I think this has been one of the best debates we have had so far in this Conference. The interest from the Floor has been shown in every speech. There were over 90 resolutions sent in on the subject of Education and then some six amendments to the motion. I may say that the complaints of yesterday have turned out to be totally unjustified. The choice of motion has neither restricted the breadth of the debate nor the advice tendered to the three Ministers sitting on the platform.
I must, first, congratulate Mr. Tunnicliffe , the mover, for the excellent way in which he reviewed what we are doing for education and the terms in which he proposed the motion. It is quite clear from the speeches that everyone is feeling strongly about the subject of parental choice. Therefore, may I say a few words about it first. The principle of parental choice is contained in the spirit of the 1944 Education Act. When tested in the courts the Sections have turned out to be more limited than was supposed. May I make it quite clear that I should like a wider and more effective choice for parents. We must understand that we still have a number of schools where the facilities are way below those that we would wish to provide and these schools are naturally an unwelcome alternative to some parents, to the better ones that they would prefer. When I say that I want wider parental choice it means that we must concentrate as well on bringing up the standards of some of our poorer schools. This seems to me to be a far more important task than trying to destroy some of the very good schools. I would like to say to Mrs. Cooper that I have taken every opportunity to make my views known on parental choice, especially when local education authorities have attempted to apply an absolutely rigid zoning system as part of their re-organisation plans. She comes from an authority where I have had occasion to say something about parental choice. Sometimes it has meant acting through Section 68 and directing the local authority; othertimes it has been sufficient to write a very strong letter. However, I urge all local education authorities to give parents as wide a choice as possible of schools for their children.
May I accept the invitations of various speakers to point out what we have done and what we intend to do. I believe it is right for any Government to honour the terms of its manifesto. That is precisely what we are doing in education. I will, if I may, steadily go through the educational system pointing out how we are doing this. Our first promise was “to shift the emphasis in favour of primary schools.” The action was a record programme for replacing and improving old primary schools, a programme which amounted to more than £200 million over a period of four years. It also included for the first time, Mr. Hill , the improvement of rural schools. We should have got a lot of blame if we had not put this programme into operation. I hope we shall get proportionate credit for the action we have, in fact, taken.
Our second promise in the manifesto—I am working through it steadily—was that “we also recognise the need for expansion of nursery education. This is especially important in areas of social handicap.” A number of resolutions and a number of speakers have made the same point. Each year the share of the urban programme allocated to education has been used to provide more nursery places in the priority areas. In a debate in the House of Commons this Spring and at a conference of education committees I made clear my views that the right strategy for the future would be to concentrate on and extend the earlier stages of the education system. Since that time, further published reports of research work have confirmed this view.
Mr. Tunnicliffe asked that we make nursery education our next priority. I am happy to do so. Within the next few months I shall be announcing a programme for systematic expansion of nursery education on the education budget in pursuance of the duties laid upon local authorities under the Education Act, 1944. This will be yet another educational advance carried out by the Conservative Party in furtherance of its belief in education for all our people.
I agree with Mrs. Vivian that there is a case for nursery education for all of the younger children under 5, because there is such a rapid development of intelligence during that period, but I know that she will agree with me that during the early years of a new nursery programme it will be right to give a measure of preference to projects in problem areas.
I come on to secondary education, about which so many people have spoken so strongly. It is a very difficult area in view of the rights of local education authorities. What did we say about it? We said this: “In secondary education … we will maintain the existing rights of local education authorities to decide what is best for their area … They will naturally be slow to make irrevocable changes to any good school unless they are sure that the alternative is better.”
The last Government attempted to vary those rights by administrative action under Circular 10/65. I withdrew that to give local education authorities a chance to re-consider their reorganisation programmes. Since then, local authorities have put up some 2,300 statutory proposals related to secondary schools.
There is a right on the part of local people to object to the scheme to the Ministry if they wish to do so, and before a decision is made upon any change I am bound to take those objections into account. Clearly it is best where the local authority is absolutely in step with the people and the objections are very few; but where the changes are proposed for famous grammar schools with supreme reputations the objections come in thick and fast. I have upheld 92 of the objections, mostly in favour of famous or well known grammar schools which have served the whole area regardless of the background of the children and which have therefore provided the educational ladder from the bottom to the top.
I can only express the hope that those who believe intensely in the future of grammar schools and what they have to offer will be as vocal in their own areas and outside this conference hall as they are today.
The next thing that we promised, and it is right that we should carry out our manifesto, was: “We will raise the school leaving age to 16 as planned.” I know that some of you have doubts about this but it was in the manifesto. I think that some of you may have had doubts about raising the school leaving age to 15 many years ago, but now it is totally accepted. I believe that when we have got the curriculum right for those for whom a non-academic curriculum is required this will be an excellent reform and will be accepted and welcomed and of great benefit to the nation as a whole.
The next promise was: “We will encourage direct grant schools. Many of these schools have an excellent record.” The attack on direct grant schools has come, not because they are bad, but because they are very good. What a terrible philosophy to try to hold back a good school while the others catch up. The direct grant schools have had great difficulties and last year we increased the capitation grant to them and made a very much more generous income scale to enable people of all incomes to apply to go to those schools where they were near enough. Parents can apply directly to the school. The improvements in capitation grant I then introduced made the income from central Government to those schools equal to about one-third of their total income.
Since then, there has been a further Burnham award to teachers and other increases in costs. To retain the same proportion of grant to income, it will be necessary to review the grant annually. This I shall do, which means that this year the required increase in capitation grant will be about £9 a pupil, and Regulations will be laid before Parliament accordingly.
There were two more promises in the manifesto. The first concerned the demand for higher and further education. A number of speakers have spoken about the need for expansion in the polytechnics. I therefore take the opportunity of announcing the building programme for the polytechnics, nothing that there has been an increase in the proportion of students who are wishing to go to the polytechnics and who are using them.
The building programme which can start in this sector in the year 1973–74 will amount to £41 million, of which £19 million is for polytechnics compared with £7 million last year, and a further £19 million is for the further education colleges which do such a magnificent job.
There is one other point about that building programme. Undoubtedly some students have been and are in difficulties because there are too few residential places. Therefore in that programme we have allocated some £3 million for the provision of residential places. This compares with less than £1 million last year.
The last promise was: “We will institute an inquiry into teacher training.” The James Inquiry was set up. It has reported. We are three-quarters of the way through the consultations and I shall hope to announce decisions, possibly in a White Paper, by the end of this year.
That is an account of how we have implemented our promises and how we shall continue to do so and of the priorities that we shall have for the future. We must be clear that education is not only a question of resources and statistics. It is a question of the quality of the teaching profession. It is a question of the standards which adults are prepared to set in the society into which we shall receive the school leaver. Our purpose is to create an education system which does justice to the talents of all our children and which will fit them for life in a free and responsible society. I am happy to accept the Motion.