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Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers: I want to make some progress.

In reducing class sizes, we have the support of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, who said in 1996:

Ofsted's class size report--

    "looked at whether there was any connection between the number of children in the class and the quality of education. With early years, that is 5 to 7 years of age, we agree: there was a connection."

He gave some advice, saying:

    "And we think"--

Ofsted thinks--

    "that if this government"--

that was the Conservative Government--

    "or any subsequent government is going to find more money it ought to invest that money in early years education."

That is exactly what the Government are doing.

That stands in stark contrast to the Conservative Government's approach. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), said that there was

The hon. Member for Havant, in that little red book entitled "Why Vote Conservative?", states that

    "there is little evidence of any correlation between class size and educational achievement."

It would be interesting to know whether he still holds that view. We did not hear during his contribution whether that was the case. Now that the hon. Gentleman speaks for the Conservatives on education matters, it would be helpful to know whether he still subscribes to the view that he expressed in that pamphlet.

Mr. Willetts: I shall tell the Minister how this can be resolved. All that the hon. Gentleman needs to do is to publish the results, school by school, of the national curriculum tests at the end key stage 1, and in the same information publish the class sizes in those schools. That would finally resolve a question about which educationists

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have different views. I should be happy if the Minister cast some light on that subject, but, so far, he has refused to publish the information.

Mr. Byers: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that he still subscribes to the belief that he expressed in "Why Vote Conservative?" That will be one of the numerous reasons why people will not vote Conservative--they see a clear link between class sizes and standards.

The Government believe that cutting class sizes will not, on its own, be enough to raise standards in the way that we want--if the hon. Gentleman said that, he would be on far stronger ground. From September, there will be a revolution in primary and early years education. At long last, there will be a place for every four-year-old whose parents want it. A daily literacy hour will be introduced as part of our £50 million national literacy strategy. All primary school teachers will receive in-service training on how to improve the teaching of basics. Those in teacher training must follow a new national training curriculum in English and maths, so that they, too, will be effective in teaching the basics.

The Tories were in power for 18 years, but did absolutely nothing to tackle the scandal of ever-increasing class sizes--indeed, they presided over year-on-year increases. Hundreds of thousands of our children were the innocent victims of the Tory Government's neglect and indifference. Now, the chapter of increasing class sizes is coming to an end. This September will be a new beginning. There will be 1,500 extra teachers and hundreds of additional class rooms, so that more than 100,000 infants will be in smaller classes.

Let the House be in no doubt--we are on course to deliver our pledge on class sizes, and we shall deliver it in a way that will enhance parental preference and play a key part not only in raising standards in our schools, but in ensuring that education becomes a valuable learning experience rather than a matter of crowd control. Our children deserve the best possible start in life, which means a high-quality education--under this Government, that is exactly what they will have.

8.1 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Like the Minister, I, too, found listening to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) somewhat surreal. It was almost as if he was trying to persuade us that 1 May 1997 was year zero and that nothing had existed before then. He seemed to be saying that the Conservative party of 1998 had no connection with those nasty Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s, and that any similarity was purely coincidental.

We must remember what the Conservative Governments did--everything that Conservative Members have said tonight, and their apparent concern about class sizes, will not wipe away that record. In particular, we must remember that, in their final years in government, the Conservatives presided over year-on-year increases in class size--indeed, in every year of the Major Government, class sizes continued to rise.

The Minister was uncharacteristically unkind to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). He will recall the leaked memorandum

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that she sent to her Cabinet colleagues, in which she begged for money, saying that if schools did not receive more resources, class sizes would continue to rise. Of course, her request was rejected--there was no additional money for schools, so class sizes continued to rise.

It was no surprise that the Conservatives showed no real interest in class sizes. We have heard the views of the hon. Member for Havant, but we should not forget that Conservative Ministers expressed similar views. I am sure that the House will recall the comments of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who said in 1994 that

I hope that at least one thing has become clear from this evening's debate--that we all agree that class sizes really matter. Recently, I was fortunate enough to join a number of my colleagues from the Education Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, on a visit to the canton of Zurich. We were impressed by much of what we saw, but what impressed us more than anything else was, I think, the impact of small class sizes on educational output.

Mr. Hayes: I do not disagree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he at least acknowledge that, in other parts of the world, such as the far east, schools with class sizes much larger than those in this country achieve equally strong educational success?

Mr. Foster: According to some statistics, that is true--in some countries, children are crammed into classes and can still achieve reasonable results in some tests of their ability. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the quality of education must be measured on something more than reasonably good raw scores in basic tests.

In the canton of Zurich, we were able to see the educational benefits that small classes could bring, as classes there were almost always of 20 or 22--they were certainly never more than 25. The Liberal Democrats have long recognised those benefits, which is why we have long advocated a reduction in class sizes. Indeed, the House may be interested to know that I was born in 1947--[Interruption.] I know that that is surprising. I was particularly interested to find out what the policies of one of our predecessor parties--the Liberal party--were in that year. At the 1947 party conference, a resolution was passed that claimed:

We have a long track record of believing that class sizes should be reduced.

The House will also be aware that, at the general election, Liberal Democrats committed themselves to class size reduction. Indeed, we went further than the Labour party. We proposed, and explained how we would fund, class size reduction for pupils not only in infant classes, but in junior classes. We believe that all primary school pupils should have the benefit of smaller classes.

The Government propose to reduce class sizes for the approximately 500,000 children in key stage 1, who will, of course, benefit from that. However, the trouble with that proposal is that it will leave, in England alone,

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more than 800,000 pupils in key stage 2 in classes of more than 30--indeed, many tens of thousands will be left in classes of more than 35. We believe that those children, too, deserve a better deal.

Sadly, the Labour Government, because of their adherence to the previous Government's spending plans, have been timid in their response to the educational problems created by large class sizes--indeed, they could have started to reduce class sizes earlier. Unlike the Conservative Government, they have at least started to take action, which we support, but they seem to have been concerned--I have heard nothing in this debate to allay my fears--only about whether the headlines are right, so that they receive credit for class size reduction; they have not done their homework on the details. As a result, a number of problems are coming to light. I shall not repeat the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Havant; I want to raise other questions, to which I hope the Minister will give some answers when she winds up.

Evidence that the Government have not thought this through can even be found in the pilot scheme. The House will recall that, in September, local education authorities were invited to bid for the standards fund grant 5 moneys as pilots for class size reduction. They were notified of the outcome in February, but were not notified until 20 April--with precious little time to get all the preparation done for implementation in September--that they would get the money for a whole academic year. From February until April, it was uncertain whether they would get seven twelfths of the money or money for the whole year.

Even now, the pilot authorities do not know whether--presumably subject to meeting some agreed criteria about which they have not yet been told--the money will continue into subsequent years. I hope that the Minister will listen and perhaps respond on that. Also, will they be allowed to bid for additional funds to reduce class sizes for pupils who are still in over-large classes?

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