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4.30 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We seem to be working in synchronicity and I hope that I will continue to be in tune with your wishes as I speak briefly in support of the new clause.

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friends in commending new clause 8. Many of the hon. Members present have just finished considering the Bill in the Standing Committee and I think that most would agree that it was an exemplary Committee in that it was constructive and Opposition Members did their best to help Ministers to arrive at better legislation.

The new clause is a classic example of how the Opposition are seeking again to assist Ministers and ensure that they avoid a damaging pitfall. The rigidity and inflexibility that the Bill would enshrine in law would cause the Government major problems, as they would be held responsible for the chaos that would ensue. There would also be problems for local authorities and schools throughout the country.

More important, the Bill would impose enormous problems on parents, who would lose an element of choice. Their choices and decisions would be limited and restricted by the legislation, and their choice of school would be narrower. In many areas, there would be difficulties in meeting parents' educational requirements.

Our suggested new clause would provide the discipline that the Government reasonably seek to introduce in requiring an average class size of a certain level and it would certainly enshrine in law the principle of aiming for lower class sizes. It would also allow some flexibility, which would be a major improvement and would help the Government to avoid some of the embarrassing difficulties that they face in the years ahead if they do not accept it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) referred to some of the difficulties that would arise with the Government's inflexible proposals, such as difficulties with siblings and for people with a preference for denominational education in Church schools, which could not be met because of rigid class size limits. The Government must bear in mind the fact that for many parents the most important factor in deciding where their child should go to school is its religious character. No Government should have a right to ride roughshod over that choice and deny parents the freedom to choose a denominational education. The Bill risks doing so.

For many parents, it is important that their children should be able to attend their local school. Often, it is a matter of practicality for the family, especially when both parents work. In that case, it can be vital to send children to a school close to home.

While the Minister may have given some serious reassurance to rural schools--we wait to hear whether that is the case--as a Member representing a suburban

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constituency, I must press him further on the criteria that he would apply in allowing extra funding to popular schools in urban and suburban areas that reach the class size limit. It is not good enough merely to say that a school that feels that it may reach or breach the limit would be able to apply for a grant to increase the size of its premises and the number of teaching staff to accommodate the extra need. We need to know what criteria will be used, and whether a popular school in a suburban or urban area will always be given the funds promptly to allow for expansion to meet parental choice.

As Labour Members who served in Committee will know, I represent an area which is fortunate in the quality of its schools. I am most concerned about the impact of the Government's proposals on popular schools--I am in the fortunate position of having to defend the popularity of the schools in my area, which attract many applications from outside their catchment areas and even the borough boundary. Any reduction in the choice that is available to parents who live just over the boundary in the Manchester metropolitan borough council area--they are not my constituents--is a serious threat, which would be to their detriment.

The Bill is flawed; it betrays an arrogant belief that the Government know better than parents how to choose schools for children, and better than schools and local authorities what is right for children. It puts ahead of parental choice and responsibility the notion that Ministers should set public priorities that will apply throughout the country, regardless of particular circumstances. The new clause would improve the Bill and it would help the Government to avoid embarrassing difficulties in the future. I very much hope that the Minister will accept it.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): What my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) has said is entirely consistent with reality. The recent league tables show that Cheshire and Staffordshire are two of the counties that achieved tremendous school results. There is a remarkable symmetry between what has been going on in those counties, which are, to a great extent, rural counties.

From time to time, I have had to fight very hard within the Staffordshire county council educational framework to ensure that the rural schools in my constituency have been sustained. Indeed, I pay tribute to the county council, which has pursued a policy of ensuring that rural schools survive, even though they may have class sizes well below the numbers that are being promulgated at the moment. Such schools perform an immensely important function in sustaining the rural community. It is not realistic to set arbitrary limits that will prevent rural schools, particularly infant schools, from surviving.

I thoroughly support new clause 8, which would guarantee arrangements to ensure the preservation of schools that should be preserved. The Government are in power largely as a result of the support--which I think was misconceived, as the Bill betrays--that they received from people in rural areas in the general election last year. If the Government want to maintain that support, they should listen to the arguments that are being advanced by Conservative Members.

Rural schools are vital to a community's sense of identity, as was demonstrated by the Countryside Alliance only 10 days ago. Although the alliance's main objectives concerned other questions relating to rural areas, schools are fundamental to rural communities.

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It is essential that we ensure the survival of rural schools, even if they are undersized. I hope that the Minister will show due regard to the significance of those schools, and ensure that the Bill's measures will do nothing that would lead to their being closed. If the Government make a mistake on this, they will pay the price in the ballot box.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, or is it the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Cash: Certainly not.

Mr. Willis: It was a Freudian slip. The hon. Gentleman's day will come. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. Why, during the lifetime of the last Conservative Government, were more than 450 small rural primary schools closed? That was unprecedented. More were closed under the previous Government than under any Government since the war. Is there a response to that?

Mr. Cash: The short answer is that I said that I was not always right. I do not believe that I ever am. Part of the argument was that there was a problem, and many rural schools were closed under the previous Administration.

The argument that I address to the new Government, because they are the Government, is that they should have regard to the importance of sustaining the rural communities. It is essential that rural schools are maintained. It does not matter what happened in the past. The key question now is what the present Government intend to do about it. Rural schools must be sustained, even if they appear to be undersized. If the rural communities are at stake, I look to the Government to respond.

Mr. Byers: I shall be asking the House to accept Government amendments Nos. 79 and 80. As the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said, we discussed similar amendments in Committee. My recollection is the same as that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) moved an amendment to change "may" to "shall". Parliamentary counsel has had an opportunity to examine the important drafting issues raised by those two amendments and has agreed that is appropriate to change "shall" to "may". That is all that amendments Nos. 79 and 80 do.

Amendment No. 79 imposes a limit on class sizes and places a duty on the Secretary of State to limit them. Amendment No. 80 says that the Secretary of State "shall" pay grant for the purposes of reducing class size.

I hope that all hon. Members will be able to accept the two Government amendments, which reflect a discussion in Committee in which there was broad agreement. I am pleased that we can start off the Report stage on something that the whole House can accept and that we can reflect the positive spirit of the proceedings in Committee. That is probably as far as it goes; I shall be asking the House to reject new clause 8.

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Before I come on to the detail of the new clause, may I say that I listened carefully to the points made to the hon. Member for Stone, who has been a doughty campaigner for schools in Staffordshire for many years. Some exciting work is going on in Staffordshire to harness new technology to benefit rural schools. We can build on that nationally. It will enable children attending rural primary schools to have a breadth of education experience which, in days gone by, might have been denied to them. New technology will provide the opportunity of a good standard of education to children in schools in Staffordshire and throughout the country.

I hope that, later tonight, we shall discuss new clause 13, which deals specifically with protecting rural schools threatened with closure. Hon. Members were right to raise concerns about the effect of class size policy on rural infant schools in particular. If it is handled badly, it may also affect schools in built-up and urban areas. I shall go through the steps that the Government intend to take and the safeguards that we shall put in place to make sure that the difficulties to which right hon. and hon. Members have referred simply will not occur.

Before I deal with the Government's approach, I shall say a few words about new clause 8. The right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) said that a degree of flexibility with regard to class size was vital. The flexibility provided by the new clause would allow larger classes--up to 35--with all the problems that have been mentioned. The intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) made the point well; any cut-off may create difficulties. Whether the limit is 35 or 30, we must put in place safeguards and mechanisms that ensure that we do not create difficulties such as the denial of parental preference, which has been referred to during this short debate.

We recognise that class size is not the only factor affecting good quality education. The class can be small, but if the teacher is bad and poorly prepared, the quality of education will not be satisfactory. We need to take steps to ensure that we have good teachers in every class in every school.

A good teacher will be helped by a smaller class size. That is why we need a combination of policies. It is not merely a matter of saying that we want to raise standards and we will do that by reducing class size. That will not be enough. The reduction of class size policy must be seen alongside steps to improve teacher training, to provide greater access to literacy and numeracy materials in schools, and to improve the environment through our capital programme and the new deal for schools. All those measures will ensure that, in a variety of ways, we can drive up standards in our schools.

In that context, reducing class sizes in the infant years will play an important role. The number of five, six and seven-year-olds in classes of more than 30 has risen dramatically over recent years.

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