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Direct-Grant Schools

Volume 893: debated on Friday 13 June 1975

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4.10 p.m.

I have the opportunity and privilege of being the first hon. Member to congratulate the new Secretary of State for Education and Science on his appointment. I hope that in his time debates in this House on education will help to strengthen the education service and, despite shortage of funds, improve standards throughout the system, both maintained and independent, and retain the widest possible range of parental choice of schools.

I must declare an interest as the chairman of the governors of a direct-grant school and as a member of the Direct Grant Joint Committee.

Today's debate is about a circular issued on 1st May by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice). That circular sets out to destroy the direct-grant system—a system that is serving the country splendidly.

We on this side of the House believe that every good school should be fostered, and we deplore the Government's hard-faced and doctrinaire determination to destroy the direct-grant schools and, in-deed, all secondary schools which maintain a system of academic selection. I should very much like to think that the new Secretary of State will wish to take a fresh look at the consequences of pursuing a policy based on his predecessor's circular and its headlong timetable.

The speed with which schools are now being asked to make decisions means that many issues important to the schools, to the local education authorities, whole neighbourhoods, parents, boys and girls, as well as highly skilled and dedicated staff, will have to be taken without proper discussion and without safeguarding the proper rights of groups and of individuals.

Since that circular was issued there have been a number of discussions and much correspondence between the Secretary of State and representatives of the Direct Grant Joint Commitee representing the 174 direct-grant schools. As a member of that committee I am aware of the main issues now being discussed. As these flow directly from the circular, I shall not need to refer to the other documents circulated since but simply to some of the main outstanding issues.

The detailed proposals that the Secretary of State is now contemplating and which he will have to embody in regulations to be placed before this House can in no wise be considered moderate. They are patently unjust, especially to teachers, and they are hasty and ill thought through.

The schools are asked to make a statement of intent by the end of this year. They are asked to declare that they intend to apply to their local authority to become maintained schools. One might have thought that both schools and local authorities would be given time to discuss first whether there is a place for a former direct-grant school in the maintained system in its area, and time to discuss what its rôle might be. The Donnison Report suggested a four-year time scale. Is its new status to be a sixth-form college, a middle school, or part of an all-through school on a split site? Or is the school to be closed? The answers to these questions might well decide the governors of the school one way or another, but they are to have no chance of asking them. They must first agree to go into the maintained system and only then find out what part they will be asked to play. This is a demand for unconditional surrender first and talks after that.

Let me now turn to the teachers. The current proposals are monstrously unjust to teachers in these schools. When a direct-grant school goes into the maintained system, the Secretary of State "hopes" that they will be employed by the local authority, but this gives no guarantee that their salaries and status will be secure. I shall give an example. The head of a language department—say French—on a salary of £4,000 a year might not be employable by the local education authority if the school became maintained, especially at a time when authorities are having to cut staff and might not want to employ him. Such an experienced teacher would face not only loss of status but also loss of salary. Indeed, teachers in the direct-grant schools will have no guarantee that the authority, hard-pressed by the need to cut its budget, will even want to employ them at all.

As his current responsibilities run, the Secretary of State has no power to compel an authority to do so. Surely he ought to declare at once that generous compensation will be payable for teachers thrown out of work by the change of status of their schools, for which the Secretary of State alone is responsible. For this he will require a central fund under his own control.

The Secretary of State's proposals are unfair also to those few teachers who are classified as unqualified. Here I am not talking about people who should not be teachers at all. I am talking about graduates who have been teaching successfully for many years and who did not take a teacher-training course. It is not enough for the Secretary of State to be ready to consider an application from a local education authority for qualified status on the basis of service, experience and qualifications. This is little more than a hint to local education authorities. But it does not go nearly far enough.

It would be little consolation for a man who had been teaching successfully for 20 years to know that the Secretary of State will be ready to consider an application from an authority for which that teacher has never yet worked. Surely in these times, when the Secretary of State is forcing a hasty and stark choice, he should give an undertaking that he will accept applications direct from the individuals concerned.

The Secretary of State should make it clear that he would normally grant qualified teacher status to any graduate who had successfully completed three years of teaching in a direct-grant school. I think this is a reasonable compromise.

A similar undertaking should also be given about the probationary year. It has long been an anomaly that if a teacher begins his career in a direct-grant school he is not deemed to have qualified himself by serving the probationary year.

In the special circumstances of the present case, there can be no justification for denying qualified teacher stauts to staff who have served their probation in direct-grant schools, especially in the face of the enormous shortage of dedicated and gifted teachers. I call upon the Secretary of State to indicate that he will guarantee that status to everyone in that position when his proposals take effect.

These proposals throw into jeopardy the careers of some of the best teachers available to our young people.

The Government seem to value organisation more than people. They seem to have been vouchsafed by the revelation that:
"All schools are offensive
Except the comprehensive."
There is a long list of unresolved problems of which the Secretary of State is aware. On teaching staff, apart from the problems I have mentioned, there is the point about protection for the status and salaries of heads of direct-grant schools. Administrative staff—for example, bursars—also require to know what their options are to be.

Other unresolved issues are the possibility of retaining the direct-grant status of a child on transfer from one direct-grant school to another, either because one of the schools is closing down or because the parents are having to move. Secondly, there is the effect of inflation noon the relative value of the continuing direct grant. Thirdly, there are the special and increasing difficulties of schools awarding their own free places in 1975. That is a rather technical question which the Secretary of State will have to hoist on board. Fourthly, there are the problems of the dual systems of accountancy which will be unavoidable during the phasing-out period.

There is also the question of boarding, and that involves a real question of educational need. By and large, boarding schools are regional rather than local. It may not be possible to find one authority which will sponsor the retention of the boarding side. Further thought should be given to the position of those direct-grant schools which do much to meet the boarding need over a wide area. The necessary negotiations with a number of educational authorities and possibly also, for example, the Association of County Councils will inevitably take time. There is a case for allowing the boarding direct-grant schools a special extension of their direct grant for the time being in order to preserve their position. This covers a special educational need, thrown up by the mobility of people going abroad, perhaps to serve in the Common Market or with the Armed Services, and having to leave their children behind with some continuity in their education.

I received a letter from the Methodist Colleges and Schools making this very point, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take full note of their case. A large number of schools are involved. I have also received a letter from the Red Maids School in Bristol which will be well known to the Minister's staff.

There is also the special problem of schools which are forced to close. This is a particularly difficult one. A number of schools may be facing closure because of inflation and they will have special problems such as dispossessed staff and pupils, disused buildings, the realisation of assets, the settlement of debts and so on. These problems have not been resolved between the schools and the Ministry. And yet the schools are being hastened into a choice without knowing what faces them. That is the road to chaos.

There are also schools with excellent working arrangements with the local education authorities. Are all those arrangements to be jeopardised without full discussion and time to adjust? They already have an integrated system in agreement with the local authority, sharing sixth forms and all sorts of facilities. Are all those to be jeopardised? I hope not.

The Secretary of State has inherited a policy which will lead to the destruction of one of the best parts of our secondary schooling. All over the country parents and friends of these schools are protesting, not only about the policy but about the haste with which this disruption is being forced upon them.

I commend to the Secretary of State the objections tabled by the governors of that splendid and justly famous London school, Emanuel, to the proposal of the ILEA to change the character of that school.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who has a reputation for looking at problems for himself and making practical arrangements, will not be swept along helplessly in the rush to wipe out schools which have outstanding records of service to the young, their parents and the nation.

4.26 p.m.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair) for his kind personal remarks about me. Perhaps I would not have chosen to reply to a debate of this sort within three days of taking office, because the problem is clearly difficult and complex, and I have not had the opportunity to consider all the detailed aspects that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We need to be clear about the difference between the principle involved and detailed questions of how the necessary changes can be administered, and I think that the hon. Gentleman was clear.

I accept, and have accepted for many years, that the system of direct-grant schools should be brought to an end, and I intend to carry forward fully, not only in the direct-grant school sector but in secondary education generally, the advance towards the comprehensive principle and the abolition of selection that my right hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice), my predecessor, carried out.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend's work in the Department. In the Government's view, and my view, it is necessary to proceed along the lines of my right hon. Friend's statement to the House on 11th March and the letters—that is the correct technical term, rather than circulars— that went to each school and local authority on 1st May. I completely agree with my predecessor's statement on 11th March, when he said:
"This decision follows necessarily from the Government's commitment to end all forms of selection for secondary education. The direct grant schools have made an important contribution to the national system of secondary education while that was organised on selective lines, and some of them provided places needed by local education authorities. I hope that as many of them as possible will accept that they can best continue to serve the public by making the adjustments necessary to become an integral part of the local system of comprehensive education as maintained schools."—[Official Report, 11th March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 271.]
That is certainly my policy. I understand the hon. Gentleman's opposition. It is a difference of principle, and all the talking in the world will not persuade him that what I intend to do is right, any more than his persuasiveness is likely to persuade me to adopt an education policy different from that of my predecessor. On the question of detailed consideration the hon. Gentleman to some extent exaggerated the difficulties. I understand that all the points which he properly made have already been made by the schools and organisations involved to the Department in consultations and in the letters of 1st May. Those matters are the subject of further and full consideration.

On the question of the timetable, I do not accept that it is unreasonable to ask the schools concerned again to make a decision on principle. I know that in these pressing economic times all decisions affecting money are difficult, but for many the decision is whether to become part of the local educational provision or whether to go independent.

It is essential to make clear that most of the schools will move into the public sector of education and that they should do so as part of a comprehensive system. It would be nonsense to stop the direct-grant status on the one hand and allow them to become voluntary maintained grammar schools on the other. I hope that nobody believes that that is feasible. If those schools come into the local education authority framework, they will have to come in as part of a comprehensive system.

I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's point about the particular character of a school. It would be wrong to assume that what would be right in one area would be right for all others. It must be a matter for the local education authority, after consultation, to work out proposals that will best fit the needs of children in the area. What we are concerned about is the education of children in the area.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the staff situation. I should like to make it absolutely clear that when we talk of teachers and staff the expression also embraces head teachers. I understand that there is concern about the fact that when a direct-grant school comes into the maintained system and becomes a comprehensive school or part of the comprehensive system it may not be possible for every member of staff to be offered the same sort of position as he or she held previously. We have already had a great deal of experience of the kind of adjustment that may be necessary. In general, the same adjustment will be involved as when a maintained grammar school has been reorganised on comprehensive lines, and we expected that there may be some additional factors as well. My right hon. Friend made clear in March and also in correspondence in May that we recognise there will be problems and that we are anxious to do our best to minimise them.

We hope that, wherever possible, qualified teacher status will be granted to those who lack it. We hope that every effort will be made by local education authorities to find continuing employment of a comparable kind for individual teachers. We have under active consideration the position with regard to compensation in those cases where employment has to be terminated. I know that these problems are serious ones for the individual concerned. This is likely to affect only a small number of staff at relatively few schools, but I agree that it is an immense problem for the individual who is affected. I assure the House that the matter will be given full and earnest consideration.

On all the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman we are anxious, wherever possible, to achieve reasonable and just solutions. Difficulties arise in any system of reorganisation. We know that this hap- pened as a result of the local government reorganisation. Therefore, we should do all that is possible to find reasonable answers to the difficult problems which will arise. It is difficult to say that just because any reorganisation involves problems one should never embark on a reorganisation. If, for good sound educational reasons, we are to get rid of the system of selection, there is no case for the Government to give a direct subsidy of the kind which has been in existence in the direct-grant school system. This is in no sense a reflection on the distinguished contribution of these schools over the years from the time when their development was on a basis of what was commonly known as the 11-plus selection procedure.

I have returned to education matters after an absence, in parliamentary terms, of 15 years or more. When I was first a Member of Parliament in the 1950s I was chairman of the parliamentary education group. I participated in the first Labour Party working party on the problems of comprehensive education, which at that time was not a popular idea even among Labour authorities. However, persuasive as the hon. Gentleman is, he is not likely to move me today from the strong views of principle which I formed 18 years or so ago, many of them as a result of sharp discussion with the late Dick Crossman, who was also passionately concerned with education problems. I am sure that we shall return to this matter.

The policy can be brought into effect, if that is decided, only by regulations which, in the ordinary way, are subject to parliamentary processes.

While we want to give every opportunity to deal with the real problems, not only in personal terms but in terms of resources, I do not want any hon. Members to be under any misapprehension or to feel that by procrastination or by making proposals which will not wash and trying to buy time, they will postpone the evil day, as they see it, of decision. I am not prepared to go along with that. We want to meet the real difficulties, but that must be done in a reasonable period of time, or as quickly as is reasonable in all the circumstances.

I intend to stick to the timetable laid down by my right hon. Friend. When I look at the regulations, I shall seek to strengthen them so that there can be no doubt about the desire to proceed, at the same time trying, on humanitarian and education grounds, to make the transition as smooth as possible for the individuals concerned.

I wonder whether in the dying seconds of this week I could add my congratulations on behalf of a number of colleagues to my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Education and Science, especially in view of the forth-right way in which he has upheld Government policy on this occasion.

My hon. Friend was Chairman of the Sheffield education committee when both of us were slowly arriving at the views we now hold.

Question put and agreed to.

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