OUR plans for THEIR future
What have been your priorities and objectives since you became Minister?
The priorities have been quite clear. First, to improve the primary schools so that we can give children a better start, and secondly, to see how we can improve teacher training. Now both of those are important, because I think in a way they are directed towards the same end.
A lot of the troubles that we get later do not start in secondary schools or when children become teenagers. They have often shown themselves in the primary schools, but we haven't picked them up early enough.
Sometimes this is because we haven't had enough teachers, sometimes because we haven't had enough steady monitoring of the progress of the child, sometimes because the buildings are so appalling and inadequate for the purpose of teaching children that they haven't attracted good teachers and everyone's morale has been low.
So our objective has been to give all children a better start.
And what success have you had so far?
Well, we really have an enormous primary school programme which I think has surpassed almost everyone's expectations. Around £215m. spent in four years just on replacing old primary schools in England and Wales is quite a massive programme. That is now beginning to show.
Then we set up an inquiry about teacher training, under the Vice-Chancellor of York, Lord James. They have reported, and made some very interesting suggestions, particularly on refresher courses.
I hope we shall be able to make a start on that, because some teachers haven't been anywhere near a college or refresher course for a very long time, and many of them wish to take one.
How long will this primary school building programme have to continue?
It will continue for quite a time. When I became Minister, our information was that we had 3,000 very old primary schools built in the last century that needed replacing.
But now the programme is underway the education authorities have notified us of some 6,000 schools. So it will take longer than we thought—some seven or eight years, and by that time of course there will be some of this century's schools which will need replacing. We must also tackle some of the old secondary schools too.
Will your next priority be to create more nursery schools?
We would like to do a lot more here, but we must first concentrate on improving opportunities in the worst areas. But I do hope that we shall be able to do more for nursery education.
Is not raising the school leaving age taking up more resources?
The point is not merely to give an extra year at school, but to see that everyone has a proper secondary school education. If you leave at 15 you do not take the full secondary school course. And if you go into secondary school with the attitude that you're going to leave at the first possible opportunity, this upsets not only the work that you might have done from 15 to 16, but your whole approach to the school.
Now, at last we have got the school leaving age up to 16. Where other Governments have failed, we have succeeded. So we have really been acting on the two fronts—on the primary schools and on the secondary.
Apart from rebuilding, what other improvements are you looking for in the secondary sector? Have we now got away from the old arguments about the 11-plus exam?
I always felt the 11-plus argument was a false one. Sooner or later in education you have to assess what people can do. That really is all that selection is. Have they the sort of brain that should go on to university to take a degree or professional qualification? Or do their talents lie in craftsmanship or more on the commercial side, which also needs a good brain and talents, but a slightly different educational training?
I think the thing is not to select too early, and 11 is rather early for many, many children. Of course, some show their ability very early and you can pick it out early. Others show it later.
But, you know, at some stage you will have to select. And at many stages you ought to monitor the progress of the children, to give them the education most suitable to their attitudes and abilities. It really was rather futile for the whole argument to have got on to the one artificial point of 11-plus or not.
Do you think we devote enough attention in our schools to commercial training?
As a nation we depend on commerce and trade for our livelihood more than anything else, yet we do not put commerce and trade very high among our objectives at school or in universities.
Yet this really should be one of our first objectives—to turn out young people who are good commercially, good at industry and take a pride in it, rather than being encouraged to think that this is a second rate thing to do, compared with pure academic activity.
What constructive steps do you think you or the Government can take to encourage this?
This means getting a good deal more co-operation and knowledge between teachers and industry and commerce. Very many of our teachers know little about industry or commerce.
The CBI had a scheme some years ago which is still operating, for teachers seconded from school to spend about three weeks in factories and industry. It started off very well, but I think has fallen back now. Disappointing—because if they were more in contact they would be able to advise young people very much better about their careers.
What do you think of the criticism that many of our comprehensive schools are far too large?
A lot of feeling here is that the individual pupil is not getting as much attention in a very large [end p1] school as they should. People feel that in a very large school all the organisational problems become much more difficult.
You have a lot of teachers—they may not even know one another, let alone all their pupils. If they don't know one another they can't discuss the various performances of the young people in different classes, in different subjects.
Are you using your powers to restrain the creation of these factory-sized schools?
Well, I used them when one local authority came forward with plans for a comprehensive school to take in 2,700 pupils! I said: “No, the problems of organisation would be enormous. We don't know of many head teachers who could manage a big unit of that size. Go back and think again.”
There are some outstanding headmasters who have the management capacity, but even they would admit that their problems would be a lot easier in a small school. I have said I would favour comprehensives that were smaller—1,000 pupils or less.
Do you look favourably on three-tier systems, with a middle school for pupils around 9 to 13?
They have a number of advantages, and some of the disadvantages that we feared have not come to pass.
We feared that we should not get many teachers willing to teach this rather narrow age group, because those who were interested in teaching teenagers tended to want to teach the “O” or “A” level pupils too, and those who were interested in primary school teaching wanted to teach the younger ones.
We find that hasn't come to pass. There are quite a number of teachers, good teachers, who are very keen to teach this age group.
The other great advantage they have is that by the time the child is 12 or 13 you have a very much better idea of his talents, his strength or weaknesses than you have at the age of eleven, and you can then go on to a number of different systems at 13 on the basis of a much fairer assessment of the pupils' abilities.
How worried are you by the signs of growing violence and truancy in some schools?
Very worried indeed. Violence is linked up with difficulties at home or with the things I was talking about earlier,—personality problems which show themselves in primary schools but aren't picked up and dealt with at the time.
It is often linked with early reading difficulties, where a child can't properly learn to read and then feels rather different from his fellows—and so the frustrations come out in another way. I am extremely worried. It is a much more complex problem than one thinks.
We must also strive to keep problem children from playing truant, and to do that we must make jolly certain that we are handling the kind of curriculum, the kind of programme which they can see will help them with their problems, and will help them to earn a living.
One very interesting survey showed that children and parents are much more interested in education for earning a living than the teachers are.
I think this indicates they have got a real practical streak, and that [end p2] once they have an objective they will get down to work. But they won't do that unless they feel that it is related to what they will have to do later or that there is some purpose in learning.
Are you satisfied with reading standards in schools today?
Some recent research has suggested there has been no advance here in the past 10 years, and may even have been a decline. Now this just won't do.
There are also reports from secondary schools in some areas that one in ten, sometimes one in five children who go into secondary schools have a reading age of 7 or 8. This won't do either.
If we aren't teaching children to read and to be able to express their ideas fluently in their own tongue, then we are failing them. So a committee has been set up to ask for advice on the best systems to adopt, and how best to monitor progress.
But this problem is not confined to reading. You have probably seen how some young people interviewed on TV are very fluent, while others find it very difficult to string a few simple sentences together to say what they mean.
It really should be the birthright of every child to be fluent in his or her own language, to read well and be able to write reasonably well. For that unlocks the door to so many other things.
Are you satisfied that parents are getting the choice they were promised in the 1944 Act, as to the kind of school they would want their child to go to?
I have had more letters this year about this than I have ever before. I would certainly like to improve the mechanism for parental choice, but I think that also involves pulling up the standards of some of the less good schools so that parents will be every bit as ready for their children to attend those schools.
Where I have had local authorities trying to say: “In future all parents will send their children to that school and will have no choice, then I have sent very strongly worded letters saying: “The Act does not enable you to do this. And what's more, if you carry on like that then you won't get the increasing parental interest in education that we want.”
What about the independent schools? Would you like to see them more closely linked to the public sector?
I would like more opportunities for children to go to independent schools. Some parents could pay something, as at the direct-grant schools, where we make up the difference between what the parent can afford and the fees for that school.
Local authorities have powers to send children to independent schools, but few use them. There is a great demand for more independent day schools. I see it all over. Many, many people would like a good independent day school in their town to send their children to.
I feel strongly that it is only weak Ministers who fear the competition from independent schools, and so want to abolish them.
I believe you don't have to justify preserving independence in anything—rather that you have to justify restricting it.