Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1973 Feb 1 Th
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Secondary Education (Opposition motion)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [849/1639-68]
Editorial comments: 1640-1757. MT spoke at cc1645, 1654-68.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 10566
Themes: Secondary education, Public spending & borrowing, Trade unions
[column 1639]


Mr. Speaker

I apologise for the delay in reaching the debate, but the remedy is in the hands of those who catch my eye, for if they shorten their speeches by just two or three minutes each they will make up the lost time.

Before I call on the hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) to move the motion, I should inform hon. Members that I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members. That is, in line 1, leave out from ‘House’ to end and add:

welcomes the Government's policies for Secondary Education, the importance attached by the Secretary of State to educational considerations, local needs and wishes, and the wise use of resources, in the exercise of her powers to decide individual proposals under section 13 of the Education Act 1944 (as amended), and the Government's determination to have regard to the wishes of parents about the education of their children.

4.40 p.m.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I beg to move,

That this House regrets that the Secretary of State for Education and Science has, by the arbitrary and capricious use of her powers under sections 13 and 68 of the Education Act 1944, postponed and prevented the implementation of plans for the comprehensive reorganisation of secondary education and has, by the practice of rejecting parts of schemes submitted to her, jeopardised plans prepared by local education authorities to provide for the needs of all the children within their responsibility.

A debate about comprehensive education needs to begin with a definition. Calling a school comprehensive does not make it so. The concept of comprehensive education has a precise meaning. It must involve children of all levels of intellectual attainment and ability from a variety of backgrounds coming together within a single educational community. A true comprehensive system and the complete abolition of selection are indivisible. For a Government to approve plans for new comprehensive schools but [column 1640]at the same time to refuse permission for the amalgamation of grammar schools with them is simply to ensure that the old divisions at 11-plus are perpetuated and that the increasingly accepted advantages of true comprehensive schools are denied.

That is not simply my view. The second Black Paper which represents, in general, educational views which are anathema to me of course overstates the case, but in its typically crude way it is basically right. It says:

“A balanced intake is essential. Each local authority has the choice of a bipartite system of grammar and secondary modern schools or of full comprehensive schools in its area. One cannot have grammar schools alongside comprehensive schools.”

I agree with almost all of that, although the passage about local authority choice is obviously wrong. Our charge today is that in spite of the promise of circular 10/70 that

“authorities will now be freer to determine the shape of secondary provision in their area”

their choice is often limited in a way which is palpably neither reasonable nor consistent. That is our charge. But let me save the House subsequent time by making very clear what our charge is not. We do not accuse the Secretary of State of acting outside her legal powers. With one or two possible exceptions—one of which I will deal with in a moment—she has remained rigidly within the law, but that is hardly surprising. Sections 13 of the 1944 Act allows the Secretary of State sole judgment over any reorganisation proposal. Her judgment is made by comparing new schemes with criteria which are largely of her own construction. She is in the fortunate position of a referee who is able to make up three-quarters of the rules as the game goes on, and frankly there is no wonder that she is able to secure victory for the side of her choice without actually infringing the few rules which are determined before the game begins.

And let me make two other points equally clear. We do not believe that any Secretary of State has the automatic duty to approve every scheme submitted to her Department. To complain that Section 13 has ever been used would be obviously unreasonable. No doubt some of her refusals were justified, but that is not the point. Nor is it relevant to argue, [column 1641]as I am sure we shall hear today, that a large number of reorganisation proposals have been approved. We do not accuse the Secretary of State of rejecting every submission. We know that reorganisation plans for many schools have been accepted. About that we are neither surprised nor grateful, particularly when we remember that many of the approvals are for schools within schemes that have been changed out of local authority recognition by the insistence that grammar schools should be excluded. The Government have two distinct personas with regard to the discussion of secondary education reorganisation. At education gatherings the emphasis is on the number of schools reorganised. At party conferences the argument switches to the type of schools which have been preserved. The Secretary of State said at Blackpool last year, I think with some pride:

“I have upheld 92 objections, mostly in favour of famous or well known grammar schools.”

She said—[Interruption.] What a pity the hon. Members below the gangway who are cheering now were not cheering at the Manchester education conference when Government policy was advanced in quite different terms.

Of course, many complete schemes have been approved but the approval of some is no excuse for the rejection of others which are equally good. I go on to give one example of the sort of conduct about which I complain. It is not the most extreme example I could find. The sorry story begins with the Secretary of State's approval for the closing of a grammar school—although the Secretary of State made sure it did not end that way. It demonstrates the impossibility of sensible planning under the shadow of arbitrary and capricious use of Section 13. The example concerns three London schools.

Strand is a small maintained boys' grammar school in an elderly building. Tulse Hill is a boys' comprehensive school, purpose-built during the 1950s actually in the Strand grounds. Dick Shepherd is a girls' comprehensive school in the same area. The Inner London Education Authority made proposals for the three schools, proposals which many [column 1642]hon. Members will regard as reasonable to the point of being obvious. The Strand and Tulse Hill buildings, standing side by side, were to be used to form a single new comprehensive school. Pupils from Strand were to be transfererd to the nearby Dick Shepherd school where building extensions, a legacy of earlier and happier days, were planned and approved. No reasonable person could regard those proposals as anything other than a carefully conceived, closely integrated plan which stood or fell by its overall merits. But that was not the view taken by the Secretary of State.

The closure of Strand was approved. The alteration of Tulse Hill, the school which was to use the newly-closed Strand buildings, was forbidden. So was the alteration to Dick Shepherd, the school into which the pupils from the closed Strand school were to have gone. All that nonsense was justified by reliance on the letter of the law, on the Secretary of State's undoubted right to consider proposals school by school, even when it was probably nonsense so to do. That of course presented the ILEA with a substantial dilemma and after a degree of anxiety the authority decided to proceed according to the Secretary of State's formula. But before that was done the parents of pupils at Strand chose to contest the closure in the courts. As a result of that an injunction forbidding the closure was made in May 1972 and the education officer of the ILEA reported the judgment in the case to the Authority in these terms:

“The proposals made by the Authority were a package deal—an inter-related scheme affecting all three schools. The Secretary of State had approved a proposal that was not submitted and what she did was not within the power which she had under the Act to modify proposals submitted to her”

That was the judgment on her conduct.

The ILEA was therefore faced with a second dilemma. It resolved it by abandoning the immediate closure of Strand and making a second application to the Minister which it believed to be simplicity itself because it was legal in that it was a proposal for one school complete unto itself, simplicity itself because the Minister had already approved the principle of closing the Strand school. Therefore, to give legal force to her wishes, though [column 1643]not to the legal way in which they had been imposed upon the ILEA, a second application was made in July 1972. Six months later, on 5th January this year, the Secretary of State replied.

The proposal was approved in the summer of 1972 and was turned down in January 1973 in a letter which explained that the change of heart had come about because

“the volume and strength of local feeling in favour of retention had considerably increased” .

Hon. Members: “Hear hear.”

Mr. Hattersley

Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen cheer, but I will tell them what was wrong with that.

A number of questions immediately arise. The first concerns good local authority planning. There had been weeks of consultation with teachers and governors, and months of consultation with parents. At the end of it all, after two years in which the Department of Education and Science had steadfastly refused to give any advice to officers of the authority about the sort of scheme they might approve and the sort of scheme they might not approve, the scheme was subject to a ministerial roulette. On one day it was right to close Strand, on another day it was right to keep Strand open.

Any hon. Member with experience of local authority planning will know what capricious behaviour of that sort does to local authority morale. Having served for 10 years on a local council, I can think of no greater deterrent to careful, conscientious local authority planning.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

Does the hon. Gentleman think that local authority morale is more important than local feeling?

Mr. Hattersley

I am coming to that point, in the hope that there is one hon. Member who actually believes that majority local opinion matters to the right hon. Lady. I will deal with that question at once.

The second question involved in the Strand issue concerns the reason for the refusal—the volume and strength of local feeling, something that has been wheeled out as justification in the amendment that we are later to debate. That has become the most common reason for the rejection [column 1644]of comprehensive proposals. To employ a second footballing metaphor, it has become the “sweeper-up” , the tactic that is used when other more sophisticated forms of defence have allowed the opposition to take over the field.

We know that the Act requires the Secretary of State to take account of objections by

“any 10 or more local government electors” .

That is an absurdly low minimum figure. Its interpretation is a matter for the Minister, and we need to know, and I intend to pursue, how her discretion in this area is used.

I am sure that it is accepted on both sides of the House that a substantial body of opinion can be whipped up in support of virtually any existing school. We need to know how the significance of that support is measured. Already we know something about the right hon. Lady's criteria. We know that the objectors need not be connected with the school or have any particular experience of education. We know, for instance, that the educational objectors in my town of Birmingham who claimed that they had sent several tens of thousands of objections to the Minister began their appeal for objections on the high note of academic excellence of a letter which began:

“Try writing your name and address more than 90 times—yes, 90 times—then go back and add your signature and you will have sent 90 objections to the Minister.”

We should know how seriously and how significantly the Secretary of State judges opposition of that sort.

We also know that there is no question of measuring support for ending selective secondary education against the support for continuing it. I will give an example. In Kidderminster, where the Secretary of State had, as she said in a letter,

“… regard to the views expressed by local government electors”

in perpetuating a number of grammar schools, the petition against comprehensive reorganisation was signed by 4,500 people—about 7 per cent. of the total electorate of 70,000.

In her own constituency of Barnet, where the right hon. Lady saw fit to retain certain grammar schools, the poll on reorganisation produced 24,000 people in favour of reorganisation and 4,000 [column 1645]against. I hope that when hon. Gentlemen opposite scream their support for the participation of parents and local government objectors in the area they will explain why some objections are more important than some support.

Indeed, by the operation of Section 13 the reorganisation of secondary education is almost the only element of Government policy that is determined by referendum. The distinction and novelty of this referendum is that victory goes not to the side with the biggest vote but to whatever group can be cobbled together to represent the prejudices of the Secretary of State. The only conclusion we can draw—[Interruption.]—Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene? He seems to be saying something.

Mr. Michael Fidler (Bury and Radcliffe)

I was only commenting that the remark seemed unworthy, bearing in mind what the Secretary of State has done.

Mr. Hattersley

If it is unworthy, bearing in mind what the Secretary of State has done, will the hon. Gentleman tell me whether it is arithmetically inaccurate, considering the figures I have quoted? That is the important point.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

The two figures quoted by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) are not comparable. One has to do with the specific Section 13 notice and the other has nothing to do with that.

Mr. Hattersley

The right hon. Lady is demonstrating the rigid legalism about which we complain. She is doing all these things to which the motion calls attention. She is certainly not taking account of the wishes of the electorate in the borough which is under discussion.

The only conclusion we can draw is that the Government do not even consider the wishes or the needs of the electors as a whole. If a substantial vested interest wants to preserve the local grammar school then, again working by the letter of the Act—and I do not deny that the right hon. Lady does that—that vested interest will be allowed to do so. The judgment of the local education authority made on behalf of all the children within its responsibility is arbitrarily overriden [column 1646]because it is that particular minority that matters.

Mr. Fidler

The hon. Gentleman is pleading a cause on the basis of 10 years' local government experience. I speak with 21 years' local government experience. Does he think that it is advisable for local authorities to submit plans now, when they will be going out of existence in a few months' time, and for plans to be considered not for the new districts but for the old districts which soon will no longer exist?

Mr. Hattersley

That is a totally new point which is an abuse of interjection. I will deal with it with pleasure and my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) in winding up the debate will deal exactly with this problem, the problem of Worcester for which, with the creation of new authorities, the right hon. Lady has made life virtually impossible in 1975 by approving in two areas schemes in direct conflict with what would have happened in those areas had she refused permission. The argument is on my side.

I will return to the stream of thought which the hon. Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. Fidler) tried, unsuccessfully, to interrupt.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene?

Mr. Hattersley

If the hon. Gentleman's intervention is like the previous one, with pleasure.

Mr. Raison

I am anxious to disturb the hon. Gentleman's stream of thought because I regard it as a rather mouldy stream. Will he comment on one other example which appears to put the lie to his argument, the example of Richmond on Thames, where the Secretary of State approved a comprehensive reorganisation scheme in spite of there being strong defenders of the retention of the existing grammar school? That seems to make the point very clearly.

Mr. Hattersley

I have three points to make about Richmond. Richmond had to wait until the spring to be told by the right hon. Lady what would happen to the Richmond children in the autumn. That is not good departmental behaviour. [column 1647]Secondly, to excuse the right hon. Lady from doing anything wrong because she has done something right is not pure logic. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asks how we can object to the right hon. Lady's behaviour when she has disapproved of comprehensive schools in some areas but has agreed to a comprehensive school in Richmond. That is behaviour which I would describe as capricious, and that is what the motion is about.

I now return to the speech which I was going to make before that welter of interruptions. I wanted to offer to the House further evidence of which parents matter to the Government. Further evidence can be gleaned from an examination of the Kidderminster case where three grammar schools were preserved despite the comprehensive scheme. They were preserved for the enthusiasts of grammar schools, including a one-stream entry grammar school about which some grammar school authorities will want to make their own judgment.

The Secretary of State said in her letter to the local authority that she wanted to preserve the opportunity for parents to send their children to selective schools and to a single-sex school. Of course, a grammar school place was available to only one Kidderminster parent in seven. For the rest there was no choice. Equally, the prospect of single-sex education remains only to those in Kidderminster who had passed what is described there as “the 11-plus” . In fact, the vocal protests of a minority were allowed to preserve the choice for the minority. The system adjudged best for the community was, therefore, arbitrarily rejected.

I hope that as the debate continues we shall not hear very much nonsense about the existence of parental choice, desirable as that may be in itself. I know perfectly well what Section 76 says. I also know that the judgment in the Watts v. Kesteven case virtually qualified Section 76 out of existence. More important, I know that “choice” is a privilege which only very few people enjoy. In the selective system, a majority of the children have been and always will be directed to the nearest secondary modern school. I hope that we shall have no nonsense that might suggest that the parents in most depressed parts of [column 1648]my constituency, for instance, have any educational choice which is meaningful to them.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that because choice is limited, which it is, it should therefore be extinguished altogether?

Mr. Hattersley

I am suggesting that choice under a selective scheme is deeply limited. I am suggesting that choice under a pure comprehensive scheme is a great deal more to be preferred.

I must ask the right hon. Lady another important question. According to the law she sits in judgment on reorganisation schemes. According to her own criteria, local opposition to change is an adequate reason for retaining selection. In the light of that, does she regard it as right to use her influence and authority to stimulate the petitions, the round-robins and save-our-schools campaigns?

The right hon. Lady has never been anything but frank about her rôle. If I might say so, without offence, it has been one of the more attractive aspects of her participation in this business. At her party conference last year, according to The Times Educational Supplement, she pleaded for those who believed intensely in the future of grammar schools to be vocal in their interests. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are right to cheer, for their right hon. Friend has practised what she has preached.

For example, a meeting recently took place between the right hon. Lady and a group of dissident Surrey Conservatives who wanted to oppose their party's plans for secondary education in the county. The Conservative chairman of the county's education committee has not disguised his feeling about the meeting. I shall give the right hon. Lady all the details and all the correspondence if she likes. He said at the last council meeting,

“I regret I have no first-hand information on the matter. But I may say that I was rather surprised to learn in a roundabout way that the meeting was going to take place.”

I dare say that as the day wears on and information is obtained we shall be told that the meeting between the right hon. Lady and various members of the Working Council was official and legal. Let me tell the right hon. Lady and the [column 1649]House that it became official only because it was legalised with embarrassing haste.

In mid-December rumours appeared in local newspapers in Woking that a number of dissident Conservatives, who were disenchanted with the Conservative education plans for Surrey, would meet the right hon. Lady to make sure that they could vocalise opposition to the plans. The Woking Town Clerk wrote to the council, as a result of these reports, to the effect that by the time the council agenda had been prepared—that was 15th December—the Woking Council had heard nothing about the proposed meeting between a few of its members and the right hon. Lady.

On 18th December the Woking Council received what I can only describe as a cryptic letter from the Department of Education and Science. It said,

“Mrs. Thatcher has at the request of Mr. Cranley Onslow, MP agreed to receive a deputation of councillors.”

That letter, which reached the council on 18th December, invited the council to meet the Secretary of State two days later. I do not know how often the right hon. Lady invites councillors to go to see her within 48 hours, but on that occasion she did. If hon. Gentlemen are amazed by the speed of the Department of Education and Science, they will be more amazed by the speedy response of the council. The invitation arrived on the 18th December for a meeting on the 20th. On the 19th the Woking Council met and overnight a group of Woking dissidents were transformed into an official deputation from the Woking County Council.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I clear up this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) asked me to receive a deputation. Naturally I try to accede to all hon. Members' requests. I received a deputation in the same way as I received the hon. Gentleman's deputation, in his capacity as an hon. Member from Birmingham.

Mr. Hattersley

I was grateful for that, although I had to wait six weeks for a date. The House will draw its own conclusions from the 48 hours which elapsed in the Woking case.

I shall give another example which took place at Grantham where the autho[column 1650]rity of the Secretary of State has been employed with even less restraint. A programmar school lobby from Grantham wrote to the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber), who naturally passed on his letter to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Her reply to the right hon. Gentleman was passed back to the grammar school lobby who saw fit to publish it. The letter included two perfectly legal but remarkably disingenuous sentences. It said:

“My decision whether or not to oppose such proposals is taken in the light of any objection which may be received …   . I note that some parents are already preparing a petition on the matter to me.”

As a nod is not quite as good as a wink to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. Gentleman thought it right to add his comment which was published in the Grantham Journal on the same day. It urged those who had objections to make their views known before the Secretary of State came to a decision—[Hon. Members: “What is wrong with that?” ] I will explain by asking the right hon. Lady a question. Having played a public part in the promotion of objectives, does she agree that it would be intolerable for her to use the objectives as a reason for turning down local reorganisation schemes?

Mr. Cormack

A third-rate debating point.

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman says that that is a third-rate debating point. Let me give him another one which comes not from me but from the right hon. Lady's predecessor. The right hon. Lady will be aware of Lord Boyle 's reproof to her, which was published in the Journal of Educational Administration in June of last year, which reminded her that she has a judicial as well as a political function. She will also be aware that her predecessor, the present Lord Chancellor, talked about the use of powers under the Act and said that he did not regard it as appropriate—he was speaking about an Aylesbury grammar school in 1957—to override a local education authority unless he was convinced that it had not merely been wrong but prejudiced. I throw in these two cheap debating points alongside mine.

Another argument that the right hon. Lady has employed in the past to justify [column 1651]the rejection of reorganisation proposals is the necessity to avoid split sites. Let me give another example relating to one reason advanced for the refusal to sanction the amalgamation of two schools for London, namely Rutherford and St. Marylebone Schools.

One block of St. Marylebone Grammar School is nearer to Rutherford than it is to St. Marylebone and is divided from its parent school by a main road. Plans were going ahead to buy the intervening land and to reorganise the way the school was to be divided in such a way that the new scheme would probably have minimised the amount of travelling.

I offer this as an occasion when the Secretary of State has turned down the scheme on grounds which, irrespective of doctrine, are inadequate. I admit that there are times when split sites are disadvantageous. I do not refer to the case at Barnet where a split site was to be divided into junior and senior high schools, with a clean break at 14. That was clearly strategy to avoid the siting of a grammar school. We are referring to cases where split sites divide schools which means that hundreds of children have to move from one area to another.

During the last two years there have been a number of occasions when reorganisation proposals have been turned down because split sites have been thought to be a bad thing. Equally, during last year there were a number of occasions when local authorities have wanted to end the problem caused by split sites. This happened in Sheffield, West Bromwich and Scunthorpe where education committees sought permission to provide new secondary buildings which would concentrate comprehensive schools on a single site. On each occasion permission for the new building has been refused.

We are therefore left with an intolerable pincer movement. The creation of a split site school is judged to be undesirable and will almost invariably be opposed. The abolition of the split site is expensive and will certainly be forbidden.

Much of the work which would have been carried out under Sections 13 and 68 of the Act has been rendered unnecessary by the Government's constant refusal [column 1652]to approve new secondary buildings for reorganisation and many other things. There was the case in York where building plans for the city's upper school were rejected. This was also the case in Sunderland where expenditure of £1½ million for Farringdon, Broadway and Corby Hill Schools was refused. The relationship between the building programmes and reorganisation plans raises most important issues of principle.

The White Paper on Public Expenditure forecast the most extraordinary reduction in expenditure on school buildings—not failure to expand but literal reduction. In the financial year that is about to begin, capital expenditure on schools will amount to £375 million. In 1976–77 it will have fallen to £281 million—a cut in the school building programme of 30 per cent. Nobody can doubt the need for new school building. Most county boroughs could swallow up the £10 million proposed in the White Paper and still barely meet their own needs. Why is the right hon. Lady so savagely cutting the capital budget? Is it simply Treasury stringency, is it because the Government remain unsure of the sort of secondary schools they want to build, or is it simply another way of preventing the absolute end of selection?

When the Secretary of State answers that question, I hope that she will turn her mind to another. It concerns the time taken for her Department to pass judgment on reorganisation proposals. The St. Marylebone—Rutherford proposals took 16 months for a proposal affecting two schools. In a number of other cases, notably Richmond and Farnham, local education authorities had to wait until a few weeks before the end of the summer term to learn the fate of their children in the autumn. In Birmingham the Secretary of State has even refused to disclose the date on which she will give advice on the merits of the programme.

By taking this attitude the right hon. Lady is not simply inconveniencing local authorities but is leaving thousands of parents and children in a state of uncertainty about what will happen to them in September. For her to tell education committees, as I have heard her do, that when in doubt they must read the Act and apply the law, is to substitute rigid legalism for compassion and common sense. [column 1653]Every local education authority to which I have spoken on this topic—both officials and elected members—has given the same explanation for this procrastination. They say that the Secretary of State decides virtually every case personally. There are no rules, no guiding principles; each judgment is ad hoc. A few minor schemes go to the noble Lord who is a junior Minister in the right hon. Lady's Department.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

There is nothing wrong with being a junior Minister.

Mr. Hattersley

Some Ministers are more junior than others. The other junior Minister in the right hon. Lady's Department makes the occasional decision. He was sent off to Sheffield to make them an offer—not an offer they could not refuse, but an offer which it was known they would not accept. But all the rest of the important decisions had had to await the Secretary of State's personal pleasure. If I am wrong, I am sure the right hon. Lady will tell me. This is why there is so much ministerial roulette, so much planning in the dark. What is needed, and what the next Labour Government will provide, is a clear statement of secondary school policy and a new education Act to enable it to be put into practice.

The 1944 Act, with all its epoch-making virtues, was meant as the instrument of a single revolution. The change it made possible was so great that its authors did not provide the machinery for further change. Section 13, debated largely in reference to the rights of denominational schools, is intended to inhibit alteration. It was designed as an obstacle to local authorities changing the character of their schools, and it is an obstacle which in some way must be removed.

A quarter of a century beyond that Act, we now see education in different terms. In his note on the 1870 Act to Mr. Gladstone, John Morley wrote

“At bottom, the battle of the schools was not educational; it was social.”

I believe it always is, and I believe that is as true today as it was in 1870.

Our view and the Government's view of society differ. We do not believe that competition is the only, or even the best, educational stimulus. We believe that such a theory is neither socially nor [column 1654]scientifically justified. We believe that the best interests of all people in the country are served, not by the unremitting use of whatever advice is at hand to preserve selective secondary education but by the open adoption of a truly comprehensive system. Such a policy will improve education without regard to outdated ideas of class and standing in society.

5.19 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

I beg to move, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: welcomes the Government's policies for secondary education, the importance attached by the Secretary of State to educational considerations, local needs and wishes, and the wise use of resources, in the exercise of her powers to decide individual proposals under section 13 of the Education Act 1944 (as amended), and the Government's determination to have regard to the wishes of parents about the education of their children.

I wondered what kind of speech the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Roy Hattersley) would make in support of the Opposition's narrow motion. It boils down to three things. The first is that precision is capricious. The second is that if one has strong views one should not make them known, particularly on grammar schools. The third is that in future it would be better if I did not accede to requests from hon. Members to bring their constituents to see me. That is about all his speech amounted to.

He wanted to have the argument all ways. He said that I was wrong to approach the matter legally, yet when I dealt with the matter of human feelings, as happened over the Strand Grammar School, the Dick Shepherd School and the size of the Tulse Hill School, he dismissed those matters completely.

May I first deal with the nature of the powers under Section 13. I note that the hon. Member says that he will do away with that section if ever his party returns to power. In that case, he would be doing away with all rights of local electors or those affected by the proposals to make their feelings known directly to the Secretary of State who would then be acting on any proposal as an automatic rubber stamp. The Section 13 procedure which I have to operate and which his predecessor kept in existence and did not [column 1655]propose to abolish, even towards the end of his Government, requires that formal proposals be submitted to me in each case in which it is intended either to establish a new school or to close, enlarge or significantly change the character of an existing school. At the same time, public notice must be given of the proposal and a period of two months is prescribed during which local government electors may submit objections to me.

The very procedure, therefore, which the hon. Gentleman would abolish, includes means whereby local views on proposals for individual schools may be fully taken into account before final decisions are made. And it is that to which the hon. Gentleman objects. Just as I have a duty to examine and to assess carefully a proposal in all its details, so I have a duty to exercise the same care in consideration of all the objections which are made to the proposal. Clearly, where the volume of objection is large and the substance well reasoned a full examination of the material will have considerable relevance to a proper assessment of what local needs and wishes really are.

For the convenience of authorities, Circular 10/70 summarised the main criteria—they are in the amendment—for formulating and judging the proposals. These are educational considerations in general—I often think that the Opposition do not look at these schemes on educational considerations at all—local needs and wishes in particular, and the wise use of resources. Educational considerations in general clearly include not only questions of pattern of provision, to which the hon. Gentleman partly referred—two-tier schools, all-through schools, sixth form colleges, age of transfer, and so on—but they also include reasonable choice of school. When the examination of proposals and the objections made to them reveal a strong conflict of view in the particular circumstances, this, too, requires full and patient consideration.

No proposal has ever been held up by me. Since I came to office I have approved about 2,650 statutory proposals relating to secondary schools and rejected 115, roughly 4 per cent. These figures reduce to proper proportions the very limited scale of those contentious cases which receive a great deal of publicity. Some of the criticism of the decisions [column 1656]taken in this minority of cases has been directed to the fact that I have actually used my powers for the purpose for which they were intended; that I have actually listened to objectors and have rejected some proposals under Section 13, as, if it were a reversal of the laws of nature that any proposal under Section 13 should fail to receive approval.

This seems wholly to misconceive the nature of the jurisdiction which it is the duty of any Secretary of State to exercise. A proposal is not a decision, and the precise machinery for objection is not mere decoration, although the hon. Member would have it that way. The duty is to make decisions on proposals on their merits and in the light of any objections which may be made. If the Secretary of State, in the exercise of this discretionary jurisdiction, concludes that a proposal is not well-founded, would not be in the best interests of the children concerned or does not accord with local wishes, it is his clear duty to reject it.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Action)

On the matter of procedure, the right hon. Lady has said that she places very great stress upon local and parental wishes. Where objections to any scheme for one school are overridden, will she say whether it is her practice to reply in detail to the objections she has received?

Mrs. Thatcher

Very rarely do we reply directly to the objectors in detail. The objections are analysed at the end of the period, and sent to the local authorities for their comments, together with requests for full details of the re-organisation scheme. The details required are very extensive. We evaluate the local education authority's reply to the objections. I have had requests from those who have made objections to see whether they could have the comments from the local education authority further to rebut the arguments. But there must be an end to this process, and so far we have never let the comments on the objections go to the objectors. That is the procedure which we operate.

If rejections were happening to every other proposal which was submitted or even to a substantial proportion of all proposals, one might well conclude that things were not as they should be—that authorities were failing to put forward sound proposals or that a Secretary of [column 1657]State was basically hostile to a wide range of types of proposal. But, granted that authorities have to submit proposals for any significant change of schools, a rate of rejection of the small size indicated is not in itself either surprising or disturbing. A vast majority of proposals I get are well thought out. They are the subject of wide consultation and co-operation between local authorities, teachers and parents. We do not receive large volumes of objections to each and every proposal. We receive them only where there is a genuine conflict of view. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, it would not, therefore, seem easy to whip up support just because a few people wish to preserve a particular school.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

When the right hon. Lady is considering whether a particular school shall be changed in character, for example, from a grammar school to a comprehensive school, does she consider under the Act the effect it has on children in other schools adjacent to the particular school before she reaches a decision? If so, I suspect that her figure of 4 per cent. is fictitious because she will know that if she retains a grammar school in a particular area it has a very adverse effect on other schools which surround it.

Mrs. Thatcher

Yes, we consider that. I shall deal with that specific point shortly.

Anyone who believes that a proposal submitted under Section 13 can ever be regarded as “open and shut” is simply failing to recognise the nature of the law and the duty it imposes upon the Secretary of State.

I come now to the hon. Gentleman's point about the practice of rejecting parts of schemes. The motion speaks of it, too. This is no doubt a reference to the fact that an authority sometimes submits a large number of individual proposals which together are intended to achieve the reorganisation of a particular area. We managed to do Twickenham first, and then there were tricky parts about Richmond. The local educational authority could not have been more co-operative in the way in which it dealt with objections and met the points. In the Richmond case there were only about 600 [column 1658]objections—I am speaking from memory—which were very small in number; most of them were met by the authority and the scheme went through.

It is perfectly true that when proposals come in in groups, the rejection of one or two proposals may have implications for the implementation of the remainder of the proposals which have been approved. But in educational terms, in terms of resources and of contentiousness, not all proposals are equally well founded. Great care is taken to work out the relationship between individual proposals and to recognise the authority's broad intentions and strategy. But even then, it remains necessary to examine each separate proposal individually, and on its merits. In doing that, I should be failing in my duty if, having concluded that a particular proposal was not well founded, I nevertheless approved it because not to do so would have reprecussions elsewhere. Where, on merit, such decisions have been necessary I am always ready to consider, as a matter of urgency, any revised proposals which the authority may wish to formulate as a result of reviewing the situation.

A number of the 115 proposals which have not been granted have been the subject of revised proposals, some of which have been granted. So the 115 are not all cases of final rejection. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook referred to the 4 per cent. I think that 4 per cent. is slightly on the high side, because not all the 115 proposals have been to comprehensive schemes. They are figures for secondary schools as a whole.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

What part does the right hon. Lady's Department play in any discussions before local authority proposals come forward? Are there no discussions before these schemes actually come to her in the form of proposals?

Mrs. Thatcher

We have given up the practice of approving plans for a whole area because it caused confusion. There have been one or two cases where we approved and took note of plans, but we do not now have preliminary considerations about plans for a whole area.

Mr. Hattersley

Since I asked the right hon. Lady almost the same question as that put to her by my hon. Friend the [column 1659]Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks), may I clarify what I think he means? My hon. Friend's question was clear to me but not apparently to the right hon. Lady, according to her answer. Assuming he were the chief education officer for a borough in contact with the Department and the borough decided that it wanted a complete comprehensive scheme, would the chief education officer be able to talk to civil servants in the DES and be guided about the kind of scheme that the Minister would be likely to accept?

Mrs. Thatcher

The hon. Gentleman will find there are certain matters on record as guidelines that we do not like. I made a long speech to the NUT at its last conference pointing out some of the drawbacks of large schools, split sites, two-tier schemes and 14 as the age of transfer. These matters are on record and are available for anyone to see. We are very careful indeed not to give any decision or guarantee on any preliminary inquiries which come to us because that of itself would prejudice the final decision.

The motion speaks of our postponing and preventing schemes. Far from postponing and preventing plans for comprehensive development, the vast number of approvals in the last two and a half years is leading to major development of a wide range of patterns of reorganisation. Since April 1971 the establishment of all-through comprehensive schools has been approved in the areas of almost 60 authorities; middle-school proposals have been approved for more than 30 authorities and sixth form college proposals for a further 12 areas. Against this background, concentration upon the small minority of rejected proposals, which I believe I have been justified in upholding, shows a lack of understanding of the broad situation.

I have identified and spoken publicly of a number of general issues and problems in secondary reorganisation, I have drawn attention to the organisational problems of very large schools and the advantages of smaller comprehensive schools. I understand, from the reception of that speech, that it found many echoes in the minds of listeners to it.

Some children develop and prosper better within the atmosphere of a smaller community. One reason why I turned [column 1660]down the Tulse Hill proposal, to which the hon. Member for Sparkbrook referred, was that it was for enlargement of an 11-form entry comprehensive to a 13-form entry comprehensive. I thought that was already large enough without going much larger.

Another proposal that I rejected on the ground of size related to the Trowbridge, Wiltshire, scheme. The local education authority wanted to put four schools together and call them one comprehensive school consisting of 2,700 pupils. That scheme was turned down because it was much too big. The local education authority resubmitted proposals for two smaller comprehensive schools, each composed of two schools, and they were approved. So local education authorities are used to looking at the guidelines and making their submissions regarding comprehensive schemes in the light of them.

Again, proposals for two-tier arrangements require close scrutiny. I should like to quote from the Assistant Masters' Association which has great experience of these matters. [Interruption.]Of course, hon. Gentlemen on the Opposite side are prepared to listen only to some teachers and not to others. This was about a scheme in Bexley. The Assistant Masters' Association said:

“Transfer of pupils to another school at the age of 14 makes for considerable difficulty in guiding them into correct choices of GCE and CSE subjects, and makes other curriculum decisions much harder. We are sceptical about whether the necessary degree of syllabus co-operation between the schools involved would ever be achieved in practice.”

These were practising teachers making submissions under the procedure for objections about a scheme which would affect them. I can understand that hon. Gentlemen opposite wish to get of Section 13. They are prepared to listen only to a limited number of people—not to those who are affected by the arrangements.

Very careful attention is also given to any proposal for a school to be established on two or more sets of premises.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

Referring to the point that the right hon. Lady was making about the age of 14-plus for transfer, may I ask whether she is aware that many other teacher trade unions, in addition to the Joint Four and the Assistant Masters' Association, are of the opinion [column 1661]that 14-plus is a bad age at which to transfer children?

Mrs. Thatcher

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have always thought that the arguments against it spoke for themselves, but from time to time it is necessary to make it clear. We are still getting schemes for two-tier arrangements for transfer at 11 to 14 and 14 to 18. A number of authorities which started on that kind of two-tier arrangement are now moving away from it because of the inherent difficulties that it causes. It is probably better that we should make our views clear on that matter so that such schemes are not submitted. One of the worst features from the teachers' point of view is to go through one lot of changes and a few years later to go through another lot. They hate it. It is bad for them and for their pupils.

I turn from Section 13 to the question of parental choice. I know that hon. Gentlemen opposite will not like that because the terms of their motion suggest that I have used my powers under Section 68 of the Education Act to impede or delay schemes of reorganisation on comprehensive lines.

I have not used my powers under Section 68 to this end. Like all Ministers of Education before me, including my noble Friend Lord Boyle, I regard the use of the power of direction under Section 68, which Parliament gave, as a weapon of last resort. I have used it in only eight cases where I have concluded that authorities were acting unreasonably. All these cases concerned the admission of pupils to schools—either a small number or a large group. These decisions have all been on the side of the parents, and I am not ashamed of that.

In only one case was my direction closely related to the establishment by an authority of a comprehensive school. I approved a proposal by Surrey to establish a comprehensive school at Rydens for pupils of 13 to 18. However, at the same time I directed the authority not to deprive parents in the catchment area which had been drawn for the 13-to-18 school of the right to let their children try for places at grammar schools at the age of 11 if they wished. That authority, although there are many [column 1662]other schools in the area, sought to put a rigid ring fence round one school which would have meant that people in that area who had children of high academic ability were robbed of all chance of going elsewhere. It seemed totally unreasonable and I directed the authority to act as I have indicated.

There are many parts of the country where geography or other factors lead to parents having little, if any, choice of schools. Where there can be a choice—this was so in the case I have just mentioned—because schools in sufficient number and variety are available, I am determined to do what I properly can to ensure that parents' right of choice is not eroded and is, wherever possible, extended.

Mr. J. D. Dormand (Easington)

I am genuinely seeking information on the use of Section 68. The right hon. Lady properly said that it is used as a last resort. She then stated that she has used it eight times since she came into office. Does she not agree that that is a much greater use of Section 68 than there has been in the period, say, since the war?

Mrs. Thatcher

Not as far as I am aware. It may be used to secure the admission of pupils to a particular school, sometimes against the authority's wishes. I have refused to use it on a number of occasions. In some of them admissions policy has been involved and in some there have been other factors. I do not think it is a large or frequent use of Section 68. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that I have been in my job for two and a half years. On the whole, Labour Secretaries of State for Education and Science have had a shorter period in office.

The overwhelming majority of parents send their children to schools maintained by local education authorities. Many parents want to have a real say in what school their child should go to. I should like to see many more taking what is, after all, a natural and basic interest in the choice of school.

I am the first to recognise that it would be idle to suggest that within a publicly provided and maintained service every parent can have an unfettered choice of school. There are limits imposed by cost, organisation and geography, but my [column 1663]aim is to see that choice is extended and not reduced wherever possible.

Mr. Ernest Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

When the right hon. Lady gives choice to a limited number of parents to choose a grammar school by retaining a grammar school, she compels 75 per cent. of the children to go to a school that nobody chooses.

Mrs. Thatcher

It depends how many children one considers have a greater ability than we are now managing to bring out in the schools. I know the hon. Gentleman's creaming-off argument, but what he objects to is where in certain areas, I have retained one or two grammar schools, mainly in areas in which I have given decisions for a wider choice of schools.

I absolutely agree with my noble Friend Lord Boyle, who has said:

“There are some other local authorities which have reorganisation plans that make educational sense either for the whole or a part of their area. But we do not believe that the time has come for the rapid and universal imposition of the comprehensive principle. This applies especially to our big cities, for several reasons. First, our big cities contain a particularly large number of established grammar schools of real excellence and, secondly, Socialist plans for the big cities so often involve botched-up schemes—taking a group of existing schools, often separated by wide distances, and giving them one head, which is absolutely no good at all.”

Hon. Members

What is the date of that speech?

Mrs. Thatcher

It was after circular 10/65 of the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland). My noble Friend went on to say:

“There is one other point about big cities. I agree with those who say that the imposition of nothing but comprehensive schools in big cities is bound to handicap the able child from a poor area.”

Roy HattersleyThe hon. Member for Sparkbrook quoted one of my speeches to the Conservative Party conference. That was a speech of my noble friend when he was Shadow Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman says that he knows all about Sections 76 and 37. But the interesting point to me is that his actions are against parental choice. He is trying to restrict it, at the very moment when his leader is making speeches saying that the Labour Party stands for increasing [column 1664]individual choice. On 20th January Harold Wilsonthe Leader of the Opposition said:

“Labour's task in identifying the road to democratic choice is directed … to showing how we can give the lead to the nations in exalting the role of the individual in society, making clear to him or her the choice which lies open and encouraging the deliberate use of that choice. … A people drilled, dragooned and distracted into believing that there is no choice, that they are denied any real power to choose, can find themselves drifting into a target for extremists.”

This is the moment when the hon. Gentleman announces that he will abolish the rights of objectors by abolishing Section 13.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that on present form the Leader of the Opposition does not hold any view for very long, and that it may be for only a very short time that we have the benefit of his holding views such as those he recently expressed?

Mrs. Thatcher

It looks as though his views do not extend to education.

The hon. Gentleman made great reference to Strand School. I was not quite sure what he was accusing me of. I seem to be accused of being too legalistic, of actually using my powers, of not listening to human voices or of not listening to the local education authorities. I listened to the parents, I listened to some of the objectors and I watched the fight which the parents had. They had it for one reason: that they believed in Strand School as it was. It happened to be a grammar school, but one of the reasons why they fought so hard was that it was a small school.

The case for the school was perhaps best put by a former pupil in a letter he wrote to the ILEA magazine Contact shortly before the decision:

“So the battle for Strand School is reaching its final sordid stages. Another living institution will die the death, in pursuance of policies laid down by a party which proclaims that people matter more than plans. Not, apparently, if those people attend a grammar school.

I write as a former pupil of the school, one who came from a ‘culturally impoverished’ background, from a Brixton home in which books were not to be found, the child of parents of little education and no notion of intellect. Strand, then as now, was not the best of London grammar schools: its most illustrious alumnus seems to be David Jacobs.
[column 1665]

But it opened up for me, an uncouth 11-year-old, a totally unexplored, unknown world. I tasted the fruits of hard work and application in a sternly but humanely disciplined community a small community where one knew was known by, the headmaster. I learnt the delights of intellectual study; and after eight years I left for university having passed four A-levels and narrowly failed a fifth, and those in subjects reputedly difficult for children of a poor cultural background—English, French, Latin, German, History. …

A small community, with a narrowly defined purpose, played its part in shielding me from the many pressures on a working class boy to be an early leaver Thank God, I say, for that bastion of elitism and privilege.

And, finally, let the ILEA not delude itself. Selection will not end. Selection by ability will go. But my child can still be ‘selected’. If he has an IQ of 30. If he can dance. If I, his father, have money and can send him to an independent school, or move to a ‘good’ area. If we prefer selection on these terms, so be it. But I did not have an IQ of 30; I could not dance, and my father had no money. Thank God there was Strand School.”
That letter, not in legalistic language, was based on experience. It was written by a former pupil who wished that opportunity to continue, who wished that small school to continue, and wished it for anyone who got there on a basis of merit whatever his background.

The parents fought. They took the case to court, where they were upheld. Then they fought again in increasing numbers. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of having listened to them. I am glad that I listened to them and upheld their objection.

There is one more point connected with the scheme about the Dick Sheppard School. The hon. Gentleman said that I turned it down on a technicality. There were enormous numbers of objections to the scheme, but the main ground for objection—not only the weight of objection—came from those who particularly wanted to retain a girls' comprehensive school. To change if from a girls' comprehensive to a co-educational school, to give in to the request to change the size, would have been to go against the wishes of many parents of children at the school. There is quite a number of immigrant Indian parents in the area who like their daughters to go to girls' schools. That was not a technicality. It was not legalistic. It was listening to the real human objections and feelings of the persons concerned. [column 1666]

I do not believe that the hon. Member for Sparkbrook has ever really faced up to the problem of the neighbourhood school which is in a less than good neighbourhood. What happens in those circumstances is that one gets a school which is comprehensive by name in a bad neighbourhood. The school reflects the character of the neighbourhood. In order to try to overcome this, local authorities draw artificial boundaries to get what they call a good social mix. The parents object. The Secretary of State then has to make one of two choices—either to uphold their objections or to direct them. The policies of the hon. Member for Sparkbrook would lead to ignoring the parents' objections and wishes and to the direction of children to schools. It would lead to the end of the parents' real interest in going round schools, trying to choose schools for their children which they think suitable—and they are just as interested in choosing between comprehensive schools as between schools of a different kind.

Mr. Marks

Did not the right hon. Lady, Lord Boyle and the remainder of Conservative hon. Members on the Committee at the time vote for exactly that idea when we discussed the 1970 Education Bill?

Mrs. Thatcher

No. We pointed out steadily and consistently that if every school was comprehensive and the Government insisted on getting a full ability range, what would happen was exactly what is happening in the ILEA. Children are divided into above average ability, average ability and, at the bottom, below average ability. We stood out against that concept. It has caused great trouble in the ILEA. In the end it means the direction of children to schools.

The hon. Member for Sparkbrook also referred to the capital provision that we have made for secondary schools. I turn now to the terms of the amendment and refer to the capital provision. When the Government took office, their immediate task in secondary education was to provide resources for raising the school leaving age. We provided capital resources on a generous scale which had been dictated by what the hon. Gentleman's predecessor said was necessary. However, the Labour Government postponed their promises. We were left to carry them out. [column 1667]

The capital was forthcoming. The ROSLA programme was for three years and provided £36 million in 1970–71, £50 million in 1971–72 and £61 million in 1972–73. But that is by no means all that we did for the secondary building programme. Over the five years 1970–71 to 1974–75, in addition to those amounts, we have authorised secondary building projects for basic needs of no less than £386 million at 1972 prices. It is a very substantial secondary school building programme. The basic needs and the ROSLA programme taken together enable local authorities to draw up plans in their areas for reorganisation schemes. In the new White Paper we are now providing £10 million each in 1975–76 for secondary school improvements in addition to the money that we are providing for primary school improvements.

There is one factor which I might mention. It is a small one but it provides a degree of freedom which was not open to local education authorities when the Labour Party was in power. Since 1970 I have approved some 50 proposals for off-programme building worth £3 million. These include about a dozen cases in which, under the new arrangements that we announced after the last election, local education authorities are selling surplus land for housing purposes and using the proceeds to undertake additional school building. Only this week I have approved appropriations of some 15 acres of land in Birmingham from the education committee to the housing committee, and the proceeds of more than £500,000 will be used for improvements and extensions to primary and secondary schools and for the provision of some nursery classes. That is another point of freedom which was not allowed to local education authorities under the rigid financial controls operated by the Labour Government.

The sense of the motion and the implications of the speech of the hon. Member for Sparkbrook are threefold. He says that I have misused my powers, that I have done so on a serious scale and that the result has been to impede or frustrate the development of secondary reorganisation. But the curious way in which his arguments were advanced demonstrates something quite different. First, the hon. Gentleman is the victim of a threefold delusion. I should have misused my powers if I had made the uncritical affir[column 1668]mative judgment of every proposal which the Opposition clearly would not do. This I have not done and I shall never do. As it is, I have exercised my discretionary powers as the law provides. Secondly, the small percentage of rejected proposals has assumed obsessive proportions in the mind of the hon. Gentleman. Thirdly, the effect of my decisions under Section 13 has been positive and constructive.

Where I have approved proposals, reorganisation in many forms has proceeded on sound lines. Where I have rejected proposals a far more liberal choice for parents than would otherwise have been possible has been preserved. Any Secretary of State concerned solely with patterns of organisation and not at all with specific choice in specific places would be betraying his office.

I welcome this opportunity to affirm that the Government's policy rejects any such crabbed and mechanical approach. I ask the House to support the amendment.