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29 Jun 1998 : Column 78

Class Sizes

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): I must point out that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.14 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I beg to move,

We have tabled this motion because we are still waiting for the Government's first annual report on how they have performed since they were elected on 1 May 1997. In particular, we are still waiting to hear from Ministers an account of how they have performed in respect of their five early pledges, which not only appeared on the credit cards that were distributed to the electorate, but were even stamped on coffee mugs distributed at the Labour party conference. One of those pledges was on class sizes. If the annual report were being produced by a company, that company would soon be in breach of its statutory obligations--the report is so delayed that the company would soon find itself hauled before the courts.

We hope to see the Government's report soon, and we hope that it will explain why, despite the pledge to reduce class sizes, the number of children studying key stage 1 in classes of more than 30 has gone up since the election and why the number of children in primary schools in classes of more than 30 has gone up since the election. That is exactly the opposite of the pledge on which the Government were elected.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way--I mean the shadow Minister. Does he accept that local authorities have not beenvery co-operative, especially Conservative-controlled Cambridgeshire which was allocated an extra £9.5 million by the Government to spend on education but failed to do so? Indeed, £1.6 million of it was allocated to other services. [Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who is sitting immediately behind the hon. Gentleman, will confirm what I have said.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend the Member forSouth Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) was saying that Cambridgeshire was spending above its standard spending assessment. I do not have my hon. Friend's expertise on Cambridgeshire, but had the hon. Lady been at the annual conference of local education authorities last week, as I was, she would have heard LEA members of a variety of political persuasions agree on one thing--that it was not practical to deliver the Government's pledge on class sizes, something to which I shall return in a moment.

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The Government's record compares unfavourably with our record. When we left office, a smaller proportion of pupils was taught in classes of more than 30 than when we came to office in 1979.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Rubbish.

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Lady shouts "Rubbish", but I assure her that these are figures from the House of Commons Library.

Ministers' response to the embarrassing predicament of twice having to announce increases in class sizes was to say that they were going to bring forward the delivery of their pledge. Previously, the plan had been that it should be delivered by 2002. As evidence of how serious the Government were about delivering it, they said that it would be delivered in 2001. However, when the electorate were voting for an early pledge, they did not believe that "early" meant 2002. People do not seriously believe that delivering it in 2001 means delivering it earlier than they had been led to expect by the Government.

For Ministers now to say that there is no prospect of delivering their pledge until 2001 is a failure to deliver on the expectations that they were happy to excite among the electorate in order to get themselves elected. Their interpretation of "early"--namely, that they made the pledge early on, not that it will be delivered early on--is not an interpretation that one single member of the electorate ever understood.

What are the Government going to do about delivering their pledge? The Department for Education and Employment will have to make every effort to ensure that the Government can retrieve the position after the embarrassment of their first 15 months in office. What will their efforts to deliver this pledge mean in practice?

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): In Norfolk, it will mean that 1,000 pupils who would have been in classes of more than 30 will not be. Could we have a better debate than we had this afternoon--a debate on the facts? Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that that very pledge card said how the pledge would be delivered and that the Bill to abolish the assisted places scheme--the Education (Schools) Bill--was among the first Bills that this Government introduced? It is obvious that, until we have delivered on that, we cannot spend the money.

Mr. Willetts: All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that--I have the copy of the relevant page of the Labour manifesto here--it was described as an early pledge, and I do not regard delivery in 2001 or 2002 as an early pledge. It was also described as being financed by using money saved from the assisted places scheme. We have already seen the new deal money for capital expenditure raided because it was clear that the assisted places scheme was not going to be able to raise enough money to deliver the pledge, so it does not seem that the Government are in any way sticking to the assurances that they gave before the election.

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The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers) rose--

Mr. Willetts: I will give way to the Minister, and then I shall try to make some progress.

Mr. Byers: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because, like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), I hope that the debate can be based on facts. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that not a single penny of the new deal capital money has been used for the reduction of class sizes? Additional resources, provided by the Chancellor in the Budget of March this year--an extra £40 million--were made available, but that is over and above the new deal money that was announced in July last year. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the case?

Mr. Willetts: This is, admittedly, a murky area, but what we seem to have is, first, money from the abolition of the assisted places scheme not being sufficient to finance the delivery of this pledge, for the simple reason that the pupils who would otherwise have participated in the assisted places scheme still need to have an education. They do not disappear off the face of the earth, which seemed to be the basis on which the Labour Government were working. Secondly, we have had some new deal money from the capital allocation and, thirdly--I am happy to concur with what the Minister has just said--the Chancellor has found extra money on top of the assisted places money and on top of the new deal; that is further money which was announced in the Budget. The Government are unable, on the Minister's own words, to deliver the pledge by using simply assisted places scheme money.

Mr. Byers: On the facts--and the record will show that the hon. Gentleman said that the new deal money had been raided to fund the reduction of class sizes--will he confirm that that is not the case, but that a further £40 million has been made available over and above the new deal money to support the reduction in class sizes? Therefore, there has been no raid on new deal money.

Mr. Willetts: We are getting bogged down here. Of course the Minister is correct to say that there was a further £40 million in the Budget, but it was on top of the money from the abolition of the assisted places scheme. It was made clear that one of the purposes that the Government wanted the capital expenditure under the new deal for schools to go on was reducing class sizes, so the Minister is having to raid three pots, rather than financing the policy simply out of the assisted places scheme. That seems to be the position.

What we are now going to see is the slow and painful process of a shift from what seemed to do well in the focus groups. I am sure that there are parents throughout the country who want their children to be educated in smaller classes; of course we understand that that is what parents want. It became a pledge, but now it is in the process of becoming a law, and soon it will be unlawful to carry out active education in a class of more than 30.

At that point, the problems will begin. Something that is, indeed, desirable as one of the many ways in which to raise educational standards will instead become the be-all and end-all of education policy. Parents throughout the

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country who would have liked the idea of their children being educated in smaller classes will find themselves paying a very high price for a rigid, obsessional commitment to delivering that objective, to the exclusion of all the other things that can deliver high-quality education for our children.

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