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Secondary Reorganisation

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 4 February 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he now proposes to introduce legislation to compel local education authorities which have not already done so, to reorganise secondary education on comprehensive lines.

I am at present studying the responses of local education authorities to Circular 4/74. As I told the House on 27th January—[Vol. 885, c. 55–6]—I would prefer not to have to introduce legislation, but if satisfactory progress cannot be made without it the Government will not hesitate to do so.

While one welcomes the fact that there is at least a momentary respite from the threat of legislation, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman meanwhile to stop seeking to impose his policy by means of a bullying circular, which does not have the force of law and which can be resisted with absolute impunity by councils which have the courage to stand up to him?

The circular does not have the force of law. Therefore, if there are local education authorities—I think there will be very few, but there are a few—which stand out against all the experience of recent years and all informed opinion in these matters, and against a policy which was approved by Parliament 10 years ago and has been approved several times since, including last week, by implication, in the vote taken last Monday, Parliament will clearly want to legislate. In that event I would look to hon. Members of good will on both sides of the House to support the view that Parliament should legislate in order to secure for thousands of children who are still denied them the opportunities of comprehensive secondary education at the earliest possible date.

Will my right hon. Friend take on board the message that his major task in education is to educate the Conservative Party that selection and comprehensive education are mutually exclusive concepts?

I am afraid that I do have to spend more time on that than I would wish, but I am glad to have noted reports that there are many in the country active in the Conservative Party—leading members of education committees—who have been engaged recently in trying to educate the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) in these matters and to remind him that it has been part of the policy of many Conservative authorities for many years to reorganise their areas on comprehensive lines.

As the right hon. Gentleman has an enviable reputation for intellectual courage and openness of mind, why is he not prepared to have an inquiry into the relative values of the various forms of secondary education as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas)?

There does not seem to be any need to spend time and energy on an inquiry on a subject on which we have practical experience all the time and on which the growing evidence from all parts of the country and other parts of the world over many years has been that boys and girls develop their talents better within a comprehensive system and without being divided artificially into two groups at the age of 10½.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this should no longer be a party matter, since the absurdity of the selective system was described in a White Paper issued by the wartime Coalition Government in 1943?

Yes, but since then there has been a division within the Conserva- tive Party between the minority who understand educational issues and the majority who do not and who do not want to understand them.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the last time his party introduced a Bill along these lines, it was lost owing to the defection of Labour supporters, including the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price)? Secondly, will he reflect that if he introduces a Bill of this character he will destroy the balance of duties, responsibilities and rights between local education authorities and the Department of Education and Science and will be taking a major step towards a State-centred and State-controlled system of education?

No, Sir. Education in this country has traditionally and rightly been a partnership between national and local government. It is a proper rôle for the national Government and for Parliament to define a policy in terms of saying that we should move away from selection and towards a comprehensive system. The method of doing it and, within reasonable limits, the timing of doing it are appropriate, I believe, for local decision. I believe, therefore, that what I am suggesting follows the traditional relationship between national and local government in these matters.