ON Friday morning a strange sight greeted those who were passing by the House of Commons. Trolley after trolley of neatly stacked white petition forms tied up in blue and other coloured ribbons were being wheeled to the door of the House-of Commons.
After them came a long file of men and women clutching their own individual bundles and then a group of schoolboys singing a lament for the undermining of longcherished isih.e d educational freedoms, There, standing on the pavement outside the House of Commons, was the Leader of the Opposition. Mrs Margaret Thatcher, and the bundles were placed in piles at her feet so that at one time she almost disappeared from view. The people were exercising one of their most fundamental rights, that of petitioning Parliament.
Later that morning, preceded by six flunkeys in white ties staggering under their burden of petition forms, 1 was able to present the petition to the Speaker and explain its purpose to a Clouse remarkably crowded for that hour of the morning.
"Wherefore", declared the petition in stalely language. "your petitioners pray that the House of Commons do amend the Education Bill at present before the House, so as to increase the opportunities of parents to choose from %% ithiit the maintained sector comprehensive schools if they so desire. but also other types of school if they so prefer; to enable a variety of schools to be provided to meet the different abilities and aptitudes of children in accordance with section 76 of the 1944 Education Act; to enable local education authorities to continue to exercise their present powers and discretion on the best provision of schools for their areas; to preserve the freedom of local authorities and parents to choose different types of school within the maintained sector: and to concentrate resources not on changing the character of schools of proven worth, but on improving and maintaining standards of education in maintained schools of all types. and your petitioners as in duty hound will ever pray."
The petition, as will he seen from the language, was in no way directed against comprehensive schools as such, but condemned the mindless imposition of these schools everywhere without regard to local conditions, parental ishes or financial resources.
It secured in the remarkably short space of time of ten weeks no fewer than 560,000 signatures -a convincing demonstration, if one was needed, of the unpopularity of the Government's present dogmatic education policy. , The support came from every part of the country, from cities and counties which had already gone comprehensive as well as from those who have opted to retain the tripartite system or to support a mixed system of comprehensive and selective schools.
Among the places where substantial numbers of signatures were collected were Lancashire, Wales, Surrey, Sutton, Buckingham, Bexley, Kingston, Essex, Coventry. Birmingham. Worcester, Tyneside. Reading, Yorkshire, Hull, Cumbria, Croydon, Plymouth, Burton-on-Trent, Knutsford, London, Bristol and Dorset •— an ecumenical selection by any standards!
Heading the list was Birmingham, with 100,000 signatures: Birmingham still retains some of the finest voluntary aided grammar schools in the country.
in addition to the thousands of ordinary parents and. teachers who signed the petitions there were many distinguished individuals who lent their personal support. They included the heads of all the Oxford colleges, heads of Houses at Cambridge: Lord Boyle of Handsworth, Mr J. B. Priestley, Mr Hughie Green, Professor Max Beloff. Mr John Braine, Lord James of Rusholme, Dame Flora Robson, Miss Irish Murdoch, Miss Beryl Grey, Sir Arnold Weinstock and Sir Max Aitken.
Although the presenter of the petition, myself, happened to he Opposition spokesman on education, the list of names shows that the petition was supported by prominent Liberals and Socialists who do not support the intolerant official policies of their parties.
One of the most prominent societies in the campaign was the National Education Association. which distributed 30,000 petition forms and which is strictly non-political.
There was no central, highpowered organisation, no large sums of money available, no sensational publicity: the petition succeeded in attracting such widespread support because of the desire of so many ordinary people to preserve some choice of school and some variety in education.
They were prepared to work for the cause because they believed in it and because they thought it right to work hard for their principles.
The petition will undoubtedly have its impact on the Committee now considering the Bill in the Commons. It will encourage the House , Lords to remove some of its most objectionable features. It will be valuable evidence of the strength of public opinion when the case being prepared for the European Commission of Human Rights comes to he considered.
It has heartened those in Parliament who are fighting the Bill to know that there is such widespread support for their stand in the country: it has encouraged those outside Parliament who felt isolated.
Above all, it has shown that this is not a defeatist country and that people will fight hard for their rights and liberties if they are given a lead and shown that -the struggle is worth while. The petition was a battle, and the war will now continue until the rights of parents. children and teachers to variety and choice in education are permanently