Skip to main content

Secondary Education (Batley)

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 19 March 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Waddington.]

12.57 am

On 18 February this year the Secretary of State for Education and Science rejected the advertised and widely discussed proposals of the Kirklees metropolitan council for the reorganisation of secondary schools along comprehensive lines in North-East Kirklees. In those proposals were two quite separate schemes to deal separately with the Batley and with the Heckmondwike and Liversedge areas within Kirklees. While I support the proposals for school reorganisation in the latter townships, I must explain that they fall within the constituency of the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller), and are not the subject of this debate. I believe, however, that the Minister could have taken a decision to approve the proposals relating to Batley even if he had decided to reject those connected with the other towns I mentioned. I should be most grateful if the Minister could confirm that that was possible.

The proposals for Batley were for an 11-to-18 age group, co-educational comprehensive school. They followed years of discussion in Batley. As recently as 1974 one scheme was submitted and accepted by the then Minister in 1976, only to be the subject of a refusal by an incoming Conservative council to implement it. After pressure by Shirley Williams and considerable procrastination by the council, further proposals were submitted last spring, only to be held up by the general election and the change of Government.

The latest attempt to bring comprehensive schools to Batley started from scratch again, was fully discussed and agreed by a special education committee of the council meeting in Batley town hall, was agreed by a special council meeting and was then fully and properly advertised locally. It came as a genuine shock to Batley when the Secretary of State eventually rejected the proposals without a word of explanation.

Why did the Secretary of State reject the proposals for Batley without explanation? His action caused deep-felt resentment in the town. The headmistress of the girls' grammar school was quoted in the local newspaper, the Batley News, as saying that she was surprised that no reason had been given by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

There are many examples of where reasons for refusal have been given by Secretaries of State for Education, as I am sure the Minister is aware. For example, Liverpool council was told in a letter dated 30 March 1979 why some of its reorganisation proposals were rejected, and as recently as 4 March 1980 the borough of Bexley was given two reasons why its proposals for change were rejected. Apart from the obvious discourtesy to the town, its teachers, parents, children and councillors, if the reasons why proposals are rejected are not known, how can a council properly reconsider them and resubmit a scheme following that reconsideration?

There may have been two reasons for the Minister's refusal, namely, the co-educational status of the schools proposed, and finance. Inevitably, views differ on the question of single-sex or co-educational schools. Some people are strongly in favour of co-educational schools. Others, including many people in the Muslim community in the town of Batley, for example, prefer single-sex schools. But where there are only two secondary schools involved—as is the case in Batley—it is obviously impossible to meet everyone's wishes. On balance, and after long discussions and public meetings over the years, the local authority decided to introduce a co-educational scheme. Is the Minister, in his rejection of the proposals of Batley, saying that he will override that considered local choice? If so, on what grounds? Does the Minister believe that single-sex schools are preferable to co-educational schools?

One of the difficulties in weighing up the objections to the proposals of Batley is that the Secretary of State has not stated the number of objections, and on what grounds those objections were lodged. As I understand, there were only five or six objections from Batley to the scheme, and only one or two concerned single-sex schools.

Last spring, representatives of the parent-teacher asociations from the two large high schools in Batley handed to the Department of Education and Science a petition signed by nearly 12,000 people supporting co-educational comprehensive schools catering for 11- to 18-year-olds in Batley. The teachers and school governing and management bodies were fully behind the proposals that were submitted.

I give the reaction of Mr. David Bennett, headmaster of one of the high schools, to the rejection, as quoted in the local press. He said:
"The decision has put everybody into a position of uncertainty. It is time uncertainty came to an end because it has been here long enough. The scheme had massive support from Batley people, so there must be a powerful reason for turning it down. If not, it does not say much for democracy."
On the financial side, having recently seen the formal submission of the Kirk-lees council, it is possible to say that the council's submission left unclear a number of points that might have helped the Minister. For example, two secondary modern, or high, schools are bursting at the seams already. The headmaster of one of the other high schools involved said that the decision was extremely serious because the present school buildings are overcrowded. They are overcrowded because everyone has been waiting for the Minister to make up his mind about the present application.

Between 1979 and 1984 the schools will have to cope with an extra 700 to 800 children, so considerable extra money must be spent on the secondary schools in try constituency. Therefore, it is vital that the extra money is spent as part of a move towards a comprehensive school programme. It would be ridiculous if money to cater for substantial pressure on schools were spent on a school system that in any case is about to be changed.

Did the Minister ask about the costs? Did he have the proposal costed? If so, what was the estimate? Did he or his officials raise the question with the council?

Then there is the present practice of paying for boys in Batley to go to a private grammar school. There is no State boys' grammar school in the town. Those selected under the present selection system must go to a private school, with fees paid by the local council. That is currently costing the council £270,000 every year in fees alone. Those are resources that would and should have been available to provide the best education opportunities for all of Batley's children in comprehensive schools.

It may be that the Kirklees council did not explain the financial side as clearly as it should have done. But surely the Minister should have discussed his doubts with the council and tried to resolve any problems.

One point on which the town is totally united is the need to keep sixth-form education in Batley. With over 3,000 secondary schoolchildren in the town's future comprehensive schools, Batley's people find it totally unacceptable that there should be any suggestion that the children should have to travel out of town for sixth-form education. All the political parties in the town are united on that. I quote one of the only two Conservative councillors, who said:
"New proposals will have to be submitted. But the authority should not move away from keeping sixth-form education Batley."
Will the Minister state clearly and categorically that he accepts that local view?

The Secretary of State himself said during the Second Reading of his first Education Bill on 19 June last year:
"Why should the Secretary of State and his officials … attempt to dictate to a local education authority, which may be many miles away, that one type of school organisation and no other is the right solution for that area? We believe that local people are in a better position to decide."—[Official Report. 19 June 1979; Vol. 968, c. 1122.]
Does the Minister stand by that view?

The parents, children and councillors of Batley are fed up with the endless delays in introducing comprehensive schools. The teachers, who do a magnificent job in the local schools, have had their Leaching and careers plagued by uncertainty—totally unreasonably, in my opinion—for far too long. Comprehensive education for children aged 11 to 18 is overwhelmingly supported in Batley, with a petition signed by almost 12,000 people and the support of all the teachers, the governors, the managers and the local council. What more evidence can the Minister possibly ask for?

In his decision of only two weeks ago in relation to Bexley, rejecting the proposal to cease to maintain the Erith school, the Minister gave as one of his two reasons the strength of support for the Erith school in the northern part of the borough. Apart from the support of the great majority of the teaching staff, and almost all the governors, for retaining the school, the Secretary of State received a petition signed by almost 12,000 people. The reasons are identical and even stronger in Batley in relation to the support for the proposals. How can the Minister have rejected such an overwhelming body of support from the town? The Minister appears to have received only five or six objections to weigh against the overwhelming support of teachers, governors, managers, councillors and the 12,000 people who were prepared to sign a petition.

We must now move forward quickly and constructively and respond to Batley's choice, so strongly expressed. Whatever the past, the Minister would tonight help reduce genuine fears and uncertainties if he would give two assurances. First, does he accept that there is a clear majority view in Batley in favour of comprehensive schools serving 11- to 18-year-olds in the town? Secondly, can he give an assurance that he does not wish to stand in the way, on points of principle, of that local choice? Matters of detail and of implementation can be discussed and resolved. However, I would not be serving Batley, its children, parents and teachers if I did not emphasise the importance that they attach to the Minister's replies. These are important points and concern the future of children in my constituency.

1.11 am

I know that the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer) has had a distinguished career in local government. I understand his concern in this matter. I also respect the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) has an equal interest. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) may shake his head. However, I know that my hon. Friend is concerned. I have talked to him more recently than the hon. Gentleman.

In that case, the hon. Gentleman is very privileged. Not everyone has the advantage of living in my hon. Friend's constituency.

The hon. Gentleman made some coherent arguments. He asked whether we were prepared to accept comprehensive education in the area. That point must be cleared up. The Conservative Party has always said that the local area should decide the type of education that it desires. The Labour Party brought in the ill-fated Education Bill of 1976. I was involved with that Bill and wearied by it. The Bill stated that all schools should be comprehensives. The Conservative Party has always said that, in the ultimate, the people of the area should decide the type of school desired. I use the words "in the ultimate" with care.

We decided that decisions should be made locally and nationally. Ultimately the Secretary of State must be convinced that the type of organisation proposed is the best that has been suggested. We therefore repealed the 1976 measure. That was one of our first priorities on coming into office. Hon. Members will be aware that the Education Bill was enacted last year. It relieves authorities of being forced to submit to comprehensive proposals, or to implement them if it was an unwilling duty on their part. We are proud of that. We have redeemed our pledge to the electorate. We reject the idea of a uniform pattern of education throughout the country. We believe that there should be flexibility of provision to suit differing local requirements and wishes.

I am sure that hon. Members will have looked at the decisions already made by the Secretary of State. In certain cases comprehensive schemes have been accepted. They were not rejected just because they were comprehensive schemes. In other areas, including Batley and Morley, consideration has been given to the scheme. The Secretary of State had to consider whether the scheme suggested was the best for that area. The hon. Member said that those who know what is best for an area are those who live in it. I have often made the same point.

However, the Secretary of State has an inescapable duty, under the Education Acts, to consider individual proposals, to weigh the pros and cons of each proposal, and to take into consideration any objections submitted by local people before deciding whether to approve one. Merely to rubber-stamp proposals would be an abdication of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State must take into account a whole series of factors—educational, financial, economic, social, denominational and geographical—and his decision is not uncommonly based on a judgment of where the balance lies between opposing arguments. That can often be a fine line to draw, and a decision is taken only after a careful and scrupulous examination of all the evidence.

Turning to the specific matter of secondary education in Batley—

We must not be impatient. We must consider Batley in the national context. It is an important place, as the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend would undoubtedly agree.

It has nothing to do with the hon Member for Brighouse and Spenborough, (Mr. Waller).

Half the scheme is in my hon. Friend's constituency and was designed for his area.

Children from my constituency attend schools in the constituency of the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer). This subject is of interest to parents in my constituency and, therefore, to myself.

My hon. Friend demonstrates his concern. He is fulfilling his duty to represent his constituency.

As the hon. Member for Batley and Morley knows, the organisation of secondary education in Batley and in nearby areas of Heckmondwike and Liversedge has been the subject of local debate for many years, stretching back will before the emergence of the Kirklees authority in 1974. A scheme was approved in 1976 by the previous Administration but not implemented, because a newly elected council decided it was a poor scheme and not in the best interests of the pupils. Revised proposals were submitted last autumn, and public notice was given in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Education Act 1944.

I have said that the Secretary of State must balance opposing arguments in dealing with section 13 proposals. My right hon. and learned Friend did just that in considering the proposals submitted by the Kirklees authority for reorganising those areas of Kirklees where selection still exists. In the event, having most carefully considered all the evidence, he decided that the balance of the arguments was not in favour of the proposals, and he rejected them. He made his decision on these controversial proposals in the knowledge that that decision would be bound to delight many people and to dismay many others, including the hon. Member for Batley and Morley.

The hon. Gentleman used the phrase "controversial proposals". All the teachers, governors and school managers—a petition of 12,000—and all the local councillors in Batley, including the oft-quoted Conservative councillor, must be set against five or six objections. How can the Minister say that that represents a fair balance of the weight of evidence in Batley?

There were far more objections than that. One that I recall contained 256 signatures.

The hon. Gentleman has been speaking for eight or nine minutes and has not answered the questions that concern the people of Batley. How many objections were there? What is the total number involved? What were the grounds of the objections? Successive representatives from the Department have refused to give that information to the public.

I cannot now give that information to the hon. Gentleman. I merely remembered that one objection, which is relevant to the decision and which concerns the single-sex school.

My right hon. and learned Friend took the decision having weighed all the facts relating to the proposal, including objections submitted to him, and having taken advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate and officers of the Department.

The hon. Member has indicated his displeasure that the notification of the Secretary of State's decision to the authority gave no reason for it. Let me make clear that no discourtesy was intended. It is not unusual. To pick out one or several facts could, though they may have weighed heavily, nevertheless distort the balance of arguments which is the essential basis of the decision.

To go further, the Secretary of State would have to publish the facts in great detail—and those involved would thereby be encouraged to point out any small omissions and to extend the debate beyond the point of decision. That would be most undesirable. The decision is final: there is no provision in law for it to be reversed, and it is in everybody's interest that further dispute and endless speculation should be avoided.

My right hon. and learned Friend takes no different view of this procedure than did his many predecessors who have maintained the general approach. I know about the Erith case—

The Erith decision gave the two reasons of the Minister on a sheet of paper. That did not prevent the Minister from giving an answer to Erith.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman a little guidance. In the past, reasons have occasionally been given, but in many cases they have not been given. The hon. Gentleman may conclude from that that where there were only one or two distinctive reasons, they could be disclosed, but on a matter of general judgment they were not disclosed. I do not say that the hon. Gentleman would be right in making such a deduction, but it is the sort of deduction that I might have made if I were in opposition.

My right hon. and learned Friend is content that I should inform the House that two of the factors that were taken into account in his consideration of the reorganisation proposals for Batley and in the associated areas of Heckmondwike and Liversedge were, first, that approval would have meant the end of single-sex education in Kirklees and, secondly, the cost of the scheme—some £4 million.

My right hon. and learned Friend considers that where possible parental choice of school should be catered for. To eliminate single-sex schools, which these proposals would have done, would be to deny choice to those who prefer single-sex schools for their children, including, but not exclusively, the Muslim community in the area. Furthermore, there is some evidence that might suggest that the tendency for girls to avoid subjects such as science and mathematics is more prominent in mixed schools.

The question of use of resources must necessarily be an important element in any decision involving capital building work. It is not merely a question whether the scheme itself represents value for money. It is also a question whether, given the prevailing economic climate and the necessary constraints which need to be observed, this scheme represents the best use of £4 million—a not inconsiderable sum.

The hon. Gentleman queried the cost. Our information was that the scheme would cost about £4 million.

I pressed the Minister earlier to confirm that it was open to the Government to accept, for example, the Batley proposals while rejecting the others. The cost in the Batley area was just over £2 million, spread over three or four, and possibly five, years—not all at once.

The decision could have been made on the proposals separately, but the total cost would have been £4 million. I do not know the figure for the Batley proposals. I accept the hon. Gentleman's figure of about £2 million. At a time when such sums have to come out of the improvement balance, they are by no means inconsiderable amounts.

The hon. Member has mentioned points in favour of the scheme—not all of which I agree with. But, of course, there were points in its favour. It would be surprising indeed if the local authority, representing the interests of its population, were to submit proposals completely devoid of merit. I cannot stress too heavily that it is a judgment of the balance of all the arguments which lies behind the final decision. I understand the frustration that the hon. Member must feel—though that may not help him much—at the decision on these reorganisation plans, a frustration, I may add, not shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough and many of the electorate of both constituencies.

The Minister is coming close to saying that he has a closed mind. It seems that, regardless of how strongly the people of Batley wish, on balance, to have co-educational schools, he is determined to impose his view that there must be single-sex schooling. Is he willing to reconsider that in the light of local feeling as a whole?

My right hon. and learned Friend rejected the proposals on balance, and he had to make a decision on the balance. Naturally, Ministers will be willing to discuss with the Kirklees authority the future of educational provision in the area, but that should be in the context of a positive search for an acceptable policy, not a continued raking over of old arguments about proposals that are now dead.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past One o'clock.