognises that there are areas where there will be difficulties in relation to buildings and teachers as a result of this step. Only when he faces up to these problems and takes the necessary steps to overcome them will he make progress and achieve an understanding with the teaching profession. One of the weaknesses of the right hon. Gentleman is that he does not seem to understand this.

Coming to the right hon. Lady, there are 6,000 primary schools yet to be built and there is more to worry about over the state of education in England and Scotland than she pretends. Her activities have not exactly endeared her to educationists anywhere in England.

It is no good the right hon. Lady trying to ride off our criticisms by the use of the word “distortion.” She did not even begin to reply to what was said about the youth service. I am the National President of the Boys' Brigade, a distinction I share with Cliff Richard. I know exactly how valuable are the boys' clubs, scouts and so on and I hope that the right hon. Lady will change her attitude towards them. She should not allow these activities to die.

The amount of work that is done by the voluntary services in this connection is tremendous. Those who undertake this work face great difficulties, so much so that they merit the fullest support from the right hon. Lady as well as the Secretary of State for Scotland in what they [column 753]are trying to achieve. They are not getting that assistance and that was implicit in the letter from Lord Alport from the Association of Boys Clubs. I hope that we shall get a more responsible answer from the right hon. Gentleman.

The Government set up a Committee and get a report. They ask for views, and all the rest of it, but before they even have time to consider those views they publish their own findings. We get that sort of thing in Scotland. We had a visit yesterday from representatives of the Educational Institute of Scotland. One of the things they were worried about was some change that is to take place in the organisation of the inspectorate in Scotland. Like dutiful Scots, they were concerned about it, and wrote to the Scottish Office.

They got a reply from the Scottish Education Department saying:

“… no decisions on any such changes have been made and if and when they are made I have no doubt that they will be discussed with the staff concerned here and that the education authorities and the teacher associations will be informed in good time in the ordinary way.”

That is consultation. That is discussion with responsible bodies. It was to that sort of thing that my right hon. Friend referred on 5th November when he spoke about the treatment of associations, trade unions and the rest. We have had no reply, no apology for the way in which the Department behaved. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman is not adopting some sort of Thatcher authoritarian style at the Scottish Office.

I will not say much on the subject of school meals and school milk, but I am staggered. Scotland was the land that produced Lord Boyd-Orr, who left no doubt of what he felt about the traditional value of milk, particularly for young children. Scotland produced another underrated Scotsman—a man called Walter Elliot. He was Minister of Health and introduced the milk-in-schools scheme. I can remember it. I started my teaching in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. The right hon. Lady says that putting on charges is not divisive. Does she appreciate that even in those days children would not stand up and declare the poverty of their parents, who could not afford the halfpenny, as it then was, for one-third of a pint of milk? [column 754]

Does the right hon. Lady appreciate the damage she is doing in country districts, where everyone knows everyone else? Included in the correspondence from the E.I.S. is a memorandum from, I think, the Director of Education of Sutherlandshire drawing attention to this very point—that children who might well be entitled to free school meals were not applying because they did not want to proclaim the finances of their families, not to the education authority but to the rest of the school. I know that we are always in the difficulty of not being able to make this provision without identification, but the position has become worse.

It is no great credit to the Government to say that so many more are getting free school meals. We were told that as a result of the wielding of the axe, denying to children their school meals, we should get a great surge forward. I have a cutting here:

“A new impetus for Scotland, Campbell says.”

I will tell him about this once a week at least. Since he said that, unemployment in Scotland has gone up by 45,000, and I reckon that as a result probably 20,000 more families are entitled to free meals. They do not get free milk, of course, because there is no hardship provision in that respect—that is one of the saddest and most disappointing things of all. Will the right hon. Lady think again about giving guidance? I know that she gave a “smart Alec” reply to one of my hon. Friends in a letter saying that medical officers did not require to wait until there was evidence of malnutrition but could provide milk as a preventive measure. Why does she not write that to the local authorities throughout England and Wales? Her right hon. Friend can do it for Scotland.

Mr. Buchan

Why not?

Mr. Ross

There is far too much at stake in this. It was Winston Churchill who said that one of the finest investments was to pour milk into the bellies of children.

Mr. John E. B. Hill


Mr. Ross

Why does the right hon. Lady not give that guidance? Is she afraid that this little additional expenditure will break this country's back? I hope that she will think again. [column 755]

I turn to the question of higher education. First, on student unions, we have had very good speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley and from the hon. Member for Chertsey (Mr. Grylls), whose speech was very balanced. The hon. Member for Chertsey overlooked or miscalculated the disadvantage it will be if we hand over to the governing bodies responsibility for deciding about what finance should be allocated to the student unions.

The right hon. Lady has a difficulty. That is why she cut off school meals and milk. Will she place the governors of the institutions in the position of having to make these very difficult decisions, creating difficulties between them and the students when, as has been said, things are so much quieter? We are getting the backlash from about two years ago in this unreasonable and senseless suggestion. The right hon. Lady will destroy the whole spirit of student unions. I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) for some figures he gave about the position of those unions outside Oxford and Cambridge. In a great many of them, 50 per cent. of the students are part timers. The result is that they will be unable to maintain the diversity of the societies on the basis of voluntary subscriptions, and there will be a loss in the enrichment of the universities.

In reply to the hon. Members of Rushcliffe (Mr. Kenneth Clarke), I do not want to see regional universities. The right hon. Lady had better face the responsibility of what residential accommodation will cost. I am grateful for the figures she gave but, as she knows, they are only provisional; she has to bring them up to date. She did not give an indication of the one big figure that matters—the capital grant. I am afraid that the right hon. Lady and her colleagues will be listening to the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, and to the hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. William Shelton), who started to question the whole value of university education. It is not right for people who have had the advantage of such an education to start denying it to others. [column 756]

The aspirations of the British people, as we have led them to believe, are that children should stay on at school. We have told them that early school leaving has been a waste of talent, every bit of which Britain needs, and that if they attain their qualifications, the further education will be there. It is a sad thing to read in the Scottish Educational Journal, as I did this week, some remarks by the Principal-designate of Jordanhill College, Dr. T. R. Bone, who said that the primary scene was affected by the supply of teachers and also by the development of higher education; and that it seemed likely that several interacting factors would mean a cutback in recruitment, perhaps by about 800 students next year. We already have over 300 people refused entry this year. Dr. Bone says:

“But this is not just a matter of supplying teachers; it is a matter of higher education, and any cutback of this kind will inevitably cause large numbers of young men and women grave disappointment, since they will have secured the qualification that they have been led to believe will entitle them to higher education and then will be refused it.

This is one of the most serious decisions facing Britain today, and is far bigger than the question of the supply of teachers. It is a question about the kind of society we are going to have in this country.

We have created the expectation that everyone who showed that he or she had the ability to profit by a higher education would get it. Are we now going to say that they will not, because the country cannot afford it?”

That is what the hon. Member for Rushcliffe was saying—that we cannot afford it.

We must appreciate another thing. We on this side are concerned about the 970,000 unemployed. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) should listen even for the short time that he is here, Scotland has a new level of unemployment at 141,000. I do not think that we shall return to the levels of unemployed that obtained three or four years ago. New high norms are being set.

We must consider the effect that this will have upon society generally unless we face the fact that we must have more education. If it is true that children who leave school at 15 cannot spell, that is an argument for more education, not for less education. We shall need to think [column 757]in terms of more education, earlier retirement and more leisure. This goes back to the question of our ability to support it and that depends upon educated manpower. It will not be done in grant-aided schools to the detriment of State schools.

Mr. Maude


Mr. Ross

I will not give way. I want to finish in about four minutes. The last time I spoke I wearied the House with a speech lasting 53 minutes. We cannot have that tonight.

So we must be able to afford more education. We must look at the whole structure of education and our whole philosophy of education in relation to the kind of society we want to achieve.

We shall never get that from the kind of educational system which is in the minds of the right hon. Lady and of the hon. Members for Rushcliffe and for Birmingham, Edgbaston, which is riddled with Victorian-Edwardian class divisions, with independent schools, grant-aided schools, in Edinburgh fee-paying schools, and local authority schools.

The instincts in Britain have been right to reorganise education along comprehensive lines. If the hon. Member for Startford-on-Avon will go to Edinburgh he will discover that 60 per cent. of all pupils in the fifth year of secondary schools in Edinburgh are in fee-paying, grant-aided or independent schools. I ask hon. Members to think of the effect that has upon Edinburgh's ability to provide the kind of education that it wants, which is the kind of education that the rest of Scotland has and which the hon. Gentleman's constituency has. It all makes a nonsense of modern education.

I wish that I had time to go over the Report of the Public Schools Commission in relation to grant-aided schools. One big advantage of the overhaul which is going on in the Palace of Westminster is that books are lying along the corridor. An hon. Member who has five minutes to spare can pick up a book. I picked up a book. I found a Private Bill in 1964 relating to George Heriot 's Trust. I saw repeated in the preamble part of George Heriot 's will in which he left the residue of his estate

“for the maintenance, relief, bringing up and educatiowne of puire, faitherless bairnes” —

poor, fatherless children. [column 758]

That is the origin of most of the snob schools of Edinburgh. They served their purpose, and they did quite a lot in the setting of secondary standards, but their whole history has been one of change. They have to change now to meet the needs of Scotland and of Britain.

One of the troubles with hon. Members opposite is that they cling to the past in education, as in so many other things. They refuse to face the future, and this privilege of theirs has been erected into a philosophy. The only thing I am happy to see is that they have now come to the point at which they are afraid to proclaim it. But it is there, and, while it is there, they merit every word of our Motion with reference to wasted resources, to dividing the nation, and to failing the country's educational demands.