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Mr. Steinberg: Will the hon. Gentleman give us statistics on how many extra children, on average, each local authority will have to cater for?

Mr. Lidington: It would be helpful if the Government published such figures as part of their compliance cost assessment. If they were not proceeding with the Bill with such indecent haste, we would have an opportunity for a full debate on the merits of the Government's proposals and the arithmetic behind them--a debate that Conservative Members want.

Mr. Steinberg: The hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be based on local education authorities' need for extra money to cater for pupils leaving the assisted places scheme. He must be able to tell us how many children are to be catered for, because his argument depends on that. How many children, on average, will each local education authority have to cater for?

Mr. Lidington: That is for the Government to explain. I have crossed swords with the hon. Gentleman in the past in the Education Select Committee. He is falling into the error of thinking that he is still on the Opposition Back Benches. He may indeed still think of himself as being on the Opposition Benches, and his right hon. Friends may realise that in due course. His Government have come forward with legislation that they are asking the House to endorse. It is for the Government to provide the detailed analysis that he has demanded and to explain how they propose to make it possible, through the local authority grant system or some other mechanism, for each local education authority to match the additional demand which, as the hon. Gentleman implies, will clearly vary a great deal from one part of the country to another.

I want to deal with the more general issue of the value placed on smaller class sizes. Any parent or teacher--or anyone married to a teacher, as I am--knows that common sense tells us that smaller class sizes are desirable in principle. I see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) nodding, which is all that he is now allowed to do in his elevated but mute role in the Government Whips Office.

The Government must answer some serious questions. Most of the claims about the benefits of smaller class sizes in the early years are founded on the Star project from the state of Tennessee, which found significant benefits in reducing class sizes for infants. However, that study was based on reducing class sizes to 15 or 16 pupils--a much greater reduction than any aspired to by the Government.

In its 1995 study entitled, "Class Size and the Quality of Education", the Office for Standards in Education cast doubt on the benefits of reductions in class sizes unless the reductions were of the scale proposed by the Star

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researchers. The conclusion of the chief inspector, in whom we know that the Secretary of State still has a great deal of confidence, was that a reduction in average class size was probably not the best way to bring about an improvement in standards of education in state schools--it was not the single most important use of whatever additional resources were available to the Government.

Mr. Kaufman: Would the hon. Gentleman recommend that the three assisted places schools in my constituency increase their effectiveness by increasing their class sizes?

Mr. Lidington: That is a matter for the schools concerned.

The Ofsted study assessed that the cost of reducing the average class size in nursery, reception and key stage 1 classes by just three would be £250 million. I hope that when the Minister of State winds up he will be able to say whether the Government accept the chief inspector's assessment of the approximate cost of the class size reductions that they are proposing. The cost of reducing classes to the size recommended by the Star research project was £1.2 billion. Not even the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is yet proposing to spend quite that amount on that reform.

Will a reduction in class sizes make much of a difference on its own? In a report published a couple of years ago, the National Commission on Education came out in favour of giving a high priority to reducing class sizes for early years pupils. However, it added a rider. Briefing paper No. 12, on class size, which I believe was written by Professor Mortimore of the Institute of Education, says that the benefits seen as arising from reduced class sizes will not come about automatically, but only

It is not possible to consider the issue simply in terms of numbers. We must also consider the quality of leadership from the head teacher, the style of classroom teaching and the way in which learning is organised in a classroom to determine whether reducing the number of pupils in a class will make much difference.

I am concerned that the apparent priority given by the Government to this one indicator risks a mechanistic approach. Many detailed questions must be answered. It is not satisfactory to expect the House to vote the Bill through and wait for all the details to be revealed miraculously in a White Paper in a couple of months' time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) referred to the impact of the Government's proposals on standard numbers for admissions. That is a matter of huge importance for parents in every part of the country.

I remember being a governor of a comprehensive school in north London before open enrolment was adopted as Conservative Government policy. I remember how the admission limits on popular schools were held artificially low because it was convenient for the local education authority to manage things in that way. Will we see artificial limits imposed once again on admissions to popular schools? If so, Labour policy will indeed be revealed as selection--selection by the depth of a parent's pocket in terms of ability to buy a house within the catchment area of the school to which he or she wishes

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to send his or her child. Labour's policy will lead to a bonanza for estate agents, but to a narrowing of choice for parents and, above all, to a narrowing of choice for parents with modest incomes who cannot afford to pick and choose which house to move to.

What will happen to the appeals system under the Government's proposal? If parents cannot get their child into the school of their first preference, they go to the LEA's panel. How do the Government propose to constrain the appeals panels to ensure that their decisions on individual cases do not push a class size above the level prescribed by the Department for Education and Employment?

Will smaller class sizes be the best approach even if they mean that a head teacher will have to mix year groups to comply with the numbers handed down from on high? How will the statistics for measuring class size take account of the deployment by heads of teaching assistants in larger classes? The pupil-teacher ratio is an inexact measure of what is going on in individual schools.

I would see more logic in the Government's approach if they talked about finding additional resources for primary schools, from wherever in their spending plans they proposed, to be used at the discretion of the heads and governors. I suspect that what is really needed in many schools is an additional staff post rather than an arbitrary limit on the number of children who can be educated in a particular classroom.

The Secretary of State said in his opening remarks that the assisted places scheme benefited relatively few children. The corollary of that remark is that the abolition of the scheme will disadvantage children, albeit a relatively small number, who would otherwise have been able to enjoy an enhanced level of academic education. Neither the Government's arguments nor their arithmetic give us much confidence that their policy will deliver the improvements in the quality of primary education that they have promised.

We know that their policy will harm the few, and I see no evidence that it will help the many. Worse than that, the Secretary of State's logic and his arguments about levelling down could be used in relation to city technology colleges or any other type of school where selection is made by aptitude. The argument seems to be that, if everyone cannot benefit, no one should be able to benefit.

There is another route. Labour Members made the jibe that when my party was in office it did not work out a way in which to forge a new partnership between the independent and state sectors of education, ad there is some point in that comment. Although I did not agree with everything said by my former constituency neighbour Mr. George Walden--I did not agree with him on the assisted places scheme--I believe that in his recent book he came forward with an imaginative idea to try to bring the benefits of the highly selective, highly academic education provided by many independent schools to a much larger number of pupils than can currently benefit through the assisted places scheme.

I would have liked the Government to follow that route rather than the negative and small-minded measure that they are presenting to the House today. I look forward to my party developing Mr. Walden's ideas so that we can present them to the electorate in future as one ingredient in an education policy that will attract the support and capture the imagination of the British people.

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4.54 pm

Ms Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech during our consideration of this important Bill. To be able to stand here today as the new Member of Parliament for Don Valley and to speak on behalf of my constituents for the first time is a humbling experience--humbling because I am here by the grace and good will of the people of Don Valley and because my predecessor, Martin Redmond, who served the people of Don Valley for 14 hard years of opposition, was deprived of the opportunity to stand here as a new era of Labour Government begins.

In the 10 weeks from my selection as candidate to polling day, I learnt much from the people of Don Valley about Martin. A private man, he remained living in the same village that was his home. He remained friends with the people he knew from before his election. He made time for individuals and he was regarded with warmth and affection. In his maiden speech in July 1983, Martin was able proudly to describe Don Valley's main industry as coal mining. Now we can but say that coal mining is part of the heart and character of Don Valley, but that it is no longer the main employer. Martin saw the heavy price paid by the mining communities that are strung from east to west of the constituency as their industry closed without the necessary foresight and investment needed to build a new economic life to replace the old.

Like many constituents who supported new Labour on 1 May, Martin Redmond understood the value of work. He believed in reward for hard work, in the respect and achievement derived from a lifetime of work and in the dignity that should be the rightful reward to be enjoyed in retirement. Martin understood the corrosive effects of persistent unemployment and the dangers of enforced idleness. He criticised the insecurity that seemed to be built into too many jobs.

Martin Redmond witnessed a Britain divided between the haves and have-nots--those with work and those without, and those with opportunities and those without. Martin Redmond would have been proud of the start that this new Labour Government have made--the concerted plan to tackle youth unemployment and the plan to shorten NHS waiting lists. He would have been as proud as I am to welcome this Bill, which will make good the key pledge on class sizes for which Labour has received a clear mandate.

Don Valley's history is steeped in mining. Every previous Member of Parliament came from mining and I pay tribute to them all. Indeed, in 70 years, the constituency has had but five Members of Parliament. James Walton, a miner, was the first Member of Parliament to represent the constituency from 1918 to 1922. He was the only Labour candidate in the history of Don Valley to have the unofficial support of the Conservatives.

I would love to boast that I am the youngest Member of Parliament in Don Valley's history, but I am not. Tom Williams, later Baron Williams, was elected in 1922 at the age of 34. I would love to aspire to be the constituency's longest-serving Member of Parliament, but Tom Williams served 37 years, until 1959, and I cannot imagine having such a substantial tenure. He served through great and turbulent times; his seventh general election victory was in 1945. As the right hon. Tom

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Williams, he then served as Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries until 1959. He made a distinguished contribution to the House and I would be proud to be mentioned on the same page in the history books.

Tom Williams was succeeded by Dick Kelley, who served the people of Don Valley for 20 years. In his maiden speech, in November 1959, Dick Kelley was concerned for the economic survival of the village communities he represented. He pleaded:

In the weeks leading up to the 1997 election, that view was expressed to me many times.

I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having been allowed to make this speech so soon after my election to this House. I would love to have claimed that I was the quickest of the six Don Valley Members to have made a maiden speech, but that honour remains with Mick Welsh, who was Member of Parliament from 1979 to 1983 and who was later the Member for Doncaster, North. He addressed the House just 20 days after the general election. In his maiden speech, Michael Welsh celebrated the genuine community life of the mining villages of Don Valley. Those men embraced, celebrated and championed Don Valley's culture and communities for the best part of a century. I celebrate it, too.

Don Valley is a changing constituency. It is perhaps fitting that I am the first woman to represent it. I am not from a mining background. At the time of my selection, try as I might to discover that a distant grandparent had once spent a long weekend in Don Valley, I could not. I determined then that honesty was the only policy. My curriculum vitae announced,

Labour party members, and subsequently the electorate, welcomed me with warmth and friendliness to put down roots in the constituency, as they did for so many people before who moved from the four corners of the United Kingdom to make Don Valley their home. Indeed, I am very proud to have been made a life member of the Official's club in Edlington, and to have been presented with a badge bearing the white rose of Yorkshire and welcomed as an honorary Yorkshirewoman.

In his 1941 book about Don Valley entitled "Old King Coal", Robert W. L. Ward wrote:

The Don Valley that I know is a diverse community. It is dominated by the former mining villages of Conisbrough, Denaby, Edlington, Rossington, and Hatfield--a new addition to the constituency. It is a constituency of striking landmarks, scenic villages and many beauty spots. It includes villages stretching to the borders of Nottinghamshire, such as Bawtry. The constituency has seen a rapid expansion of villages such as Auckley, Finningley and Sprotbrough, with new families and their young children moving to the area every week.

Don Valley is the historic heart of South Yorkshire, boasting two castles--Tickhill and Conisbrough, which is the setting for the classic story "Ivanhoe", penned by

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Sir Walter Scott in a room in the Boat inn at Sprotbrough falls. If The Mirror is to be believed, "Ivanhoe" is the favourite book of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

In the book, Sir Walter Scott describes Conisbrough castle. He wrote:

Conisbrough castle is part of Don Valley's past, but it is also part of its future. Along with the Earth centre on the site of the old Denaby main colliery, Conisbrough castle affords opportunities to attract visitors from afar and become part of Don Valley's economic regeneration.

I know that the people of Don Valley will welcome the Bill, which will pave the way to reducing class sizes. That pledge, coupled with the ambitious goal of raising education standards and opportunities for children and young people, will be received with great enthusiasm by the electors of Don Valley. Families with young people in Don Valley know that, unlike for previous generations, the mines will not provide the gateway to employment for the many. They know that education is the foundation. The achievement of their children will determine their life chances thereafter. The Bill demonstrates that the Government intend to place education at the centre of their programme--the No. 1 priority. Education is the building block for the future, and children must be at the heart of it.

During the election campaign, one French teacher asked me how she could teach French to children in year 7 of secondary school if, when they arrived, some had not yet mastered the basics of written and spoken English. That is a problem that the Conservatives refused to tackle. Standards are the cornerstone of our education policy. Schools are a vital part of any community and have a precious role to play in the life of the small villages that dominate my constituency.

However, schools are not islands, and must be encouraged to share their expertise, spread their best practice and learn from each other. Where a school is failing, we must look to turn it around in six months, not six years. That should be the Government's ambition. Not to do so is to condemn generations of children.

Gone are the days when the height of Government ambition was to have one good school in every town. That proposal was rejected at the election. We must ensure that every school is a good school; that every school comes up to scratch--nothing less is acceptable. Gone will be the complacency that allowed class sizes to rise steadily throughout the years of the Major Government. By 1996, more than 1.25 million children were in classes of 31 or more. Indeed, in my constituency, more than 2,000 children are in classes of more than 30 pupils.

I welcome the Government's intention to review the presentation of league tables, because, vital as they are, the many qualities that a school offers--leadership, morale and parental involvement--are all essential ingredients that add value to a child's education. Those qualities must be reflected in information made available to parents. The Bill makes a start. Those who choose to buy private education for their child are buying one thing

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above all else: smaller class sizes. Yet for the majority in Britain, the past five years have seen an unrelenting rise in class sizes. That rise must be brought to an end, and the Bill helps to release resources to begin that task.

The Bill will be welcomed by the electorate of Don Valley as a sign of a new Labour Government who govern for the many not for the few; a sign that Britain has turned a page in history and entered a new era. The Government deserve praise for the flying start that they have made, showing in weeks that a change of Government can lead to a change of mood and priorities. I hope that, for the duration of the Government's term of office, I serve my constituency well in this new era in British life--a period of new hope and great opportunities. As the Member of Parliament for Don Valley, and, perhaps more important, as the mother of three children in state education, I commend the Bill to the House.

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