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Housing Service Charges (Amendment)

Mr. Barry Gardiner accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Housing Act 1996 to enable certain county court cases initiated on or before 1st September 1997 to transfer to a leasehold valuation tribunal: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 March, and to be printed [Bill 143].

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Orders of the Day

CONSOLIDATED FUND (NO. 2) BILL

Order for Second Reading read.

Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.

Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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School Standards and Framework Bill

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Ordered,


3.50 pm

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 79 and 80.

Mr. Dorrell: I welcome one of the Government amendments that is grouped with new clause 8. It is nice to begin on a positive note, although I am not sure that we shall return to it too often.

Government amendment No. 80 substitutes the word "shall" for "may" at the beginning of clause 3. It is a simple amendment, and the idea behind it is not complex. The issue arose in Committee, when we sought to argue with the Government that they should be under an obligation to provide local education authorities with the money necessary to redeem the infant class size pledge. In arguing that case, we reminded the Government that they had given a firm commitment on that point as the background to the infant class size pledge. I was pleased when the Minister for School Standards responded to the debate by saying that he had some sympathy with the amendment that we had tabled, but that he needed to improve the drafting of it. I welcome the fact that the Minister has brought back the idea that the Committee approved, and the drafting has, no doubt, been much improved, although quite how eludes me. The amendment that I tabled in Committee was withdrawn at the Minister's request, but precisely the same wording has been brought back to be approved by the House. I congratulate the Minister on the improved drafting that that represents; after the debate, he might explain behind the Chair how that improvement was achieved.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman was up late last night, in Durham, but he seems to have had a memory

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lapse. I clearly recall that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) who made the suggestion to which the Minister for School Standards responded.

Mr. Dorrell: I shall consult the record, but I have no doubt that the same thought occurred to us both and was supported on both sides of the Committee. I merely wished to congratulate the Minister on the improved drafting of a single word.

More seriously, I wish that I could be more positive about the way in which the Government have reacted to the arguments that we made in Committee about the need for the delivery of their class size pledge to be made more flexible in the Bill. I want to be clear about what I think should be the attitude to class size in infant schools. Of course, I accept that, if all else is equal, it is better to be taught in a smaller class than in a bigger class. That is simple common sense and has never been the subject of any argument. Furthermore, I accept that research by the Office for Standards in Education has shown linkage between late educational attainment of individual children and class sizes in infant schools, which is why the Government have focused class size policy on five, six and seven-year-olds and have not, as Liberal Democrat Members argued in Committee that they should, extended that principle higher up the age range.

I accept the Government's focus on infant classes, but the key principle is to recognise that class size is not and never can be the only factor to be taken into account when making decisions about the use of resources in individual schools and about which school represents the best educational opportunity for a particular child. The academic proposition that, if all else is equal, it is better to be taught in a smaller class than in a bigger class should always be judged in conjunction with other, conflicting considerations.

Let us consider what parents and teachers must take into account when deciding whether a child's best interests would be served by putting him in a particular class. First, local priorities vary. In certain circumstances, a head teacher may decide to use extra resources to take on extra teachers, to reduce class sizes all the way up the school, but, in others, it may be in the interests of the children to buy extra equipment, to improve buildings or to deal with other priorities that face the school.

It is better to leave decisions on how best to use financial resources to improve educational opportunity for children to the head teacher and governors of a school, rather than to impose a statutory obligation, which would apply in all circumstances, that a class size of 29 is always better than one of 31. Local priorities vary, and it would be over-simplistic to impose a single statutory framework.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there should be a limit on class sizes? The new clause suggests 35 pupils, but would he accept 40, 45 or 50? Surely a line must be drawn. We are not arguing about whether standards would be improved in a class of 22 pupils rather than one of 20, but does he accept that there is a case for an upper limit?

Mr. Dorrell: As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the new clause recognises the case for an upper limit, and would provide a framework to introduce flexibility to local decision making, which is the key to delivering the

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objective that we all share: ensuring that five, six and seven-year-olds receive the best possible education. The hon. Gentleman was a member of the Standing Committee, and knows that we considered a wide range of amendments. The new clause ventilates the principle that the system should be more flexible than the Government's simplistic legal obligation will allow.

Mr. Blizzard: If the right hon. Gentleman accepts an upper limit, perhaps 35 pupils, why did not his party introduce such a limit during 18 years in government?

Mr. Dorrell: The new clause would allow a local education authority that achieved an average class size of three below the Government target--27, for this target group--the flexibility to have class sizes of up to 35. The new clause would deliver the principle for which the Government have an electoral mandate--focusing on reducing class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds--in a way that is consistent with efficient use of resources and efficient delivery of the objective that the hon. Gentleman and I share: securing the best possible education, in local circumstances, for individual children. This is merely another suggestion, originating from the same stable as several others made in Committee, of a means by which the principle of flexibility could be introduced.

My first proposition is that local circumstances vary. My second--which must undermine the simple principle that it is always better to be in a class of 29 than to be in a class of 31--is that different teachers perform at different levels. It is patently true that, in a profession the vast majority of whose members are dedicated people doing their best--often in difficult circumstances--to deliver a high-quality service, some will perform better than others. Surely to goodness, when deciding about class size against the background of the different skills and experience of individual teachers, a head ought to take that into account. It is nonsense to say that it is always better to be in a class of 29, even if the teacher is young and recently qualified and has had some difficulty in qualifying, than to be in a class of 31 taught by a very experienced, highly qualified and successful infant school teacher.


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