Shirley Williams – 1978 Statement on Education

Below is the text of the statement made by Shirley Williams, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, in the House of Commons on 3 November 1978.

I think that everyone in the House will welcome the fact that we are having a debate on education today, because we have too few opportunities to discuss education here. I think that there is room for a good deal more debate, which many of us would like to see.

I am very glad to say that at least some objectivity has been filtering into the great debate about standards, which has gone on for so long in the world of education. On 26th September this year the national primary survey was published.

It covered 542 primary schools and 1,127 primary classes. It is perhaps worth recalling some of the things that the survey said. I quote first what the inspectors said about the three Rs:

“High priority is given to teaching children to read, write and learn mathematics.”

They also said:

“The children behave responsibly and co-operate with their teachers and with other children … A quiet working atmosphere is established when necessary … The teaching of reading is regarded by teachers as extremely important, and the basic work in this skill is undertaken systematically.”

The results of surveys conducted since 1955 by the National Foundation for Educational Research are

“consistent with gradually improving reading standards of 11 year olds.”

Indeed, those tests show quite a marked improvement over the past 20 years, and particularly over the past four years.

Too often examination results are used as if they were the only yardstick by which standards can be judged. I do not accept that. As we all know, a school may he doing outstandingly well in difficult circumstances without coming high in any examination results league table. A good school in an inner city area may not achieve as many examination passes as a bad school in a rich suburb, and yet it is, for all that, a good school.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) recently attempted to suggest that the contrast between the Trafford and Manchester A-level examination results demonstrated the superiority of the old selective system over the comprehensive system. It does nothing of the sort. The social and economic differences between the two areas, measured by almost any index one likes to take—overcrowding at home, unemployment, dependence on supplementary benefit, unskilled or professional family occupations, single-parent families, car ownership or virtually any other index —show that Manchester is below all those indices, nationally taken, and Trafford substantially above.

Yet, as if even that were not enough—and I believe that this demonstrates an essential weakness in the hon. Gentleman’s comparison—the hon. Gentleman also left out of account completely the A-level performance of Catholic pupils in Manchester, who constitute no less than 26 per cent. of the school population. Incidentally, there are no Catholic schools in Trafford, so the comparison could not apply.

Such real evidence as there is about whether comprehensive schools are having an effect on standards of achievement points in a different direction. In national terms, almost twice as many young people obtained one or more A-level passes as was the case 15 years ago under the almost total selective system. Over four-fifths of school leavers now leave with some qualification as compared with barely half 10 years ago. This positive national evidence is reinforced by information from local education authorities such as Sheffield, Leicestershire, and East ​ Sussex, which shows marked signs of improvement.

A Hertfordshire survey, the most recent we have, shows that in Welwyn Garden City, the first area of the county to go fully comprehensive in 1968, O-level passes almost doubled between that year and 1975, while A-level passes rose by 63 per cent. Nationally, in the 10 years between 1966–67 when there were few comprehensive schools, and 1976–77, the proportion of school leavers gaining the higher grades 1 to 4 in O-level GCE—and I take the Opposition spokesman’s measure of GCE and not CSE—rose from 17 per cent to 27 per cent. By any standards, that is a creditable achievement.

There are, of course, some areas of concern and we tackle each of these where they are identified. For instance, in mathematics there have been problems arising from the adoption of modern maths in many schools and the preference of employers for those to whom they offer jobs to have traditional maths. This is why the Government announced, in March of this year, their intention to set up an inquiry into the teaching of mathematics. On 25th September I was able to announce the composition of the inquiry and to say that the chairman would be Dr Wilfrid Cockcroft.

The Government have taken steps to engage in a curriculum survey. The replies from individual local education authorities, which were requested by 30th June 1978, have led so far to 90 responses from English authorities, out of a total of 97. We have had responses from all the Welsh authorities. We are promised returns from six more English authorities within the next few weeks. There is, so far, only one authority which has not submitted a return. Not too surprisingly, it is the Conservative-controlled authority of Kingston upon Thames, which will not respond to the curriculum survey.

All of this shows that the survey has been taken very seriously. We are now engaged in assessing the replies received. We hope to be able to summarise the information and make it available early next year. It will, for the first time, give us a clear picture of what gaps there may be in our system, what its strengths are, and of variations in provision ​ between one area and another. It will be directly relevant to giving all of our children a fair deal in education. It is interesting to note that this is the first time that it has been attempted. As usual, we have not had much support from the Opposition Benches for the curriculum survey. I am bound to say that I believe there to be a certain element of hypocrisy in the endless reiteration of concern about standards by Tory Members.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Williams

No. I will not give way because I have not yet indicated why I believe there to be an element of hypocrisy. I think that I had better explain why I think this is so.

I mentioned Kingston upon Thames, which is just one example of an authority which is not co-operating in something which most people recognise to be crucial if we are to give our children adequate opportunities. There are a number of other instances to which I would like to draw the attention of the House. For example, the estimates made by CIPFA for the current year show that the average pupil-teacher ratio in all our schools is now 23 pupils per teacher in primary schools and 16·6 in secondary schools. Incidentally, these figures are the best we have ever had in our history.

As for the worst records, the worst 10 authorities in terms of pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools are all Conservative. The worst 10 authorities in terms of pupil-teacher ratio in secondary schools are all Conservative, although most people recognise that small classes are helpful in achieving good education.

Dr. Hampson

I was trying to intervene on the accusation the Secretary of State made that the Conservative Front Bench and other education spokesmen on the Tory Benches had not given her support over the curriculum review. We have. All the way through the procedures on the Education Act 1976 we kept asking for this sort of review. Indeed, two years before the right hon. Lady set up the maths inquiry, we were calling for one, and a year and a half before she set up the scheme for the training of teachers in maths we were calling for that.

Mrs. Williams

I can only say that the hon. Gentleman’s Administration were in power for quite a long time, when all of these problems emerged, not least the problem of mathematics. They did absolutely nothing about them.

Dr. Hampson

Is the right hon. Lady withdrawing the accusation?

Mrs. Williams

I am not withdrawing the accusation, I am sustaining it.

Turning now to the under-fives, let me say at once that the 1977 figures for educational provision—and we all say that nursery school education is important —indicate that all the 18 worst authorities giving 20 per cent. or less provision were Conservative-controlled. Of the nine authorities which provided 60 per cent. provision for the under-fives, six were Labour-controlled. In the past two years, the Government have mounted a modest nursery education capital building programme. It is not as large as I would wish to see, yet the interesting thing is that only 40 per cent. of Tory-controlled authorities made any bid whatever for that programme as compared with nearly 90 per cent. of Labour-controlled authorities.

It is not too surprising, with regard to school milk, that all Labour-controlled LEAs and only a minority of Tory-controlled LEAs have taken advantage of the scheme. Hon. Gentlemen argue that the rate support grant distribution makes it difficult for some of their authorities to take up this Government provision. It is perfectly true that for some authorities, especially in the shire counties, the combination of a rising school population and the rate support grant distribution has made life difficult. I readily concede that. However, there are a great many Conservative-controlled authorities of which this is not true and which persistently try to keep down the rate and finance their education by doing so and which fail to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) sometimes trips into words or print on the basis of rather inadequate homework. I must be merciful to him, because not all of us have to bear the burden of the hon. Member for Brent, North, who, I am reliably informed, is known among his colleagues ​ as the Colossus of Rhodes. I would like to investigate two of the more recent sallies of the hon. Member for Chelmsford. Last year, the hon. Member said:

“The Tories would reintroduce national standards of literacy and numeracy, which were unwisely done away with by the Labour Government in 1966.”

He was then asked what he meant, and replied:

“You will have to research that one for yourself. I don’t know.”

I am bound to tell the hon. Gentleman that there were once minimum national standards of this kind for schools. They existed until the First World War. A child could not leave school without achieving those national minimum standards. We had minimum standards earlier when we had the payment by results system in 1866. But at no time since the First World War have there ever been national minimum standards laid down by any Government, for the straightforward reason that they tend to be a ceiling and not a floor.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford might wish to go back to 1866—we all know that he is extremely fond of the era of Gladstone and Disraeli—but he must recognise that when he accuses the Labour Government of having removed national minimum standards he is talking about a fable.

Let me give a more recent example. The hon. Member for Chelmsford recently made a speech in Coventry on the subject of the 16-plus common system of examinations. He began by denouncing me for irresponsibility, for dangerous and inadequate proposals, for doctrinaire attitudes—indeed, the thesaurus almost began to run out before the hon. Gentleman had exhausted his adjectives. It then emerged that the hon. Gentleman was backing every horse in the race—O-level, CSE, common examination and anything else we might care to name.

Not too surprisingly, The Times of 27th October 1978 said:

“Apart from a pledge to preserve the identity of the O-level examination, Mr. St. John-Stevas’s proposals do not seem to differ widely from those put forward by the Government in its White Paper.”

The article also pointed out that the hon. Gentleman said that he was strongly in favour of a single system with a common seven-point grading system and of ​ national provisions to make sure that the subjects were effectively monitored. But this Government said long before he did that there should be a seven-point grading system of common examinations, a national monitoring body to monitor standards, and a proper rationalisation of the 22 boards we have for examinations. The hon. Gentleman may look good in my clothes, but I suspect that he would look even better in his own.

With regard to the 16-plus examination there has also been a long and confusing discussion about what local authorities actually said, so I shall quote once again what they said and ask the House to make a judgment of whether it constitutes what the hon. Gentleman has seen fit to call opposition to the proposal for a common system of examinations.

The education committee of the Association of County Councils said that it

“fully accepts the desirability of a common system of examining at 16+; uncertainty should be ended and decisions quickly made”.

The education committee of the ACC also said that it believed that the common system of examinations would improve standards.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities, also now under Conservative control said:

“We resolve that the case for some reform is well made. There are far too many examination boards and many of them work far too separately. Public uncertainty needs to be resolved.”

It went on to say that it wanted to see O-level standards maintained. It said this against the background of accepting the case for reform.

The Confederation of British Industry, in a letter to me, said:

“The CBI is therefore prepared to accept the overall judgment of the Committee ”

—that is, the Waddell committee—

“in favour of a common examining system from an educational standpoint.”

It stressed the importance of maintaining standards.

Since these responses to the Waddell committee and the White Paper, it is true that local authorities have in various ways qualified very much. My belief is that the hon. Member for Chelmsford is much too civilised to have leaned on them, but I am not quite so sure about some of his political colleagues. But what is clear is that ​ all the local authorities after considering the points made to them, made the statements that I have read out to the House, and those statements, only as recently as a few days ago, the ACC in particular has reiterated in the form that I have read out.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I am sure that the right hon. Lady would not want to misrepresent the truth or represent only a portion of it. Surely the vital point at issue between her and me and the ACC and the AMA is that she wishes to abolish O-levels whereas we all wish to retain them. Both the AMA and the ACC are on record on that point, and that is the point of difference between the two sides of the House.

Mrs. Williams

No, I do not think that that will quite do. I recognise and accept that the hon. Gentleman has said that he wants to retain O-levels. He has also said that he is not opposed to a single examination system. The problem is—and the House must get this clear—that just as hon. Members opposite so often claim that it is possible to have both grammar and comprehensive schools, they now appear to claim that it is possible to have a common system of examinations and the O-level. We have to face the fact that choices need to be made. The ACC has said that it wants to see O-level standards maintained, and I believe that that can be adequately done.

I want to say something about the Bill that we shall bring forward under the terms of the Gracious Speech. One element will deal with the troubled question of school admissions. We need to strike a new balance between the legitimate desire of parents to be able to express their wishes about where their children should go to school—and it is worth recollecting to the House that under the old selective system 80 per cent. of parents exercised no choice at all, a fact constantly glossed over in the frequent comments about parental preferences—and the need on the other hand to plan the redeployment of education resources.

Over the next few years, local education authorities will have a very difficult job of planning for and managing the decline in school rolls. We have to create a framework in which they can arrive at a sensible solution for their own areas, ​ and that must allow for some control over the capacity of schools. Without such control there is no way of phasing out of the system some of the very old and decrepit schools we still have in our cities and some other areas in such a way as to ensure that our children have better accommodation and better facilities than at present.

But in order to strike this balance we also aim to give all parents the right to express a preference for the school they wish their child to attend and adequate information on which to base that preference. This would include a sensible system of local as well as national appeals.

I hope that the House will recognise that the present system is beginning to break down before our eyes. There are no effective systems of local appeal in some authorities. The national appeal system involves parents in keeping children out of school, sometimes for months on end, at considerable suffering to the child and to his or her parents, in order, at the end of the day, sometimes to secure that the child attends the school they originally preferred but at a cost which in educational and psychological terms is unacceptably high.

The Bill will also include reference to the question of the governing of schools. I draw the House’s attention to the fact that here again the Government will be taking steps to give parents as well as teachers a greater role in the governing bodies of schools. Here again we are acting where from other people only much lip service is paid to the importance of parents, but nothing has actually been done by previous administrations.

We intend therefore to lay down a statutory requirement to provide for a minimum number of parents and teachers on each governing body. As the House will appreciate, the size of a governing body varies as between a primary school and a secondary school and according to the size of the school. Therefore, I cannot give a figure but we will be laying down minimum proportions. At the primary level we intend that district councils and other minor authorities should continue to have a right of representation on primary school governing bodies.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

When the right hon. Lady says “other minor authorities “, does she have parish councils in mind? They lay great importance on their right to nominate to the local primary school.

Mrs. Williams

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind awaiting the terms of the Bill. The question of minor authorities turns a great deal on the representation in schools, but we are not accepting the Taylor committee’s recommendation that the right of minor authorities to appoint governors should be phased out.

With regard to secondary schools, it is our view that representatives of the wider community, in particular employers and trade unions, appropriately ought to be represented on governing bodies because the transition from school to work is of such importance. We do not believe that they are appropriate on primary school governing bodies, where there is a stronger case for other groups to be represented.

I am particularly pleased to tell the House that the national bodies representing denominational schools have also been willing to discuss associated changes in the composition of governing bodies of voluntary schools. This has been a problem because of the way in which the Education Act 1944 enshrines a substantial majority for denominational bodies.

Within the next few weeks a consultation document will be published setting out the background to our proposals for primary legislation and for the regulations to be made under that legislation. This will allow me to hold a further round of negotiations on the regulations and also to take full account of what is said in the House during the passage of the Bill.

In response to fears which have been expressed about the prospect of radical change in the powers of governing bodies, I want to echo what I said in this corresponding debate 12 months ago. The changes in the composition of governing bodies are not intended to diminish the professional responsibility of teachers with regard to the curriculum and teaching methods. They remain, of course, the statutory responsibility of the local education authorities, and it is our view, that they should above all constitute a forum for discussion, explanation and influence on these matters. But there is no question that the governing bodies should take ​ over from the professionals with regard to the direction of the curriculum itself.

I made it clear last March that in the Government’s view the Oakes working group’s proposals

“taken in their entirety, mark a real advance towards a solution of the problem of forward planning and financial control of higher education in the maintained sector “.—[Official Report, 20th March 1978; Vol. 946, c. 428.]

I also indicated our broad agreement with the report’s conclusions as the basis for possible future action to modify present arrangements, but I said that before taking steps in the matter we intended, as I had promised when the group was established, to consult all the various interests involved.

Comments received show a broad consensus in favour of the report’s main proposal for the establishment of a national framework for the planning of higher education in the maintained sector. Certainly, there is no evidence from the comments received of an alternative solution to the problems of management likely to command more support from the various parties involved.

The position of the local authorities as maintaining authorities would be both underlined and redefined if the proposals of the report are implemented. The Government fully appreciate the concern expressed by the local authority associations that the interests of maintaining authorities should be protected in any new system, and the legislation that we are proposing will reflect this.

The House will also know of my concern for young people from poorer homes who leave education early because their parents are not able to afford to keep them there any longer. Some find jobs and perhaps are able, with luck and determination, to continue their education, probably part-time, in later life, but many are not so lucky. Some do not find a job.

The provision for them, through the programmes of special help to the young unemployed, is of the greatest value and is growing rapidly, but none of these measures can fully make good all that these young people might have achieved if they had been able to carry on full-time with their better-off contemporaries in school or college. We lose many of our most able young people at 16 from the ​ school and further education system, because they cannot afford to stay on.

There is growing evidence also that the participation rate of 18-year olds in higher education is levelling out in a way that suggests that we are not tapping as many of the groups in the population that would be capable of gaining from higher education as I believe all of us in the House would want to do.

I am determined that we shall mend this broken bridge, and the Government —as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) —committed themselves in May this year in principle to the provision of a mandatory system of awards to meet this clear need. At that time it was fully supported by the local authority associations, and I greatly regret that since then they have seen fit, at least in part, to change their opinion on the matter. It seems to be a rather frequent occurrence at present among the local authority associations, but I would not wish to make any suggestion as to the reason for it.

In the Government’s view, it is not a question of whether to do this but when to do it. I will make no bones at all about the fact that the climate for public expenditure has become more difficult since May, owing to there having been no agreement yet on an incomes policy, but, as the House knows, the Government are looking very carefully at proposals for major increases in public expenditure and at the timing for the introduction of an educational maintenance allowance system. I shall keep the House informed on this matter.

I turn now to resources for education. I am not yet at liberty to tell the House what is the position with regard to public expenditure for the coming financial year, nor, as the House will know, has any announcement of the rate support grant settlement been made to the local authorities. The matter is still under discussion. But I can say that at present—I think it is worth reiterating this—education’s share of the gross national product, which was 4 per cent. in 1960, 5·8 per cent. in 1970, and 6·1 per cent. when the Conservative Administration left office, was last year 6·3 per cent. There are reasons to believe that the figure will increase in the coming year.

There is already provision in 1979–80 for 7,600 additional teaching jobs, which will help to improve the staff/student ratios. The figure for employment of teachers this year is the highest ever, at 464,972. The figure of registered teachers unemployed was lower this September—only slightly lower but nevertheless lower —than it was last year, largely because of the provision for additional teaching jobs.

I hope to be able to tell the House shortly the position with regard to teaching jobs next year. We hope also to be able to inform the local authorities, within the next short period, about the position concerning school meals, because we recognise that they are put in very grave difficulties by announcements about school meal charges being made at a late date, as happened last year.

With regard to in-service expenditure and expenditure on books and equipment, the House will know that there was an underspending, on the basis of the RSG figures, of £13 million for in-service training and £8 million for books and equipment last year. I regret both of these, because both are crucial to the quality and standard of education. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will be talking to the local authorities about the ways in which in-service training can be more rapidly expanded in order to get back to the target for which the Government have provided resources, on the basis of achieving the equivalent of some 13,500 full-time teachers in the year 1981–82. But I have to say that local authorities have fallen behind our targets in the last two years. The same is true with regard to books and equipment, where we are making provision in the coming year for an improvement of 2 per cent. in real terms for non-teaching costs. I hope very much that authorities will take this up.

I think that the Government have a good record in terms of the provision they have made for education, and I only regret that not all of that provision has been taken up. I end by saying that my real fear is that, at a time when the education system is beginning to show a real and measured improvement in terms of the quality and standard of education, we are offered by the Conservatives the recipe for a demoralised education service, a scheme for ​ skimming voucher schemes, aided places, and the reintroduction of selection in a curious back-door way, which in my view would disrupt our education all over again, just at the time when it is beginning to settle down and give all our children a better chance than ever before.