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Education (Northumberland)

Volume 888: debated on Monday 10 March 1975

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12.12 a.m.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins), for agreeing to reply to the debate tonight. I know that his hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) the other Under-Secretary, would have liked to be here ; he has had the courtesy to explain to me why he is unable to be present.

I look forward to the Under-Secretary's reply, knowing that he will have been well briefed by the Department and will take careful note of what is said.

After the party political divisions of the evening we turn to a subject which does not, in Northumberland at least, arouse party controversy to the same extent because the principle of comprehensive education is not now a party political issue there. Indeed, it is a Conservative-dominated county council which for 10 years has been committed to reorganising on comprehensive lines as quickly as local circumstances will permit. The arguments that have taken place have been about the particular pattern of reorganisation and the timing.

Several areas of Northumberland have already been reorganised and others are fairly well advanced. There are difficulties, there are teething troubles. There are troubles which sometimes seem slightly larger than that in some areas. Nevertheless, considerable progress has been made. The Coquet Valley, part of my constituency, has been reorganised. The reorganisation in the Berwick district is now proceeding, and the county council has been helpful in recognising the anxieties of the parents about the building programme and trying to meet them halfway.

The areas that remain to be reorganised are the most difficult ones, particularly the Alnwick area, for which the county has recently put forward proposals for discussion. The education authority recognises that no scheme for the Alnwick area is likely to be entirely satisfactory without substantial re-building. Its present proposals have attracted few supporters, and the strongest criticis of them include those who are keen to see comprehensive education but regard this scheme as the worst possible way to introduce it.

What I hope the Minister will concede tonight is that Northumberland is in no way a "backsliding" authority in regard to comprehensive education and that he will not put pressure on the authority to rush into this particular scheme for Alnwick if, after discussion, it is found to be unacceptable.

It is difficult to foresee acceptance by the local community of a high school based on the totally inadequate facilities and site of the Alnwick Secondary Modern School. I mention this not because they are matters about which the Minister need be concerned at this stage, but to illustrate why there is considerable controversy. The secondary modern school is already surrounded by houses and the site cannot be extended ; the access roads are unsatisfactory. The site is already saturated by buildings and there obviously is not sufficient room for expansion. The main original buildings of the school, built in 1939, would be completely inadequate for the purposes of a high school and could be regarded as obsolete. Some of the other parts of the school are unsuitable, except for the most modern blocks. Therefore, it would be difficult to accommodate a high school on the site.

The one school in Alnwick which would be suitable for the development of a high school is the Duchess's School, a modern school, with which I have been most familiar because of the three election counts in which I have taken part—particularly memorable since they were nail-biting and cliff-hanging affairs. The exterior of that school has become familiar to a wider public, too, because it has figures on television screens each time the long-awaited count has been declared. There is in that building the basis for a modern high school. Although there are some problems on that site, too, there is a feeling among many people that it would be better place for a high school.

There are further difficulties in the proposals for the Alnwick area. For example, the proposed high school serving Ample and sited in South Broomhill is questionable, particularly in respect of its prospects of establishing a viable sixth form. It is thought by some that this sixth form work might be better concentrated in Alnwick. 1 do not seek detailed comment from the Minister on this matter, but I put it forward to illustrate the difficulties.

The parents whose children will attend these schools and the teachers must have the chance to hammer out a workable scheme with the education authority. At the moment there is a fear, implicit in the county council's attitude, that unless we rush into the present proposals the Minister will push the county into an even less satisfactory scheme. In Northumberland there is no suggestion of a rearguard attempt to hang on to selection and it would be quite inappropriate for the Minister's shadow to be cast over the discussions. I hope that he will not only remove that shadow but go further and recognise that if, as I believe, the Alnwick area cannot be reorganised without new building, money will be found to enable it to proceed. I hope we shall not be pushed rashly into any proposals. A "camping-out" comprehensive is the last thing we want.

I turn to some further aspects of comprehensive reorganisation in a scattered area, since there have been some serious difficulties over a wider area than Alnwick alone. I hope the Minister will give some indication of what advice the Department gives and what study has been made of these problems. In adopting a three-tier system, with middle schools for the nine to 13 age group, Northumberland left itself with difficulties which I feel could have been avoided if instead it had opted for a sixth-form college, with a middle school from 11 to 16, at least in some of the rural areas.

As it is, some children are having to board at the middle school from the age of nine in so Tie parts of the country. I find that situation far from satisfactory. Although the number of children involved is not large, many parents are worried at the prospect of children having to board at an early age. Living as they do in an isolated situation, these parents accept the need for boarding or long travel-toschool distances for the sake of their children's education when they are older, but they find it hard to accept at nine.

Furthermore, some village primary schools becorie threatened with closure once the nine-year-old to 11-year-old groups are taken out of them. The reduction of the age range of the school by two years cuts the roll to a point at which closure is threatened. We have bussing on a colossal scale to convey children to distant schools. The further away the middle schools and high schools are, the more of this additional transport there is.

The three-t er scheme leaves no function for some existing schools: an excellent secondary school at Belford, built in 1960, is threatened with redundancy under the county's proposals.

No one should pretend that there is a simple, ideal scheme for reorganisation in Northumberland, but there would have been many advantages in applying an alternative scheme to some of the rural areas. My personal preference is for the sixth-form co lege pattern, which could have been considered more fully for the Alnwick area, in conjunction with one of the other are is, and which might have done away with the need to develop a high school at South Broomhill.

The county quotes as a reason for rejecting the sixth-form college scheme that the Department of Education and Science requires at least 500 pupils for a sixth-form college. To apply such a high minimum in an area of low population like Northumberland would be absurd. I hope that the Minister will say here and now that he would not take so inflexible a line, particularly if there was a chance to associate further education work with the college. Although such a unit might be below the minimum size for normal sixth form college purposes, because it had a further education element it would be much more acceptable for some areas of the county. For most parts of the county the decision has been made, and that possible pattern of reorganisation is no longer open. If that has been, in part at least, because of a rigid line by the Department, I hope that it will not make the same mistake elsewhere, and that it will make it possible for the county to consider the sixth-form college system in its remaining areas.

There is no college of further education in North Northumberland. Those who need such facilities must go to Ashington, Tyneside or Edinburgh. For someone living in Berwick this means a round trip of over 120 miles, often involving staying away from home for 13 hours in the day. That is a tremendous discouragement to young people who could benefit from further education. Many young people who are put off by the early start and late return fail to get the opportunities that they should have, because they are unwilling to undertake courses involving so much travelling, or drop out after they have started such courses. The ones who persevere often decide that they will be much better off if they move to where the college is. They take up lodgings there and stay to get a job. Therefore, if they acquire new skills, these skills are not brought back to the area. Those people are added to the depopulation statistics, which are severe in our part of the country. They represent a further drain of skilled people from the area.

Obviously, the population of the area would not be enough to support a large college, but a substantial part of the Borders region of Scotland would benefit from the development of further education facilities in Berwick, and could help to finance it. I hope that no red tape—or "tartan tape "—will be put in the way of co-operation between the authorities on either side of the Border. The former local authorities of Northumberland and Berwickshire were agreed in principle and were moving in that direc- tion. I hope that the English and Scottish Government Departments will be ready to work together and make cross-border co-operation on the issue possible.

Such facilities could be provided more economically if they were attached to an existing school, such as the new high school at Berwick. There is a need for flexibility and inventiveness to fill a severe gap in the education system of Northumberland. I understand that Northumberland County Council has been seeking such a development since 1972, but has still not gained departmental approval. I hope that it will not be long delayed.

To sum up, on secondary education I ask the Minister to recognise that Northumberland must be helped and encouraged to sort out the problem of Alnwick, with full and genuine discussion with parents and teachers. There should be no pressure to get off to a bad start. As regards further education, I hope that the Minister will recognise how badly we are served, and that he will give favourable consideration to proposals emanating from the Northumberland authority for developments at Berwick.

12.15 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for the pleasant manner in which he referred to the fact that he is not getting the first team, as it were, and for the fact that he is willing to accept me as a stand-in on this occasion. I have spent some part of today acquainting myself with the subject of the debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find not only that I am properly briefed but that I have succeeded in understanding the brief. I thank him for the way in which he has so clearly presented the argument. He has made it possible for someone who is not readily familiar with the subject to follow the case that he is making on both of the main issues that he has brought before the House.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware from Circular 4/74 that it is the Government's intention to end selection in secondary education. As he has said, there is no argument about that. We have made it clear on a number of occasions that local education authorities are expected to press on with reorganisation as quickly as possible. As the hon. Gentleman properly said, there can be no complaint about the general policy and attitude of the Northumberland authority on this matter.

It was not long after the publication of the circular that the Northumberland Education Authority produced a document dealing with the reorganisation of Alnwick and Amble school district. They are the only areas in Northumberland for which secondary reorganisation proposals have not been implemented or approved by the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend has expressed satisfaction with the progress that Northumberland has made.

I pay tribute to the care with which the authority has formulated its proposals in the past. I understand that the discussion document in connection with Alnwick and Amble was approved by the education committee as a basis upon which discussions with teachers, managers, governors and parents should proceed. It is no more than that. The discussions are still taking place, and it is the intention of the authority to press ahead to complete the secondary reorganisation in its area. The details are a matter for the authority to formulate, but we are not leaving the matter at that.

The hon. Gentleman said that there are problems in some areas which should be recognised by the Government and that there should not be pressure to run into an unsatisfactory scheme. I believe that to be one of his main points. I understand him to say that we should not rush ahead with a scheme which might not be regarded subsequently as the one which everybody wished to adopt. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks with no equivocation.

The Government made it clear in Circular 4/74 that there is more than one pattern of secondary reorganisation which is acceptable. We have never suggested that a uniform pattern must be adopted over the whole area of a large county. Because a particular formula has been adopted in some parts of the county it does not necessarily mean—and it does not mean the contrary—that the same pattern has to be adopted throughout the area or in the case that we have under discussion. The relative advantages of various type: of education must depend to a great extent on practical considerations such as the availability of buildings and staff and the geography of the area, and not only upon the distribution of the population but whether it is increasing, static or even declining. There are also other purely educational considerations, such as the arrangements for sixth-form work and the deployment of the staff available. M y right. hon. Friend takes the view that these considerations are decisions for individual local education authorities to make after due consultation with local interests. As we all know, those consultations are taking place currently.

I am, of course, aware that successive Secretaries of State have approved the proposals for a middle school system for the area for which the Northumberland authority has so far made proposals. However, this does not mean that a similar system has to be adopted for Alnwick and Amble. If the scheme that the authority has put forward seems, after appropriate consideration, to be unacceptable locally, no doubt it will have another look at the problem and decide either to reaffirm or to came up with some variation in the proposals now under discussion. Officials of the; Department and inspectors are always ready to give informal advice on the understanding that the final decision on what is ultimately to be submitted to the. Secretary of State is a matter solely for the local education authority.

That is a most important point. The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that a certain constraint had been placed on a particular system—that is, a sixth-form college system—when he said that it required a school of 500 pupils. Is the Department that rigid, or is it prepared to be flexible in a rural area?

We are not as rigid as that. There are certain problems. It is not sufficient to have forms of education which are satisfactory in other respects but arc not educationally satisfactorily. We have to make that qualification. But we are not laying down hard and fast rules on this. There are certain problems in rural areas which make it difficult sometimes to reach conclusions which in other ways we should like to reach. But the Department has no hard and fast rule which says "No. This may not be done ". However, it is true that in consultation with the local education authority mutual conclusions are sometimes reached that a solution which may seem practicable then proves to be impracticable. This may be one such case. But the implied rigidity to which the hon. Gentleman referred is not so rigid as he suggested.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the problem of transport. Transport arrangements seem to work quite satisfactorily because not only is the road system good but it is not heavily trafficked. No child of nine is compelled to board if his parents do not wish him to, because arrangements are made for him to travel to school daily. I understand that there are no nine or 10-year olds in the boarding house at Rothbury at present.

The procedure laid down in Section 13 of the 1944 Education Act is that when proposals have been submitted to the Secretary of State the authority must then give public notice of this, and the managers or governors of any voluntary school affected by the proposals or any 10 or more local government electors for the area have the opportunity during the ensuing two months of forwarding objections to the proposals to the Secretary of State. All the points that have been mentioned and any others which arise may be submitted as objections. After he has considered the proposals and the objections, the Secretary of State will decide whether or not to approve the proposals. It is important that not only the proposals but the objections to the proposals can be, and will be, considered by the Secretary of State. Even if he approves, he may, of course, make some modifications to the proposals coming forward to him.

Because the Secretary of State has the statutory powers, it would be wrong of me to comment on the various local objections that the hon. Gentleman has so ably voiced. He himself suggested that it would be wrong to comment now on the various local objections. To do so might appear to prejudice the Secretary of State's decision before objections had been lodged. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that his points about the organisation of schools, about time and cost involved in transporting children to school and about the desire of communities to retain their own schools will all be taken into account and given careful consideration. I emphasise that no decisions have been reached by the local education authority, and still less by my right hon. Friend. I suppose that it would be true to say that, formally, my right hon. Friend is not yet seized of the problem, so the hon. Gentleman can be assured that he has not closed his mind to it.

What the hon. Gentleman says is true. However, his right hon. Friend's attitudes are to some extent predicted, and this influences people in what they think may be possible.

I understand that view That is why I was giving the hon. Gentleman these assurances.

The hon. Member asked about resources. In this respect I cannot give him much hope because this is an area where no great growth in the secondary school population can be expected. The circular makes it clear that authorities are expected to form their proposals on the basis of their existing resources. Of course, I cannot anticipate what the future will bring, but the authority would be wise to plan on the basis of existing accommodation.

I now turn to the other matter raised by the hon. Member—further education. The Government accept that further education should be available to those who want it as far as can reasonably be managed.

In recent speeches my right hon. Friend has re-emphasised the need for both higher education and lower-level courses, particularly provision for the 16 to 19year-olds. But the responsibility is with the local education authority, and the Northumberland authority has shown that it recognises this by its transport arrangements to Ashington College.

It is unfortunate that people from the Berwick area and, to a lesser extent, those from Alnwick have to travel so far for further education, although I understand that Ashington College does have some hostel accommodation.

In his speech the hon. Member suggested that further education provision should be made at Berwick and at Alnwick. I understand that the local education authority has put forward proposals for provision only at Berwick. Even so, the problem will be whether or not the scale of the demand would be sufficient to make any facility viable. It is no good having a college or an outpost of a college which is not only uneconomic but lacks the necessary academic strength. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend will give these proposals careful consideration. If there seems to be a good case for provision in North Northumberland, we shall certainly do our best to find the capital allocation necessary for any buildings required.

The hon. Member suggested that students from across the border could help to strengthen the further education facilities at Berwick. We will, of course, also look into this matter, but it is questionable whether a sizeable Scottish invasion can be expected, even if on this occasion it might be more welcome than in the past.

I understand and welcome the hon. Member's concern for satisfactory education in his area. I assure him that the Government share this concern and will seek to support the Northumberland authority to whatever extent my right hon. Friend finds possible and practicable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to One o'clock.