Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

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

1973 Feb 1 Th
Margaret Thatcher

HC I [Secondary Education (Opposition motion) (Lestor speech)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [849/1733-42]
Editorial comments: 2110-35. MT intervened at c1738.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 3006
[column 1733]

9.10 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

The Secretary of State quoted a speech made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition a few days ago, a speech with which I entirely agree. Therefore, I feel it only right to quote a speech made by the Prime Minister in June 1967 when addressing the Conservative National Advisory Committee on Education. He said:

“I want to make it clear that we accept the trend of educational opinion against selection at 11-plus. By ‘selection’, I mean, the process of classifying children according to their IQ and separating them into different types of schools at too early age.”

The right hon. Gentleman went on:

“There has to be selection by grouping or ability at some stage if we are to do justice [column 1734]to children's differing needs and abilities. It has never been a Conservative principle in order to achieve this that children have to be segregated into different institutions.”

The Prime Minister in that speech did not go far enough for me, but I am sure that he went a little too far for the right hon. Lady. I hope that in his reply the Under-Secretary of State will tell the House how he reconciles those words with the policies carried out by the Government on secondary education.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) on his maiden speech. Any hon. Member who joins the educational lobby is indeed welcome in this House, and the hon. Gentleman's speech was moderate, clear and brief. I look forward to hearing him again in education debates.

The right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Education and Science got a little angry about some of the accusations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). I think that she misunderstood some of his comments. Our charge against her is not that she has refused to approve some schemes for schools to go comprehensive, but that her lack of any cohesive policy has frustrated and inhibited a full system of comprehensive education. She appears to have no rules or criteria by which to judge the schemes and no view on 11-plus examinations. At no time in her speech did she defend comprehensive education. I know that she is in favour of some comprehensive schools, but there is a difference between somebody being in favour of certain comprehensive schools and somebody who is dedicated to a system of comprehensive education. One is not the same as the other. I should be very interested to know whether the Under-Secretary will make it perfectly clear whether his party intends to go ahead with the development of comprehensive education in this country, or whether it intends to go ahead with approving some comprehensive schools but not approving some other types of comprehensive education. That is the kernel of the matter.

As I understand it, at present about 32 per cent. of all maintained secondary schools in this country are designated as comprehensive. Some of these will be comprehensive schools and some will be included in comprehensive systems of [column 1735]education. Those of us who believe in a complete comprehensive system feel that we have a very long way to go before we get there. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) said, the crux of the matter is whether the Government intend to go ahead with the development of a comprehensive system of education.

This debate, which has been very interesting, is not an esoteric debate about which scheme in comprehensive education is best. To suppose that it is is to miss the main point of the motion. That is why I was sorry that the hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes), with whom I have often agreed on certain aspects of education, did not, in fact, defend the comprehensive principle. She says—and I believe her—that she supports it. Had she done so, she might have educated some of her hon. Friends to a general belief in a comprehensive system.

The issue has been admirably demonstrated by my hon. Friends when they have given examples of the frustration of the various schemes put up by certain local education authorities. This is quite right. This is a suspicion on the Opposition side of the House. It is more than a suspicion, perhaps.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Opposition are a suspicious lot.

Miss Lestor

Of course we are a suspicious lot. We have sat here for two and a half years. I am a much more suspicious Member of Parliament than I was before the Conservative Party came to power. Let us have nothing more of that from the Government side of the House.

The suspicion is that the right hon. Lady and her supporters are not in favour of adequate secondary education for all children in that they want to retain certain of the grammar schools and certain of the direct-grant schools. Once they are retained—I see that hon. Members are nodding—one is not in favour of a fully comprehensive system of education.

I find it hard to believe that the right hon. Lady does not have strong views on the 11-plus examination. I find it hard to believe, too, some of the things she has said to various audiencies up and down the country. [column 1736]

The Government cannot have it all ways. On the one hand, they cannot, through the right hon. Lady and others at party political gatherings, take credit for the preservation of grammar schools and then, when confronted with critical and progressive audiences, switch the emphasis of the argument to show how many comprehensive schools and comprehensive schemes have been approved. The two do not go together. Moreover, the Government cannot exalt local authority autonomy when it happens to coincide with their own views and abandon it for the view that the Minister and others know best when they find that their views—and particularly the views of the right hon. Lady—are not acceptable to people at large.

Mr. Redmond

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Lestor

The Under-Secretary and I have already knocked off about six minutes of our time in order to allow other hon. Members to speak here. However, I will give way.

Mr. Redmond

If the hon. Lady says that the present Secretary of State has given no local authority autonomy, how does she explain the fact that Bolton education authority was not allowed even to start a school under the previous Government because it was not comprehensive?

Miss Lestor

I shall deal with that point. But what I am saying is that the present Government, when it suits them, have argued for local authority autonomy and have exalted that, saying that it is a great thing; but that is until it happens to conflict with a particular view they hold about a particular scheme at a certain time, whether that happens to be the Housing Finance Act or something else. It depends on the issue. That is what I am saying about local authority autonomy. It is the Government who defend it and say that they are in favour of it and use it if and when it happens to support their views.

I believe that the right hon. Lady and the Government in general recognise that the argument against comprehensive education has been lost. I sometimes wish that in these debates we could stop arguing about comprehensive education [column 1737]as such and the reasons for it and discuss more the content of education and what we want in an education system. However, we are constantly driven back to discussing the principle of comprehensive education, as many hon. Members have done this evening, because they are aware that although the argument may have been lost, there is still a long way to go before the whole principle of comprehensive education reaches fruition and that much can be frustrated on the way.

I believe that the country and, oddly enough, the Government recognise that the argument about the preservation of privilege and elitism in education has also been lost. [Interruption.] I believe that that argument has been lost. I hope that the noises I hear from the Government benches mean that hon. Members opposite are agreeing with me. Let us hope that the argument about elitism in education has been lost. If hon. Gentlemen agree with that statement, let us examine what they have said and ensure that nothing in our education system enhances elitism in education.

Unlike the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Selwyn Gummer), who talked about nineteenth century education, I believe that the preservation and the upholding of elitism in education is typical of nineteenth century education. It is part and parcel of it. We must look into this very carefully indeed.

We on the Opposition side of the House suspect that certain schemes are not approved because they are not good schemes. That is all right. However, we believe that certain schemes are not allowed and that money is withheld for the development of secondary reorganisation and secondary school building to preserve privilege and to frustrate the development of a comprehensive system of education. The right hon. Lady and her supporters know very well that if they gave money for secondary reorganisation or for secondary school building, many staunch supporters of the Conservative Party would want to use that money for the enhancement of comprehensive education.

The right hon. Lady and many of her hon. Friends, when speaking to critical educationist audiences, boast about the number of comprehensive schools [column 1738]approved and say that only 90 or so grammar schools have been retained.

Mrs. Thatcher

Less than 90.

Miss Lestor

I do not mind. Less than 90. This is not comparing like with like. The retention of the grammar school has meant the retention of selection in the areas concerned and the total disruption of local education authority plans for the development of non-selection secondary education. The Government cannot say “We have approved so many hundreds or thousands of comprehensive schools and retained only a certain number of grammar schools” , because the retention of the grammar school and the direct grant school is a contradiction of the whole comprehensive principle. It means retaining selection because there may be a grammar school in the area.

Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)


Miss Lestor

I will not give way. I have already been over-generous in allowing hon. Members opposite to have 5¾ minutes of my time. I do not intend to give them any more.

I believe that this whole process of retaining grammar and direct grant schools is part of the exercise to frustrate the full development of comprehensive education. Several hon. Members on the Government side who have spoken this evening have not denied that. If they want comprehensive schools and grammar schools and direct grant schools as well, they do not want the fully comprehensive system of education which my hon. Friends and I want.

I come to what was said by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West. I have a great affection for West Lewisham, as I once failed only narrowly to win it from someone who was a Conservative Member for a little while. The hon. Gentleman said that there had been a lack of consultation in Lewisham over the schemes. The Labour Party in Lewisham has always fought its elections on the basis of comprehensive education. Three out of four of the MPs for the area are Labour and support comprehensive education. Even the Conservative Member for the area, the hon. Gentleman, supports comprehensive education. He has said so. All the GLC councillors for [column 1739]Lewisham are Labour, and 56 of the 60 local councillors are Labour. Therefore, the issue on comprehensive education is not whether the area should go comprehensive but what scheme is best. That is exactly what the consultation has been about.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the early years of a child's life have a great influence on what happens to it later in the education system. That is why I have always been such a strong advocate of nursery education, and I am delighted that we are to have a little more of it.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very important that we should try to iron out inequalities as early as possible. But that does not mean that we enhance a secondary system of education that perpetuates inequalities. The hon. Gentleman's very language frightens me to death. He talks about grammar school types, certain levels of creaming off, intelligence, and not being able to get a certain type of intake into comprehensive schools because a number of children with high IQs have moved out of the area—[Interruption.]—If I have misrepresented the hon. Gentleman, I am happy to give way, but I took down what he said.

Mr. Selwyn Gummer

I was quoting words used by officers of the Inner London Education Authority, who used the expression, “Those who have been called in the past the grammar school intake.” I used the phrase in order not to make any of the mistakes of which the hon. Lady has accused me. I said that the parents of children at the schools concerned are not in favour of the policies of the ILEA, nor are the teachers in most of the schools concerned. In those circumstances, consultation which does not take into account their views is not consultation.

Miss Lestor

We shall see. I return to what the hon. Gentleman said about a grammar school intake. He has now said that he was quoting the words of an officer, but he was not quoting them with disapproval. We were all under the impression that he agreed with them. Did not he agree? Did not he say that there were not enough to go round?

The essence of the argument against selection at 11 is that it is not possible [column 1740]to talk about grammar school and secondary modern types, to have a system of measuring intelligence at 11, because the results will not be accurate. That is why we are opposed to measuring IQs and deciding which children are grammar school types and so designating them to a certain type of school.

That is why when we on this side say that we are suspicious about the future development of comprehensives we listen carefully to what supporters of the Secretary of State say. They say that they want to retain selection and different types of secondary schools. The only way in which to decide which type of secondary school a child goes to is to give it a test or apply an assessment, which in our view bears little relation to what would be the child's performance if it were given a free and open chance in a school not hidebound by rigid ideas.

We have heard several references to the need for good schools to be preserved. A number of hon. Members opposite have used the phrase from time to time. They say that it is right that good schools should be preserved. Usually they mean grammar schools or direct-grant schools. However, we need a definition of a “good” school. We want to know whether schemes have been approved only when schools are being abolished or amalgamated which are less than good. I very much hope not. But no one has ever defined a “good” school.

The right hon. Lady says that she has an open mind about 11-plus examinations, that she is in favour of comprehensive schools but that she is not in favour of a complete comprehensive system of education. She asks those who believe in the retention of grammar schools to be vocal in their interests. However she does not ask people who believe in a comprehensive system of education to be equally vocal. If this is a matter which must be left to individuals to decide, why does not the right hon. Lady ask them to be just as vocal?

It is high time that the Government told us the sort of education system in which they believe so that we know exactly where we are. At present they do not set any educational end goal, and they have no long-term strategy. This attitude cannot be allowed to continue [column 1741]indefinitely because it is unfair to thousands of children. No one can ignore the educational chaos which is resulting from this lack of policy.

We who oppose selection argue that one of the worst elements of the tripartite system was that grammar school availability differed between 12 per cent. and 45 per cent. throughout the country and that a child's chance of getting to a grammar school and his chance of success was linked to where his parents lived as well as to the middle-class bias in selection. The development of comprehensive education was introduced to end this and other features of the selective system—but not if the Government can help it.

A child may be part of a good comprehensive scheme with no selection, he may go to a comprehensive in an area with selection, he may go to a secondary modern school with much the same situation as before, or he may go to a grammar school. It will depend on the luck of the education draw, and this is defended on the ground of educational freedom for parents. But that freedom has always been limited to a minority of people. The vast majority of working-class children in an area where there is still selection are discriminated against as a result and thousands lose out in the education draw.

We recognise the educational waste and lack of opportunity which results from such a policy. We believe in freedom in education. But the freedom in which we believe in relation to choice is delaying having to make decisions about children for as long as possible and not sending them to schools which set out simply to fulfil the prophecies that we have made about them by our biased judgments.

This debate has demonstrated a number of matters. One is that the country recognises the failure of a system of education which perpetuates selection and yet talks about a comprehensive system. We need to go on to talk about the content and philosophy of education and some of its values.

The debate has also shown what most educationists of any worth have demonstrated for a long time. It is that the educational tide is moving relentlessly forward in favour of the comprehensive [column 1742]system. The right hon. Lady may see herself as stemming that tide if she can. However she will find that Queen Canute is no more effective than was the male of the species of that name. She persists in saying that she has no strong views on the subject. If she continues to do that she is abdicating her responsibility to thousands of children who deserve a fair chance in education and who have not received it under the old tripartite system of education. Anyone who abdicates responsibility to thousands of children ought to abdicate her office as well.