Mr. J. D. Dormand (Easington)
This is the first occasion on which I have followed a maiden speaker and it gives me genuine pleasure to say that the House has listened to a model maiden speech. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) is obviously extremely knowledgeable about this topic. He has delivered his speech with great clarity, so much so that one might imagine he had been a Member of this House for some years. I am sure that I reflect the views of the whole House when I say that we look forward to his further contributions with great interest.
I will obey your injunction, Mr. Speaker, and be brief. I should like to take up briefly a point raised with the Secretary of State by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks). It is an important point; the Secretary of State realised this at the time and I do not think she attempted to mislead the House. I refer to the query about pre-submission of plans. It is a well-known fact that officers, and often chairmen of education committees, meet officers of the Department and that there is a valuable link between the Department and the local education authorities. My hon. Friend pointed out that the plans are, if not finally decided, decided to a large extent before the submission is made.
May I make one thing clear? The plans come in. The procedure is to take note of them. Even when the procedure was to approve or disapprove them, if approval was given there was always a sentence at the bottom saying “This is without prejudice to the rights under Section 13.” There is no difference about this.
I do not wish to labour the point. It seems that this is a very good thing, particularly as it concerns secondary education reorganisation.
This debate is concerned with the principle of comprehensive education at the secondary stage. I find it extremely difficult—a continuing source of amazement—to realise that in this year of grace 1973 the Secretary of State and apparently the Government—and, judging [column 1675]from some of the comments today, many hon. Members on the Government side—are still unable to accept this principle. Hon. Members of all parties have said frequently that there is nothing magical about the age of 11. Yet in our primary schools there is no segregation. We have fully comprehensive education up to the age of 11.
If the Plowden Report is to be believed, and most people accept it, we have some of the best junior comprehensive schools in the world. I challenge the right hon. Lady to produce any serious and reputable educational research advocating segregation at 11-plus. One is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that the views of the Government on this are doctrinaire and not based on any educational considerations.
Circular 10/70 relating to this matter was issued in the autumn of 1970. It was supposed to be a green light to Tory authorities to reverse their plans. In fact, it had no such effect. I believe that the Secretary of State totally misjudged the feeling of education committees, education offices and parents in thinking that the tide of comprehensive feeling was to be reversed at that stage. The Government ought therefore to be encouraging this great movement and not, as they are doing, inhibiting it. In my view they ought above all to be encouraging in every possible way the building of purpose-built comprehensive schools.
I recognise the practical day-to-day difficulties with which the Secretary of State has to deal. I refer to the overriding need to build purpose-built comprehensive schools. In January 1972, the latest date for which the Minister was able to give me information on this matter, of 1,591 schools recognised as designated comprehensive schools only 287 were purpose-built. Even allowing for all the practical difficulties which any Department has to face, that shows a lack of determination to provide for comprehensive education. Many hon. Members on this side believe that this is absolutely fundamental to this form of education. In 1961 there were 81 comprehensive purpose-built schools. Ten years later we can only say there are 287. That seems tome to show a complete lack of determination to provide this fundamental part of secondary education. [column 1676]
The Secretary of State referred to financial provision. I believe that the lack of financial provision for secondary school buildings in the last year has exacerbated this very serious position out of all proportion. As has been said many times, we on this side are very suspicious about the financial arrangements concerning secondary education. We regard it as yet another factor inhibiting comprehensive education. But there is another aspect of the money situation—and this is my real purpose in intervening in the debate—which is not only causing a great deal of concern to my own local education authority but is also a general problem. I refer to the impossibility of local education authorities to meet the cost limits imposed by the Department's regulations. I am aware that this affects all school building but this debate is related to secondary schools and therefore it is legitimate to consider it in this context.
My own local education authority, which has written to me about this matter, finds it impossible to meet those cost limits. It is asked, as are other local education authorities, to make savings on various aspects of plans produced by the architects. But my authority—and I fully support it—takes the view that such savings would cause a lowering of standards. I relate this to my previous remarks about the need for purpose-built comprehensive schools. I am sure that anybody who has studied the history of education, even over the last 30 or 40 years, could very easily point to examples—I regret to say from both Governments—where a reduction of standards has caused difficulties with which in many areas we have not yet caught up. That is what the Government are compelling local education authorities to do. Is that what the Government want? Is this yet another aspect of inhibitions placed on the reorganisation of secondary education?
I ask the Secretary of State to give further consideration to three things: first, to increasing the cost limits; secondly, to consider implementing a regional cost limit—and I can speak with feeling on this because of the sky-high costs which at present operate in the North-East at the moment; and thirdly, to abandon the present policy of insisting on fixed-price tenders where the project [column 1677]which is submitted takes at least two years to complete. Embodied in these three suggestions are the kind of things which are placing secondary education reorganisation in a straitjacket from which local authorities are finding difficulty in extricating themselves. It is a nationwide problem.
The County Architects' Society, described by the industrial reporter of The Times as
“normally a quiet, non-militant group” ,
was reported in that newspaper on 3rd January as expressing:
“its great concern at the continued inability of Government Departments to make adjustments to the present cost limits” .
The report went on to say:
“There is a real danger that many new schools … programmed to start before the end of the present financial year in March, 1973, will not get off the ground.”
That will affect secondary education reorganisation probably more than any other factor at the present time. When we add that problem to all the other problems being placed before comprehensive education at this time, one can only think there is a bleak future for it.
The financial restrictions to which I have referred which are being imposed on local education authorities by the Government were the main reason which led me to take part in this debate. But I would like to speak on a matter on which I was glad the Secretary of State spent some time in her speech, the question of parental choice. Much nonsense is talked about parental choice. Indeed, I go further. There is no such thing in education as complete freedom of parental choice. One of the best publications which the Department of Education and Science has produced—I am not sure in which year—is the manual of guidance to local education authorities on this question. It is a realistic and sensible document but it is largely based on the fact that a local education authority cannot at any time provide all the facilities that parents would like. In other words, it could not meet the wishes of all parents at all times in dealing with staff, accommodation, single-sex schools, which were dealt with by the Secretary of State, and so on.
It may be of some interest that for the sake of accuracy I telephoned the Department[column 1678] this morning to get the number and name of that circular. The Department, which I telephone frequently, cannot be more helpful on anything I ask. I was interested, and now I am curious in view of the Secretary of State's remarks today, to learn that the circular has been or is being withdrawn. I can see a puzzled look on the Secretary of State's face. Perhaps therefore, when the Under-Secretary of State replies, he will have some information for me. I was curious before I telephoned. The point of my curiosity, now underlined, which I put to the Secretary of State is whether that circular is to be revised in the light of comprehensive education. In other words, is that manual of guidance intended specifically to refer to a parent's choice either for grammar school education or for comprehensive education as a specific reason? In view particularly of the information that I received accidentally this morning, I believe that the House is entitled to some comment on that. It may be that the Secretary of State is to argue—and there is the usual support for them from the Government side today—that grammar schools ought to be built alongside comprehensives to permit what in fact would be a phoney choice.
Those are questions on which we should have answers today. Comprehensive education is now in floodtide and is almost universally accepted. It ill behoves the Government to continue their feeble attempts to reverse that tide in the way shown by the speeches we have heard today.