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Dr. Turner: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dorrell: No, I have finished.

Dr. Turner: I tried in Committee--

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in support of new clause 8. In Committee, we had a lengthy discussion about infant class sizes. It is important to echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) in setting out the framework within which the new clause has been tabled. The Labour Government came to power last May having made a pledge that they would reduce infant class sizes. The figure given at the time was 30 and, although no figure appears on the face of the Bill, we understand that that is the figure which

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Government will put in the relevant regulations. We accept that the Government came in with that pledge and want to put it into effect in the Bill.

In Committee, we discussed the practical issues involved in trying to implement that pledge at a local level. I hope that the Government will think again about the issues, because it is not just the Conservatives who are raising them--head teachers and others have raised them with me when I have visited infant, junior and primary schools in my constituency. They talk about the problem of putting into effect a pledge to have only 30 in every infant class when the resources may not be available to fund extra teachers and put up extra classrooms. As we know, not every local authority is being given resources initially to meet the pledge.

4.15 pm

In some schools, including some infant schools in my constituency, it is virtually impossible to find space on the site for the extra classroom that would be needed if the pledge were put into effect with an absolute limit of 30. In new clause 8, we suggest that it would be preferable to introduce flexibility, accepting a limit on class sizes, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood made clear to the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), but providing a band within which a local authority may operate to allow for situations in which it is physically difficult to accommodate an extra classroom.

Our proposal would also enable extra flexibility on parental preference. I visited a school in my constituency on Monday morning. After a number of appeals went against the head teacher, she now has an infant class with 36 children. She is concerned about how the system will operate. Local education authorities will have to predict that they may have infant classes of more than 30 and put in a bid for funding to accommodate the extra teachers and classrooms that will be necessary. The Government will then decide whether the bid is appropriate, and the funds should be made available.

It is not always possible to predict when extra children will come to a school. If a number of parents move into a school catchment area during the year, the school may suddenly have more than the designated number of children, without the resources to cope with them. The local education authority will not have put in a prior bid and the extra resources to cater for extra classrooms and teachers will not be available. What will happen if the neighbouring schools also do not have room for the children? How will the local education authority cope?

The Minister was asked about that towards the end of the debate in Committee, when he brought back his proposals on funding. He did not answer the questions then. I hope that he will be able to do so now.

We are not suggesting that the Government throw away their pledge to limit infant class sizes. However, practical concerns remain--raised not just by Conservative Members, but by head teachers--about how that pledge can be put into effect, notwithstanding the Government's proposals on extra funding. There is concern about authorities that will not, in the first instance, receive extra funding. There is concern about whether the money available from the abolition of the assisted places scheme will be sufficient to accommodate the pledge in all the areas in which extra resources will be necessary--an argument of which the Minister will be very well aware.

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There is concern that tensions will increase between parental choice of school and the Government's decision to limit infant class sizes. New clause 8 does not do away with the concept of a limit; it suggests a degree of flexibility in LEAs.

Mr. Blizzard: In setting, in effect, a class size limit of 35, would not the hon. Lady, by her own argument, then face the problem of the 36th child--if that is deemed to be a problem?

Mrs. May: If any limit is set, there can be the problem of the extra child. Flexibility in numbers provides greater ability to accommodate children and enables greater parental choice in an LEA. There would be flexibility because some schools may be under the limit, while others are over it. I fully accept that the hon. Gentleman's point brings into sharp focus the tension between parental preference and class size. We have always thought that parental preference should be given a high priority--although it cannot be met in every circumstance. By providing extra flexibility, parental preference will more likely be met.

The Minister has not fully addressed the issue that I and others raised in Committee concerning the soon-to-be LEA--following the demise of Berkshire county council on 1 April--in my constituency. It feels that some parents would prefer their child to be in a class of, say, 31 or 32, but where there was a classroom assistant as well as a teacher, so that contact time with the child was increased, rather than their child being in a class of 30 or 29 in which there was only a teacher. That is exactly the sharp choice described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood.

The Government are placing everything on the class size limit and not taking into account all the other factors, such as resources available to an LEA, space available on a school site, the teaching resource and the availability of classroom assistants, who can be extremely important in an infant class.

Such factors, together with parental preference, should be given a higher priority in the Bill, which provides simply a single limit on class size. I hope that the Government will be able not only to respond to the points raised but to look again at the possibility of introducing a degree of flexibility, which accepts the concept of a limit but provides leeway for LEAs to help meet practically parental preference and other issues.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I sincerely believe that the Government's response to the new clause will be a good pointer to whether their interest in education derives from a genuine concern about improving the quality of education or from their electoral concern and a fascination with election slogans emanating from Millbank tower.

There can be no doubt that the pledge on classroom size was a very effective slogan; it worked very well for the Labour party. Now that Labour Members are the Government, they have to look at the reality. The reality is that not only Opposition Members but teachers, governors and parents are asking many questions about what the policy, strictly interpreted, will mean.

We support the goal of smaller class sizes. However, if the annual expenditure of £100 million alone--the Department has costed its policy at that amount--will

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unlock the key to a better education system, I am sure that the previous Government would have found the money to pursue such a policy. We increased education spending by billions of pounds--not just by £100 million--and, in doing so, we improved the standards and the quality of education.

On the other hand, as reported in The Times Educational Supplement, the present Government's policy has led governors to predict a disaster if popular schools are required to expand out of control. I believe that the Minister has boxed himself in by pledging that no child will be forced to attend a failing school. That commitment has been latched onto as a way of forcing the most popular schools to grow even further. As The Times Educational Supplement points out, there are many reasons why a school is popular. One reason is that it has reached an optimum size. If the Minister forces such schools to grow even further, he will reduce standards in those and in other schools.

As I said, we are in favour of smaller class sizes, and the new clause seeks to ensure that such an objective is interpreted broadly. In Surrey, we have small class sizes--the average is under 27 per class. We have always devoted additional expenditure, over and above the standard spending assessment, to early years primary schools. Therefore, we are entirely sympathetic with the Government's objective.

The new clause seeks to introduce some flexibility so that in an authority area where the average class size is 27, individual schools may have an additional eight pupils in a class. It is not a question of coping with an additional single child, but of introducing the flexibility to deal with an additional eight children. That is surely a significant difference.

The school in the village where I live has two classes of just under 30 pupils. The school is growing--indeed, it needs to take on more children in order to survive and pay its way. If that school is to survive, classes may have to include a 31st or 32nd child. Parents prefer to send their children to the local village school rather than braving the peak-hour commuter traffic to take their children to schools in the neighbouring village or in the main town of Guildford. Parents do not make that choice, because it would not be good for their children: it is better for children to be educated with their friends in the village where they are growing up. As a result of the Government's proposals, parents will no longer have that choice.

The bias towards smaller class sizes is based on research, but that research also shows clearly that only a significant drop in class size has an impact on educational achievement. No researcher in this area has proved that small variations in class size have any significant impact on the quality of education provided. The environment in which the child learns and the quality of teaching are far more important.

Curiously, during the passage of education Bills introduced by the previous Government, the present Ministers were the first to warn of "the dead hand" of bureaucracy, to use the words of the Minister for School Standards. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment said:


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    Yet the imposition of the rigid limit of 30 per class will impose a bureaucracy that will do "no good to anybody".

On the other hand, the wider objective in the new clause would mean that the benefit of lower class sizes could feed through, but without the damage that the Government's policy would inflict.


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