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Mr. Willetts: Will the Minister give a pledge that no parent will fail to get their child into the school of their choice as a result of his policy?

Mr. Byers: I shall come shortly to how the policy will not only maintain parental preference but enhance it. I hope to be able to demonstrate that to the hon. Gentleman in just a couple of minutes.

The School Standards and Framework Bill, which is before the House of Lords, will require local education authorities to draw up plans for the implementation of the class-size reduction pledge in their areas. Those plans must be submitted to the Secretary of State for approval. I can inform the House that the Secretary of State will not approve plans that fail to demonstrate that the LEA has given due regard to the exercise of parental preference. However, we want to go further. When submitting their proposals to reduce class size, LEAs should plan on the basis of enhancing the exercise of parental preference. What does that mean in practice?

First, no child should have to travel an unreasonable distance to school as a result of the policy. Secondly, surplus places in poor schools should not be filled by keeping children out of schools that offer higher standards and a better quality of education. Thirdly, where extra places are needed, they should be created in popular, over-subscribed schools with high standards that have been demonstrated by key stage 1 or key stage 2 assessment results--which might be valued added--or reports of the Office for Standards in Education.

Fourthly, and this takes up the point raised about the Church school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Havant, the proportion of denominational provision for any denomination shall not be reduced. Finally, local education authorities should seek to increase the proportion of provision in popular over-subscribed schools with high standards. Plans that fail to meet those criteria will not be approved by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Willetts rose--

Mr. Don Foster rose--

Mr. Byers: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

Mr. Foster: The Minister has told us that he is making these announcements to the House for the first time this

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evening. First, will he confirm that every one of the points that he has listed comes directly from the consultation document? Secondly, will he confirm that local education authorities were required to comment on that document by 12 June, only about two weeks ago? Thirdly, will he tell the House whether all those who responded to the consultation document said that it was possible to deliver what it contained? Did the consultation responses all support the particular points to which the Minister has referred?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have consulted on many of those points. The House should be made aware of them because they were not referred to by the hon. Member for Havant when he introduced the motion. The issue is whether we should go along with the views expressed as a result of the consultation. Some reservations are held in some quarters. There are some people, and no doubt some in local education authorities, who say that what we propose cannot be done. Will the hon. Member for Havant say why they say that it cannot be done? I will tell him why that is said; it is because what is proposed will interfere with LEAs' planning processes for places. It will make it more difficult. Yes, I accept that it will make it more difficult, but this Government are not about making life easy for local government; we are about delivering high-quality education for parents and children.

It was interesting that, yet again in a contribution from the Opposition Front Bench in an education debate, the interests of parents, children and high standards were not put first. Once again, we heard about the difficulties that would be experienced by local government. That is regrettable. However, we shall put the interests of parents and children first. We shall not cave in to the vested interests of local authorities.

I read with great interest the speech made by the hon. Member for Havant at the Council of Local Education Authorities, where he talked about the time coming for Conservatives to build bridges with local government. The hon. Gentleman said that things had changed and that the authorities could forget 18 years of local government being denigrated, with its powers reduced, by the Conservatives. He suggested that, somehow, there was a new dawn, a new renaissance for local government.

Mr. Willetts: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Byers: I will in a moment.

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there should be a new dawn in terms of central-local government relations. The relationship should be one of real partnership, a partnership that puts the interests of children first.

Mr. Willetts: I shall tell the Minister why we find ourselves in an extraordinary position. There is an improving relationship between Conservatives and local education authorities. That is quite simple; the LEAs cannot believe that the Minister is serious when he makes those assertions. The factor is not the self-interest of LEAs, as I tried to explain. The Minister cannot have been listening to me. He has not explained how he can deliver on his assertions when a school physically does not have the capacity to build more classrooms--many schools do

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not have the space to do so--and is currently taking children in classes of more than 35. The hon. Gentleman produces long lists of criteria, but he does not explain how, in practice, in the real world, they can be delivered. That is why LEAs, schoolteachers and parents are losing confidence.

Mr. Byers: As for losing confidence on issues such as reducing class sizes, the way in which the hon. Gentleman's political colleagues in the other place have tried to block legislation that will reduce class sizes is an example of measures that will continue to cause loss of confidence in the Conservative party. The hon. Gentleman's party is standing in the way of a desirable policy that parents want, which is a reduction in class sizes.

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman was scornful of the front-page story in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph about the fact that we intend to give money to Church primary schools to help them with their capital costs. For the first time--

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): How many?

Mr. Byers: I shall deal with the figures in a moment.

For the first time, a Government have been prepared to say to the Churches that, if it would help them, we shall fund 100 per cent. of their capital costs. That was never done under a Conservative Government. All right, it will involve 100 schools--actually, more than 100 when the announcement is made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Thursday. In any event, it will be 100 more than under the Conservative Government. That is the reality.

I agree that there are many Church primary schools with high class sizes. How many of them need capital money? The hon. Member for Havant did not address that in his contribution. He confused revenue, and the need for teachers, with capital. The reality is that the applications that we have received from Church authorities are being supported. The details will be made available on Thursday. It will be good news for many more than 100 Church primary schools, and they will be able to join in the crusade to reduce class sizes. I am sure that they will be delighted at that.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Will the Minister confirm that the announcement that will be made on Thursday on Church schools will be yet again a change in Government policy? In a debate in Committee on that specific point, when I challenged the hon. Gentleman on the resource implications for Church schools, he said that the Churches were quite happy because they would be able to meet the resource implications. We now find that they cannot meet those implications and that the Government will have to move in.

Mr. Byers: Unfortunately, the hon. Lady did not specifically refer to the dates of our exchanges in Committee. Off hand, I cannot remember them. However, I think that they would have pre-dated the Budget statement of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Therefore, I would have been unable to say--[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will wait for a moment,

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I shall let her know exactly what the Churches were invited to respond to. The letter that went out from the Department explained to the Churches that, if they wanted to, they could have the 15 per cent. made up by central Government, and that, if they chose not to, that was fine. It was a choice for the Churches themselves to make. The majority of them have responded positively to that choice, saying, "Yes, it is a Government initiative that we want to be part of in reducing class sizes." As a result, well over 100 Church schools will benefit from the additional capital that we are making available.

The reduction in class sizes should not be seen as a one-off step to improve the standards of education that we are offering. We believe that the reduction will make an important contribution. That is because we believe that smaller class sizes, especially in early years, make a difference to the quality and standards of education that can be offered.


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