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4.45 pm

Mr. St. Aubyn: Will the Minister try to enlighten us by pointing to any research that suggests that the quality of teaching is improved if the class size is reduced from 31 to 30?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman was not listening. I did not say that a good teacher and larger or smaller

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classes were mutually exclusive. The Government are committed to a many-faceted approach to raising standards, partly by reducing class size, and also through good quality teaching. The two must go together. I agreed with the right hon. Member for Charnwood that a range of issues need to be addressed. Class size is one factor which, we believe, makes an important impact on the quality of education provided in infant schools.

We want a national scheme, and we make no apology for that. We do not want local variations in class size. We were elected on a clear pledge of classes of no more than 30 for five, six and seven-year-olds by the end of this Parliament, and we are on course to deliver that pledge. It will not be subject to local variations, but will be a national scheme delivered through local partners--through schools, Churches and local education authorities. Working through those partners, we will be able to deliver the pledge.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): The Minister is right to say that the Government pledged to introduce a national scheme to ensure that class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds would be reduced to a maximum of 30. Will he confirm to the House what the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), told us in Committee--that, at a national level, there would be no possibility of schools meeting the class size pledge for key stage 1 by increasing class sizes for key stage 2, or in any other way damaging the education of key stage 2 pupils?

Mr. Byers: The attraction of the method that the Government are using to deliver the pledge is that the money is ring-fenced and cannot be used for any other purpose. By ring-fencing the resources by way of specific grant, we can guarantee that every penny that we redirect from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme will be used for the revenue spending to employ more teachers to meet the class size pledge. We will be able to deliver for five, six and seven-year-olds and, because we are providing additional resources, that should not have a consequence for seven, eight and nine-year-olds, as we are dealing with key stage 1.

Mr. Foster: The Minister has perhaps not been quite as robust in his response as the House would have liked. Will he give an absolute assurance that no school will be allowed to introduce the class size maximum of 30 for key stage 1 in a way that is to the detriment of pupils in key stage 2, either by increasing their class sizes or by any other method?

Mr. Byers: I am disappointed that I have not been robust enough in my response--I will have another go and I hope it will be better this time. Delivering the pledge will affect infant classes of five, six and seven-year-olds and we will provide the resources for that. There is no need, therefore, for children at key stage 2 to be affected adversely.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said--and I am happy to confirm--that we will monitor closely the way in which schools use the new regime and we will see how it affects key stage 2 pupils to make sure there are no adverse consequences. We will look carefully at the local management schemes--which the Secretary

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of State approves--to make sure that no attempt is made to use money for key stage 1 by diverting resources away from key stage 2 pupils.

Mr. Dorrell: Is not the reason why the Minister cannot give the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) the assurance he seeks that, although he says it is the Government's intention specifically to grant the extra money to provide for five, six and seven-year-olds, the Government have no machinery for ring-fencing the budget that is not specifically granted--that is, the whole of the budget currently spent on those pupils? The Government can specifically grant, and therefore ring-fence, the extra money, but it is still open to a school or LEA to withdraw money currently used for five, six and seven-year-olds to use elsewhere. The implication of targeting in the Minister's remarks is something which the Government cannot deliver.

Mr. Byers: The right hon. Gentleman chose to ignore my final point, which was that there is a safeguard. All local schemes for management, and the delegation of budgets to schools, have to be approved by the Secretary of State. If, within that regime, a local authority seeks to divert resources from key stage 1 pupils--and uses the additional specific grant as an opportunity to do it--it will be thrown up as part of the local management scheme.

I can assure the right hon. Member for Charnwood that the Secretary of State will not approve a local management scheme that tries to achieve those objectives. In approving a local management scheme, the Secretary of State will be exercising a power inherited from the previous Administration, who gave Secretaries of State precisely that power.

Some play was made of the importance of religious education and the concerns that Catholic or Church of England schools might not be able to meet parental preference. I did not hear from the right hon. Member for Charnwood or any of his hon. Friends the views of the Church education authorities. The reason we did not hear their views is that the Church education authorities support the Government's policy on class size reductions.

There have been attempts to try to get the Church authorities to express concerns or reservations about the policy, but that has not happened because they fully support the Government's pledge to reduce infant class sizes. The Church authorities support the policy, which they know will be implemented in a way which takes account of their concerns and views. That is why it is important to deliver the pledge through the LEAs, the Church authorities and the schools themselves.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) rose--

Mr. Byers: We will not wait until the end of this Parliament, which was the pledge--we will start delivering from this September. We will start in constituencies in Devon--such as that of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)--where we

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will spend £1 million from this September on reducing class sizes for 6,100 five, six and seven-year-olds. I hope that she will welcome the Government's action.

Mrs. Browning: If the governing body of a Church school had any concern about numbers--for example, the 31st child, siblings and so on--is it correct that the Church authority would have a veto on the matter?

Mr. Byers: It will be for the admissions authority to trigger the additional resource that would follow on from the 31st child. We made the point in Committee that, whether it is a rural school or a popular school, we will take steps to ensure that if there is a 31st child, additional resources will follow to ensure that parental preference is not denied. The additional teacher will be made available. Therefore, the school will be able to ensure that the class will have 30 or fewer children. That will apply across the board, not just in rural areas. We made it clear in Committee that we will ensure that the pledge is delivered in a way that is sensitive to parental preference. That is exactly how we intend to do it.

Mrs. Browning rose--

Mr. Byers: I shall give way once more, but then I must make progress.

Mrs. Browning: I am sorry to press the Minister, but it is important. Is it the case that, in such a circumstance, Church authorities have not been promised a veto? I shall be grateful for a specific answer to that question.

Mr. Byers: No one has been promised a veto on anything. That would be inappropriate. I hope that that answer satisfies the hon. Lady.

We have sought to work with the education service, and we intend to do that. As a result of our class size pledge and the way in which we intend to target resources, we can reduce class sizes and meet parental preference, which was not the case under the regime that we inherited from the previous Government. We are taking steps to ensure that we can do that not just for rural schools but for urban schools that might be popular and offer high standards. They will have the opportunity to reduce their class sizes.

The new clause seeks to deny hundreds of thousands of children in our country the benefit of the pledge that the Government made to the electorate in the run-up to the election on 1 May. We intend to ensure that we will deliver on our pledge.

The flexibility that the right hon. Member for Charnwood seeks to introduce is for higher class sizes. We reject that. We recognise the value of class size and the crucial part that it will play in driving up standards in our schools. We intend to deliver on our pledge, not from the end of this Parliament but from September of this year. Some 120,000 five, six and seven-year-olds will benefit from this September. By the end of this Parliament, 500,000 five, six and seven-year-olds will benefit because of the Government's commitment.

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The new clause is destructive. It will deny those opportunities, which is why I urge the House to vote against it.

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