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Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman is very selective in his references. Perhaps he would like to look at recent reports on the failing schools in Westminster before pointing the finger at Labour LEAs.

Conservative Members would have us forget that, before the Labour Government took office, we had 18 years of Conservative mismanagement of the education system. I am sure that the whole country would like to forget that, but it happened. Those 18 years left 477,000 five, six and seven-year-olds in classes of more than 30. During those years, pupil-teacher ratios rose consistently and the previous Government continued to deny that class sizes had any effect on education.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) rightly quoted the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who said:

Mr. St. Aubyn: Is the hon. Lady aware that, although there are large class sizes in Bromley, there are also outstanding academic results? That may suggest that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) knows what he is talking about in his own patch.

Helen Jones: Perhaps it suggests that the right hon. Gentleman had not read the research.

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In Committee on the School Standards and Framework Bill, Conservative Members appeared to change their stance. The right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) said:

That was backtracking on previous comments. Conservative Members felt no guilt in government, because they were conscious of no obligation. Never once did they express any outrage about what was happening to children in our schools.

It is possible that the sinners have repented, and I believe in the possibility of redemption--although that belief has been sorely tested by daily contact with the Conservative party in opposition--but if they had learnt the error of their ways, why did they oppose the Bill to abolish the assisted places scheme and use that money to reduce class sizes? Why did they consistently argue that the money should be spent on a small minority of children, while children in constituencies such as mine continued to suffer large class sizes? Why did they table amendments that would have made the pledge on class sizes totally unworkable? It is no use their posing as defenders of lower class sizes now, when they sold the pass a long time ago.

By contrast, the Labour Government not only desire the end, but are prepared to put in place the means. The Conservative party found reasons why class sizes should not be reduced, but we are prepared to build for success, because we believe that many of the problems in our schools stem from a failure to devote enough resources to the education of very young children at the beginning of their school life.

I taught not in primary but in secondary education, but I believe strongly that our policy of reducing class sizes is a key part of raising standards and that money put into the education of children at the beginning of their school life will pay dividends later and prevent many of the problems that secondary school teachers now deal with. The Government are delivering on their commitment.

In my town, 800 children in what is not by any means a leafy suburb will find themselves in smaller classes in September because of money put up by the Government. That is the effect for a single local education authority in a single town. My hon. Friend the Minister has made it clear that £22 million will go to the rest of the country in September, to keep 100,000 pupils out of oversized classes. Opposition Members have opposed that at every possible stage.

In future, there will be more money. The £40 million in capital funds to be allocated to schools has already been referred to, but there will be £100 million from phasing out the assisted places scheme by 2001-02. We are determined to use that money to reduce infant class sizes, and to ensure that LEAs will not be able to do so in any way that restricts parental choice. LEAs will have to expand popular schools that have high standards, and we have consulted them on the best way in which to do that. We are no longer prepared to tolerate the failure that existed under the previous Government, when half our 11-year-olds failed to reach expected standards in English and maths, and when the reading standards of seven-year-olds were falling.

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Research in the United Kingdom and in the United States has convinced us that lower class size in the early years is a key factor in raising education standards and allowing children to acquire basic skills. Parents know that. Teachers know it, too. The only people who do not appear to know it are the Opposition, whose decisions in government gave us the large class sizes that exist today, and which our Government are reducing. That is the difference between the Conservatives and Labour. They favour lower class sizes for those who can buy their way out of the state system, while we favour lower class sizes for all our children. For too long, children suffered a second-class education under Tory Governments, so that they were destined to be second-class citizens.

Most Opposition Members do not use the state education system. If large class sizes are not good enough for their children, for whose children do they think large class sizes are good enough? The Opposition's motion is a piece of political chicanery, and an attempt to dodge the consequences of their past actions. The people will not be misled. I urge the House to vote against the motion.

8.32 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I bring bad tidings for the Minister from my constituency. Since the class sizes debate began, I have visited my local schools as a Member of Parliament, and as a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, and I have not once heard a positive welcome for the Government's policy on reducing class sizes. At one school, I was told that if class sizes must come down, the library will have to be used as an extra classroom, removing a resource available to the entire school. Another school fears that the reduction in class sizes will use the money that has previously been put into a reading recovery programme.

At the school in the village where I live, we opened a new porch in the school entrance only the other day--built with money that the Government were not responsible for finding; it was raised by the efforts of the local community. That school hopes to raise class sizes, and I asked whether the class size policy would help the school by encouraging more parents to send their children there, which would raise the numbers to 30. I was told, however, that the policy would not help the school; in fact, classes of more than 30 would be welcome as more resources would go into the school, and could be directed towards the children who most need them.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) told us of his recent trip to Zurich. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and I also made that trip, and what the hon. Gentleman did not mention was that during 18 years of Conservative Governments here, the difference in income between the people of Switzerland and the people of the United Kingdom narrowed. People in Switzerland used to have a per capita income 60 per cent. higher than that in the UK; now it is barely 20 per cent. higher. The trend of the past 20 years has been one of economic success for the UK, which is why people in Zurich are looking to our education system to learn lessons for their own system.

We went to Zurich in a spirit of cultural exchange, intending to learn from the Swiss, but we found that the Swiss were interested in learning from us. What is more, in order to produce an education system closer to ours,

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they were prepared to contemplate an increase in their class sizes. Class sizes are not regarded in isolation in any other part of the world. It is a great mistake to do so here.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the Opposition's position on reducing infant class sizes? In government, the Conservatives increased class sizes. In opposition, they voted against the means to reduce class sizes. Their motion equates the reduction of class sizes with a reduction in educational standards. Will he clarify their position?

Mr. St. Aubyn: I hope to get across to the small class of Members here tonight the message that the education system will be damaged if the Government isolate one aspect of policy and make it an overriding priority. It is, of course, desirable to have smaller classes, but all education research demonstrates that unless very low sizes--well below 20--are achieved, there is no significant impact on teaching. There are other ways in which the ability and strength of a school can be improved. Lower class sizes are clearly desirable, but they cannot be sought in isolation, at the expense of other important matters.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): We have heard many times of the hon. Gentleman's support for the assisted places scheme, which he wants to continue in special form in Surrey. Does he support that scheme so that a few people can seek desirable small class sizes in private schools?

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