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6.26 pm

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth): I commend the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on an excellently delivered maiden speech. I also pay a belated tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). Their speeches were indicative of the major contributions that they will make to the work of the House.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in such an important debate. I do so in the knowledge that I am the first Labour Member of Parliament for Tynemouth to make a maiden speech for more than 50 years. Indeed, it is more than 20 years since the previous Member for Tynemouth made his maiden speech. It seems that there is a tradition that the people of Tynemouth do not change their Member of Parliament very often, and I am keen to continue that tradition.

My predecessor was Neville Trotter. He served his party and his constituents well for 23 years. Almost every invitation that I receive to a constituency event ends with the words, "Mr. Trotter always supported us, and we hope you will, too." That is clear evidence that Mr. Trotter was regarded as a good constituency Member of Parliament.

Neville Trotter was influential in helping to push through legislation on solvent abuse, so many parents and young people have a lot to thank him for. However, I think that he would agree that his later years as a Member were overshadowed by the previous Government's decision to see Swan Hunter shipbuilders close. That decision came to symbolise the Conservatives' uncaring attitude towards the north-east, and the Conservative Government's standing suffered as a result.

Neville Trotter wisely decided to stand down before his party was virtually wiped out in the north-east. When the history books are written, they may well show that the Conservative Government let down not only the Swan Hunter workers, but Neville Trotter.

The Tynemouth people want to look to the future, not to the past. Tynemouth is a predominantly coastal constituency made up of the townships of Whitley Bay and North Shields, the villages of Monkseaton and Cullercoats, and Tynemouth itself.

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I was delighted to hear that tourism is once again booming in Whitley Bay. I can thoroughly recommend it to hon. Members as a holiday destination or for a weekend break. Opposition Members may benefit by getting away from it all and walking along Tynemouth's golden beaches. That will enable them to escape from the Tea Room and the heat and trauma of the forthcoming Conservative leadership election.

It has been said that Britain is an island surrounded by fish and built on coal. If that is true, Tynemouth is quintessentially British. Unfortunately, the coal has gone and there are fewer fish and fewer North Shields fishing boats. Fishing and coal mining may have been the country's most dangerous jobs, but as they declined, Tynemouth and Tyneside faced hard times. I am pleased to say that Tyneside--where, it has been claimed, the first industrial revolution began--is on the verge of a new industrial revolution.

The decision by Siemens to locate its £1 billion microchip plant in Tynemouth will bring thousands of much needed jobs. The decision was a massive vote of confidence in local people, and I am pleased to see that 70 per cent. of the work force were recruited locally. The decision by Siemens was an acknowledgement of Britain's key role in Europe. We meddle with that at our peril. The plant was officially opened 10 days ago. It is clear that if we are to be at the cutting edge of new technology, we must equip our work force with the skills they need. Technology and markets may change, but people are a constant factor and education is the best economic investment that we can make.

Raising standards is the key to a successful future. Earlier Governments may have accepted 42nd place in the international education league and may have allowed half our 11-year-olds to fail to reach acceptable standards of literacy. This Government must not, and perhaps the best start that we can make is to bring down class sizes. I agree with the hon. Member for Maidenhead that raising standards is about the quality of teaching. However, it is also about giving our teachers time to work with individual pupils. That is why we must reduce class sizes.

I should like to declare an interest. As the parent of two children under the age of five, I am not prepared to tolerate classes of more than 30, yet one in three of our primary school children nationally are in classes of more than 30. The figure is the same in Tynemouth. If I am not prepared to see my children in over-sized classes, I cannot sit back and allow it to happen to other people's children. I can understand why some parents look to the assisted places scheme as a way out of big classes, but we cannot justify a system that subsidises a privileged few while the many are denied a proper start. That is why I welcome an early start to the process of reducing class sizes. I also welcome the end of the nursery voucher scheme and moves towards fairer funding. All those measures will help children in Tynemouth.

I have another personal reason for wanting to see the Government move quickly to honour their pledges. In his maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) spoke movingly about a young man who was unable to read and write, but who had the courage to ask for help on 1 May to fill in his ballot paper. I have another example of election day

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courage in my constituency. An elderly man in Rake Lane hospital in North Shields was so seriously ill that his doctors refused to let him out to vote. On the evening of 1 May, he took a taxi to the polling station. He said that he had voted Labour all his life and did not intend to miss this time. That typifies the determination to see new Labour elected, not just to govern but to make the changes for the better that we have promised. By supporting the Bill, that is exactly what we shall do.

6.34 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate. I rise with some trepidation to make my maiden speech, and I shall make it with due humility in view of the breadth of experience in all parts of the House.

Perhaps I may share with hon. Members a bright idea that came to nothing. I intended to speak on the Bill because I have a particular interest in education. In preparing my speech, I decided to go to the Library to dig out the maiden speeches of two of the most notable Secretaries of State for Education since the war--Rab Butler and Lady Thatcher. I thought that I could quote selectively from those speeches and punctuate my contribution with their words of wisdom. As Mr. R. A. Butler spoke mainly about agriculture and particularly about grain prices, and Mrs. Thatcher--who was the architect of, or at least the inspiration behind, the Education Act 1988--spoke about public access to local authority meetings, I gained almost nothing relevant to today's debate from an examination of their maiden speeches. My bright idea came to nothing.

I am also humbled by my great privilege to be the Member for South Holland and The Deepings. As such, I continue a long tradition of Conservative representation in south Lincolnshire. As my constituency is a new one, like my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) I enjoy the privilege of sharing the Opposition Benches with my two predecessors, my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) and for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). They each typify the pursuit of political conviction before political convenience, strength of argument above personal advancement, and I hope that during my time in the House I can continue in this vein.

I am proud to represent the constituency with the most charming name, if not the most charming Member. For those who are not familiar with south Lincolnshire, I should like to offer some insight into my glorious constituency. It is traditional, rural Britain with all the characteristics which one might therefore expect. It has a hard-working, law-abiding, patriotic population--people who respect the soil and its products, who depend upon the elements and who are close to God. They are suspicious of pomposity, pretension and political correctness and of all other ephemeral and fashionable ideas. Those are the traditional, decent folk of south Lincolnshire and I am honoured that they chose me to be their representative.

It is just such humble, hard-working folk that the Bill is designed to injure. It will not damage the privileged and the wealthy; nor will it hurt people like the Prime Minister's parents who many years ago could afford to send their son to private school. It will not hurt people like the parents of the Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women or those of the hon.

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Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), those of the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), or those of other Labour Members with that kind of background.

The Bill is an attack on poor people. As has been said, 42 per cent. of those who enjoy the opportunities provided by assisted places have incomes below £10,000 per year. It is iniquitous to introduce a Bill which seeks to limit and stifle the chances of those people. I have no vested interest in saying that: I have no connection with private education. I am proud to have been a grammar school boy, and as such I have no links with private education.

The opportunity for working-class children to go to grammar school and to climb the ladder of educational advancement is not available to many of our fellow citizens. In many parts of the country there is no such chance. The assisted places scheme gave an opportunity to people in areas where the alternative was the dull egalitarian mediocrity which is all that so many local education authorities offer.

Although I do not claim to be an expert, I speak with some authority on this, having been a member of such a local education authority for more than a dozen years. That dull, egalitarian mediocrity is what faces millions of children. The assisted places scheme provided a glimmer of light, an opportunity. They were not compelled to join the scheme: it was an option and a choice. No one was obliged to take up a place; it was something that one had to apply for. But why take that opportunity from those 37,000 people? To take away that extra option, that extra choice, is both negative and pernicious.

Fortunately, Lincolnshire has retained selective education, so there is still some choice for my constituents, but the message that must ring out loud and clear in the Chamber today is that there can be no choice without diversity. It is extraordinary that, earlier in the debate, Labour Members displayed hostility to diversity, which is the lifeblood of educational advancement. We shall achieve educational progress, advancement and evolution only by having various types of school and various ideas percolating in schools.

I wish to draw attention to three particular objections to the Bill, some of which have been mentioned in the debate. However, I feel that they require further amplification. First, the figures on the absorption back into mainstream education of children currently benefiting from assisted places are at best dubious. Allowing for the doubling of the scheme, we would gain about £268 million from the abolition of the assisted places scheme.

Yet the Department for Education and Employment calculates that, taking a typical average cost per child of about £2,700, it would cost about £208 million to return those children to state education, and a further £210 million to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds--bringing the total to £418 million. There is a massive shortfall in those figures and, frankly, there must be some error in the calculations. I put it politely because I understand that the conventions of the House forbid my saying anything more. At the very least, those figures are questionable, and on that basis they are not worthy of our support.

The second reason why I oppose the Bill is that the choice among existing schools would undoubtedly be reduced. If we reduce class sizes and thus limit the ability

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of popular schools to admit children, we shall by definition reduce choice. I hope that all those hon. Members who support the Bill will be frank and honest with people and admit that it will reduce and restrict opportunity and choice not just in relation to assisted places but in choosing a popular local primary school. To restrict class sizes, we shall have to impose limits on the number of children that those schools can take in.

That was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead when she described her experience as chairman of an education committee. I have similar experience as a member--just a member, I hasten to add--of such a committee; in opposition, always in opposition. However, the ability of appeals panels on occasion to overrule initial judgments has enabled children to take school places that their parents wanted and from which the children have benefited. That will inevitably be curtailed by the Bill.

My third objection is that the misleading assertion that a reduction in class sizes will deliver an automatic benefit--a gain in terms of teaching and learning--is frankly not an accurate description of the facts. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment said in his opening remarks that class sizes matter, and of course they do. Class sizes are clearly one of the factors which affect a child's performance at school and the delivery of a good education, but they are not the only thing that matters in delivering good education.

Many other factors affect a child's progress at school and it can be sensibly argued that some of them are at least as important as--and possibly more important than--class size. I invite hon. Members to consider factors such as the home-school relationship, the physical quality of the teaching environment, the quality of teaching and learning itself, the leadership offered by the head teacher, and pre-school experience. To argue that none of those factors has as much impact as class size--that reducing class sizes alone will negate the impact of all those things--is to mislead the population. People have been encouraged to believe that there would be such a dramatic benefit--that suddenly their child's educational performance and teaching and learning experience would be transformed.

There is a correlation, but there is no direct correlation, as the Office for Standards in Education has accepted. In 1995, Chris Woodhead, who is now a popular figure on both sides of the Chamber, drew attention to the matter and made it clear that there was no such direct correlation. Most intelligent and sensible observers would share that view.

The Labour party must therefore bear some responsibility--I say this more in sorrow than in anger--for trivialising the debate on education, particularly over the past couple of years. By concentrating solely or virtually solely on class sizes, they have simplified and parodied the discussion and created expectations which now cannot be met--and they will regret that in the fulness of time.

It is also a sad indictment of the Labour party that its first piece of education legislation is entirely negative. The Bill axes an existing scheme: it destroys rather than creates. In the fulness of time, Labour Members may wish that their first measure had been more imaginative, more positive--perhaps building on an existing scheme and policy, developing and changing it, rather than simply axing and destroying it.

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I am a grateful for the traditional indulgence that the House has shown me as a newcomer in making this speech. I shall not expect it in the future, and no doubt I shall not get it as I give notice that I intend to fight tooth and nail every Labour measure of this type which I believe restricts opportunity, reduces choice and thwarts initiative.

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