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7.36 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The Conservatives' central charge is that the Government have failed to honour one of the key pledges that we put before the electorate in the run-up to the election. We take that as a serious charge, because we intend to honour and discharge our commitment to the electorate by ensuring that those pledges are met. I welcome the opportunity provided this evening--thanks very much--by the Opposition to outline how the Government intend to honour that pledge. I should like to go beyond that and explain how the pledge can be met by not just maintaining, but enhancing, existing parental preference, and how the implementation of the pledge will ensure that we can deliver on our standards agenda. We believe that smaller class sizes help to improve the standard of education. That stands in stark contrast to the assertion of the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that there is no correlation between class sizes and educational achievement. I shall outline why we disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that.

The motion talks about

The hon. Member for Havant made little reference to exactly what we pledged. The Labour party manifesto says, on page 7:

    "We will reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 or under, by phasing out the assisted places scheme".

Our pledge card, which every loyal Minister keeps in his or her top pocket, says almost exactly the same:

    "Cut class sizes to 30 or under for five, six and seven-year-olds by using money from the assisted places scheme."

That is the pledge. We made a clear link between the phasing out of the assisted places scheme and the reduction of class sizes.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Is the Minister telling the House that there never was a commitment to fund

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class-size reduction solely from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme? The House will recall some of his earlier remarks suggesting something very different.

Mr. Byers: I shall come to the timing of the delivery of the pledge. The hon. Gentleman will see that we always intended that it would be delivered by the end of the Parliament. The additional resources provided as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget, particularly the £40 million capital, enables the pledge to be delivered early. That is why the additional resources are necessary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would support the Government in providing additional spending in order to deliver on the pledge.

Mr. Foster indicated assent.

Mr. Byers: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government in our efforts to reduce class sizes.

We felt that it was important to demonstrate how revenue spending on the assisted places scheme could be used to employ more teachers and to reduce class size. That is exactly what the pledge states, and that is exactly what we shall do--showing that the Government act for the majority of our children and not just the few.

It is worth reminding Conservative Members that the assisted places scheme provided independent sector places for 38,000 young people and that the revenue from phasing it out will provide smaller classes for nearly 500,000 five, six and seven-year-olds. That is a clear demonstration of the Government's priorities, which are in clear contrast to policies of the Conservative party, which represents the vested interests of the few--that is its historical role--but denies good quality opportunity to the majority.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I find it rather bizarre that the Minister is accusing us Conservatives of standing up for the vested interests of poor children in the inner cities, whom I see being denied places in schools such as Manchester Grammar and William Hulme. I am quite happy to be accused of standing up for their vested interests. I thought that the Labour party used to try to stand up for such vested interests. It is clearly now failing to do so.

Mr. Byers: We do. The great difference is that we believe that those children should be provided with good quality education in the maintained sector and should not have to rely on the independent sector. Our view is that we can make far better use of the more than £100 million of public money a year that was spent on the assisted places scheme.

Mr. Brady: Will the Minister give way again?

Mr. Byers: I want to make some progress.

We could not phase out the assisted places scheme by Executive action; we needed primary legislation. Once in office, we acted with speed and commitment to introduce the Education (Schools) Bill, which phases out the assisted places scheme and releases the money spent on it so that we can use it for the benefit of far more young people. Within 21 days of the general election,

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the Education (Schools) Bill was published and given a First Reading. The Second Reading was on 2 June, and Royal Assent was given on 31 July. It was one of the first Bills to reach the statute book under this Government.

As a result of the fact that the pledge was about phasing out the assisted places scheme--which required legislation--and using the liberated money to benefit the majority of our young people, the first element of the money will not become available until September. That was made very clear--

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Byers: I want to make this point. The earliest time at which the money released from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme, which is to be devoted to, and ring-fenced specifically for, cutting class sizes, can have an impact is September. In September, it will have an impact.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Will the Minister confirm that the abolition of assisted places was only a money-saving measure? Does he therefore accept the amendment that was passed in the House of Lords, with cross-party and cross-Bench support, which will allow schemes such as that in Surrey to go ahead? That scheme does not have financial implications, but it will benefit the education of children in the county that I represent.

Mr. Byers: I am still awaiting details of the Surrey scheme. I have on several occasions asked the hon. Gentleman and the director of education for them, but still have not seen them. I await with great anticipation this much-vaunted Surrey assisted places scheme. When I see it, I shall judge it accordingly--not on dogma but on its practical realities and implications.

From September, £22 million will be available as a result of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. That money will be used to employ 1,500 more teachers, ensuring that more than 100,000 five, six and seven- year-olds will be taught in classes of 30 or fewer. Such benefits do not extend just to the leafy shires, as the hon. Member for Havant implied. Nine thousand youngsters in Derbyshire and 8,900 youngsters in Lancashire, as well as those in places such as Gateshead and in inner-city areas throughout the country, will benefit as a result of our class-size reduction proposals.

More money will come on stream. Next year, £61 million will be used specifically for reducing class sizes. In 2000, £80 million will be used, and by September 2001, when the pledge will be delivered in full, £100 million will be available from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. Of course, many local authorities and schools will benefit before September 2001. It is crystal clear that the pledge will be met--and under the terms that, clearly, were put to the electorate.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Byers: I want to move on to the issue of parental choice. I want to address square on the very important point raised by the hon. Member for Havant.

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The class-size policy could be implemented in a way that would be detrimental to parental choice. The thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Havant was that popular schools would be forced to turn children away, and that empty desks at less popular schools would be filled. If that were the intent, the policy would merely be an administrative shuffle of children around the system. Such a policy would have very limited or no cost. We would not need the £100 million in 2000 from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. We need that money because that is not the way in which we shall go about matters. We shall target the money that is released from the assisted places scheme--as well as the extra money that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has got from the Chancellor on capital for this year--on schools that are popular with parents.

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