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Primary School Pupils

Volume 893: debated on Tuesday 17 June 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what advice he will issue to local education authorities on the need to ensure that pupils attending differing primary schools all have an equal chance of basic educational advance.

Maintained primary schools are non-selective, and to that extent already offer equal opportunities for education. What they teach and how they teach it are matters to be decided locally.

The Minister said that maintained primary schools are nonselective and equal, but that they all teach differently. This could be misunderstood by a parent who knows that the standards of primary schools differ tremendously in the same area. If there is divisiveness, according to which school a child is directed to in the bureaucratic bingo of the State education system, and if we are to have equality, will not Her Majesty's Inspectorate have to enforce a minimum basic curriculum and basic standards in all primary schools?

I did not say "equality"; I said "equal opportunities". [An HON. MEMBER: "They are the same thing."] With respect, they are not. In primary schools it is important to bear in mind that the curriculum must be as varied as possible to cater for the differences of emotional development, aptitude and skills of children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no legal power to determine the curriculum of teaching methods in schools—a fact of which I should have thought the hon. Gentleman was aware. I defend strongly the principle of variation in primary schools, which, as an ex-teacher, I believe is essential.

Does my hon. Friend accept that we on the Government side of the House still believe in equal opportunity for children wherever they are, but does she also accept that if that principle involved children in primary schools in the repetitive examination system, as the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) recently suggested, it would be rejected not only by Labour Members but by the vast majority of parents?

Is the Minister aware that many heads of secondary schools are becoming increasingly perturbed that whilst so many children going on to them from primary schools usually have a very good knowledge of music, movement and murals, they have only the most nodding acquaintance with the three Rs? Does this not mean that the curricula of the primary schools should be looked at again?

I hope that within the next few weeks I shall have an opportunity to meet many heads, when I can discuss with them what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I believe that very often when we try to establish the principle that all children must reach a certain standard by a certain age we tend to judge learning in rather unfortunate ways, and do not take account of variations. The Bullock Committee, which examined the question of reading in particular, pointed out that the big problem was not within the schools, but that there was still strong evidence that children from socially deprived backgrounds suffered most, and that this could be related not so much to the schools as to their backgrounds.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that standards in the primary schools—and I was teaching just over a year ago—[Interruption.] I am obviously still teaching. Does my hon. Friend agree that conditions in our primary schools are the pride of the education system almost throughout the world, and that the Bullock Report vindicated the standards of reading in our schools and pointed out, knowledgeably, where the difficulties lay and said that they had been grappled with? Does my hon. Friend also agree that to be constantly knocking the education system and not facing the facts of that system is most unhelpful at a time of economic stringency?

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said. He has the great advantage of having taught very recently in the State system of education, and he therefore brings to the House a wealth of information on education questions.