Norman St John-Stevas
THE BRITISH people do not. like education being a matter of political controversy, and they are right. The idea of making children political footballs is repellent to right-minded people, and 1 for one welcome the fact that the advent of Mrs Williams to the position of Secretary of State for Education has enabled us to move towards a hi-partisan approach on
many subjects. •
She is now, however, facing a real test of her desire for a joint and reasonable approach to education as the deadline she has set -expires for focal education authorities to put forward schemes of comprehensive reor
About one-third of the education authorities in England and Wales retain a number of selective schools. Left to themselves they would not do away with them. but the statute passed last year obliges them to submit schemes.
I have advised then--and all have followed that advice—to comply with the law, but I have pointed out to them as well that they haire the right of full consultation and they should not put forward botched-up schemes.. Mrs Williams now faces a choice. If she insists on bulldozing schemes.throiigh against the judgment and wishes of the local education authorities she will throw secondary education back into the heart of the political battle.
If on the other hand she acts prudently and recognises that the fate of these schools can be decided only by a political decision of the electorate after the next General Election, then public attention can concentrate on the issue of standards in education and the parties can continue to work together in reasonable harmony.
The gap between the parties on secondary education is in any case not all that wide. Both parties accept that for the foresee. able future secondary education is likely to be for the most part organised on a comprehensive basis. Both parties reject a ' return to the 11 -plus examination.
Where the point of difference occurs is that the Government selective schools must be rooted out of the system, whereas the Opposition believes that there is room for a certain number of selective schools within a mainly comprehensive system.
It should not be impossible for a dialogue to be opened between Government and Opposition on the place of selection within our educational service. This concerns not only a choice between selective and non-selective schools but also a discussion of the place of selection within comprehensive schools by means of streaming, setting and other means.
I would welcome any initiative train Mrs Williams to open such discussions. After all, she must realise that it is more likely than not that within the next two years there will be a Conservative Secretary of State for Education and that if the gulf grows between the parties much of what she hopes to achieve through the education debate will he lost.
And what has been achieved by it to date? First of all, cduca tion has been discussed more thoroughly and more widely than at any previous time in our history: that is in itself a gain. Second, it has now become generally accepted that the teaching profession must be accountable to the parents of the children they educate. That is a considerable gain.
The very first speech I made when I was appointed Shadow Minister of Education by Mr Heath three years ago was on the subject of parental rights. I pointed out then that the right to educate children belonged inalienably to the parents, and though in the conditions of modern highly organised society they have to delegate the exercise of those rights to local education authorities and teachers, the rights themselves remain intact.
Mrs Williams has put forward the idea of a contract between parents and teachers to do much good, but not much harm.either.
What is needed from the great debate arc some positive proposals to make parental influence in the schools effective. I have suggested that between onethird and one-half of the governors of all schools should be par ents, elected by parents with . children at the schools.
Zoning should be done away with and an appeals committee set up in every local education authority to which aggrieved parents could go and have their case reconsidered. There should he a drive to set up teacherparent associations all over the country.
Of course this must mean a shift of power .to parents, but why not? It has become quite clear during the public debate on education that parents want to be responsible and play their part in educating their children.
One of the losses in the great debate is that moral and religi-• oils education has not been fully discussed. Accordingly the Human Rights Society is sponsoring a conference on this subject.
Alas, Bishop Butler's Public Morality Council has withdrawn from its sponsorship of the conference. We regret this, but we will go ahead on our own and already the response has been overwhelmingly encouraging. The great debate is far from over: it is really only just beginning.