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5.22 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early. I have a chipped rib, and I was beginning to find it a little uncomfortable; I was not sure whether to sit or stand. No matter what side of the House I sit on, I always seem to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). He made a good speech, and I listened carefully.

I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill, and I congratulate the Government on having moved so quickly to fulfil the promise made in our election manifesto. My main reason for wanting to get rid of the assisted places scheme is that it perpetuates the class system. We know that private schools are up in arms about the Bill. They tell us that they are bothered about the working-class children who will no longer attend them, but we all know that what really bothers them is losing the huge subsidy that they have been getting from the ordinary taxpayer.

The scheme did absolutely nothing for children from poor families, who were never the private schools' concern. As I mentioned in my question to the shadow Secretary of State, the proof of the schools' concern about having a mix of children from different backgrounds will be in how much of their own cash they put in to provide free places for poor children. When I say poor children, I mean especially those whose families are on benefit.

My second reason for welcoming the Bill is that it is intended to channel cash into bringing down to under 30 class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. That will certainly make a start on raising standards in our schools, and anything that raises standards for the many rather than the few must be applauded by everyone who is concerned about our children's education.

I have two reservations about the Bill. First, will the amount that will initially be saved from scrapping the assisted places scheme enable schools to employ enough extra teachers to cut class sizes to the proposed levels or to reduce class sizes overall? I ask that question with the greatest sincerity. Reducing class sizes will help teachers to improve standards, which is of course the most important thing. I am probably worrying too much, because I trust the Government to fulfil their promises, so, if insufficient funds are released from the abolition of the scheme, the necessary cash will be found from elsewhere.

My second reservation is a little more substantial. I assume that the Bill is intended to raise standards in our schools, but all my experience tells me that reducing class sizes for five to seven-year-olds to under 30 is unlikely to have a big effect on standards. It would be a welcome start, but only a small one. Much more needs to be done, as the Secretary of State will acknowledge.

Making a determined bid to get excellent schools with high standards means getting rid of crumbling buildings; providing more books and equipment; and allowing all schools to recruit more teachers. To raise standards, we must call a halt to the constant criticism of the teaching profession. The Tories criticised for 18 years, and I hope that we can learn from their failures.

The Tories used the teachers as scapegoats for their disastrous social policies, which created poverty and destitution across the land. Millions of children live in deprived communities in which many parents have been thrown on the scrap heap of long-term or repeated

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unemployment. Those desperate people are abandoned by and alienated from society, and their attitudes were bound to spill over into the schools in deprived communities; it was obvious that such schools would have problems. What does the assisted places scheme do for those communities? We all know that it does very little.

It is crucial to recognise that the teachers are not to blame for those problems. Teachers are as much the victims of the cruel society created by Thatcher and 18 years of Tory misrule as are the children and their parents. The problems will be solved only when we have restored work and pride in those communities, and I recognise that that will take a long time. In the meantime, we should start putting the blame where it truly belongs and stop scapegoating teachers as the Tories did for so many years.

No one would deny that it is important to help schools that are not doing well, but it does not help to publish names and demoralise teachers even further. That was a Tory tactic, frowned upon by the Labour party, which now, unfortunately, seems to support it. I find it hard to understand why we need to do that. We should not alienate teachers; we should appreciate them and the difficult job that they do.

Mr. Don Foster: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would have been helpful if some criteria had been given to explain the justification for schools being on the list?

Mr. Steinberg: The hon. Gentleman knows my opinion: no list should have been published in the first place. That is a genuine disagreement between me and my Front-Bench colleagues, and I am sure that we will resolve it over the years. As usual, we have heard some silly statements from the previous Government. At least I am allowed to make a speech on my views; I never heard Tory Members doing that from this side of the House. They always said what they were told to say by their Whips. The Whips are not telling me what to say. I shall say exactly what I want.

The abolition of the privatised Ofsted and the sacking of the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, would be an important step to better morale and confidence among teachers and to improved standards. I have advocated it for several years, and continue to do so. This man has needlessly criticised the teaching profession, blackened the names of schools and supported Tory policies ever since he was appointed. He even fiddled the statistics for his Tory masters to try to give the Tories' criticisms some credence. That was shown clearly by the Education and Employment Select Committee in the last Parliament.

The assisted places scheme accentuated all those problems. No wonder private schools look good compared with the schools that I have described. They have plenty of resources, the children come from wealthy families and have parents who feel that they have a stake in society. Of course, many private schools do not look so good if we compare them with state schools with similar children, who have parents who can dig into their pockets to make up for some of the resources taken away by the previous Tory Government. If scrapping the scheme means that we can employ more teachers to reduce class sizes, it will be a small and welcome start to restoring justice to our

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education system. However, I am not totally convinced that the amounts saved will initially have much effect on reducing class sizes.

Private schools realise the importance of small class size, regardless of the age of pupils. It is crazy that it is the wrong way round in the state system: the younger the child, the bigger the class. Class sizes are irrelevant if teachers simply lecture students and cram them with information. I have seen that done in Japan to students in their late teens. Class sizes are crucial in the pre-school and primary stages of a child's development.

Mrs. Gillan rose--

Mr. Steinberg: I have expressed some reservations about the measure, but I assure the House that I have no reservations about getting rid of the assisted places scheme. It is a state subsidy to schools that caters for people who are rich enough to pay for private education, if they are foolish enough to want to do so. We will not be able to achieve the classless society that we all talk about until we get rid of private schools altogether.

Mrs. Gillan rose--

Mr. Steinberg: Private schools perpetuate class distinction, which the scheme intensifies by robbing state education of vital resources. For 18 years, the Tories brought gimmick after gimmick into education without ever taking constructive steps to improve standards. The assisted places scheme was one such gimmick. It was meant to con the public into believing that it would help working-class children to receive a private education.

Mrs. Gillan: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will not give way, but he has made a serious allegation against Mr. Chris Woodhead. I challenge him to produce proof of his statement and invite him to repeat it outside the Chamber. Can you advise me whether we can ask him to do that, especially as Mr. Woodhead has been employed by the incumbent Government?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): As the hon. Lady knows, that is not a matter for the Chair. It is not a point of order.

Mr. Steen: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a matter for the Chair when the hon. Gentleman's speech departs so far from the subject of the debate. He should be pulled up and restricted to the Bill's Second Reading. He is straying over the whole of education policy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is for me to decide. The hon. Gentleman has been as good as gold.

Mr. Steinberg: I apologise to the hon. Lady the shadow Under-Secretary of State, or whatever her present title is. I did not see her trying to intervene, or I should have given way. She has only to read the Select Committee report of its meeting with Mr. Woodhead in the last Parliament. I would have assumed that, as a Minister, she would have read the report. Obviously, she did not, which is very naughty of her.

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