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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): My son is educated in a class with more than 30 pupils and I have no complaint about that; he receives a perfectly adequate and proper education. My fear is that, once requirements are laid on the school to provide for smaller classes, that will make it a target--a marginal school, in the eyes of the education authority--for closure.

Mr. Willetts: That is a good point, which I hope to turn to later in my speech.

One of the reasons why we wanted this debate is that there is widespread concern among teachers, people in local education authorities and parents about the implications of this policy for parental choice. The Minister regularly asserts simply that he can implement this policy with no reduction in parental choice, but assertion will not do. He has to provide the evidence to explain how it is possible to implement this policy without any reduction in parental choice. There are popular schools that have been accepting children, even though it will take their class sizes above 30. It is impossible to implement the Government's pledge without parents, whose children could have been educated by teachers who believed that they could deliver high-quality education in schools that were getting high-quality Office for Standards in Education reports, not being able to get their children to those schools.

I have studied the documents that the Government have sent to local education authorities on this; the outline regulations are out for consultation. The Minister, or his officials, asked for much information from LEAs. They say that the information to be provided must include:


They also ask for the


    "arrangements LEA is making for circumstances where there is no suitable school within reasonable distance".

They expect LEAs to answer an impossible question. How can LEAs develop plans that will always be consistent with the enhancement of parental preference, where there is no suitable school within reasonable distance of a popular school that is over-subscribed and has been taking classes of more than 30? What the Minister is doing is asking LEAs to deliver a variety of inconsistent objectives.

Last week, the Minister spoke at the conference of the Council of Local Education Authorities in Derbyshire; I was there myself. After he had given his now standard performance, when he says, "I can absolutely assert that there will be no reduction in parental preference," the LEA conference promptly passed a motion that "constraints on parental preference" are essential to reducing class sizes, so it did not find him very persuasive. The chairman of a Labour-controlled education authority--Lewisham--said:


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The Minister failed to persuade his own allies in local government that he could credibly assure them that there would be no reduction in parental choice, and we all know why. There are popular schools that are taking children in classes of more than 30 and where there is no practical scope for building new classrooms. It may not be physically possible. They are going to have to turn away parents, when they would have been happy to educate their children.

However, it is not just a matter of the constraints on parental choice. What will happen about mixed-age classes? The most serious work that we have had on the implications of the Government's policies has come not from the Department--all that we have had from the Department and the Minister have been assertions and questions--but from Coopers and Lybrand, for the Local Government Association. It says:


That is not a Conservative spokesman speaking. That comes from the most expert review of the subject, carried out for the Local Government Association.

Just at the time that the Government are going to force more pupils into mixed-age classes, their commitment to literacy and numeracy has been described by Ofsted as requiring that there be fewer mixed-age classes, and that children be taught with children of as close an age to them as possible, and at a similar stage of development. Therefore, the Government are not going to be able to deliver their pledge without making it more difficult for teachers to deliver their literacy and numeracy targets.

Ministers sometimes say that at least the parents who get their children into classes of under 30 will gain, but they are unwilling to say what will happen to the number of teaching assistants. They do not appear to realise that schools are funded largely on a per capita basis. Telling a school that has been educating children in classes of 35 that it can have classes no bigger than 30 will result not just in five unhappy parents losing the school of their choice, but in the school having a smaller budget. Teaching assistants will be laid off, resulting in fewer of them supporting teachers. How does the Minister plan to avoid that?

There will also be heavy-handed intervention in the affairs of schools throughout the country. The Minister has talked about a light touch on the management of schools, but instead there will be remorseless pressure from the centre--another expression that Ministers have used from time to time. As the local education authority report said:


head teachers--


    "are handing back to the LEA the management and organisation of Key Stage 1."

To answer the intrusive and heavy-handed questions and deliver the requirements that Ministers have placed on them, LEAs will have to return to an old-style, command-and-control relationship with their schools, when one of the most healthy developments in British education in the past 20 years was a more sensible relationship between LEAs and their schools. The implementation of the policy will push that back.

There are many other questions that Ministers have to answer. Many of my hon. Friends are keen to ask those questions, so I shall not pursue detailed issues about,

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for example, children with special educational needs. For some extraordinary reason, the only serious exception to the pledge is that classes can be larger than 30 if they include children with special educational needs. Most of us would have thought that smaller classes were particularly necessary in such circumstances. I shall not ask about the distributional impact of the pledge, but it looks as though it will have the extraordinary result of shifting resources to more affluent areas, where larger classes are concentrated. Labour Members do not appear to understand that there is nothing in the policy for inner-city schools. It will give more money to Bromley; it has nothing for Tower Hamlets.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): How can the hon. Gentleman maintain that argument when, from September, 800 children in Warrington--which definitely does not consist of leafy suburbs--will benefit from smaller class sizes?

Mr. Willetts: The Coopers and Lybrand report clearly states that the policy will shift resources to more affluent areas. I am surprised that Labour Members have not considered the implications of their policy. If they had thought for a moment about where popular schools and larger classes were, the implications would have been obvious.

I saw an interesting story on the front page of The Daily Telegraph today, which may have had something to do with the Minister's preparations for this debate. It announced that there would be capital funding for 100 Church schools to deliver the class size pledge. There are 3,557 Church schools taking children in infant classes. An estimated 46 per cent. of those have infants in classes of more than 30. That is a rough estimate and if the Minister can improve on it, I should be happy to be corrected. Based on that estimate, there are 1,600 such Church schools. If he believes that his announcement of special assistance for 100 of them will go any way towards dealing with the widespread anxieties in denominational schools throughout the country about how they will be affected by the pledge, he has another think coming.

There are not many aided schools in my constituency. St. Alban's is a popular and well respected Church of England primary school, which has taken 35 children in each year hitherto. It has good Ofsted reports and the parents in Havant who want their infants to have a denominational education have only that school to opt for. The head teacher wrote to me, saying:


those are the surplus places that the Minister is so keen to get rid of--


    "but parental choice will be limited."

At the moment, those classes have one teacher and two teaching assistants. When I visited the school, I met some very despondent and confused teaching assistants, because one teaching assistant in each class would have to be sacked because of the reduction in the per capita funding to the school. That will be the reality on the ground when

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what began as an attractive pledge goes into law as a rigid commitment to be implemented whatever the practical implications for schools.

Since the Government launched the policy, we have heard no more than assertions that the problems that are widely feared in the educational world will not occur. We hope to hear more than assertions and talk about money tonight. We want to hear a practical example of what will happen to a popular school with a good Ofsted report that is taking 35 children, but does not have the physical capacity to expand. How will the pledge be delivered in that area without a reduction in parental choice or an increase in mixed age classes? The duty on the Minister is to offer a clearer and fuller explanation than he has done so far.


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