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Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of what the Minister has said. We already knew that the Minister could not multiply, but we have learnt that he cannot add up either. He told us that the saving from the assisted places scheme would be £100 million a year, but everyone who has examined the matter knows that it will be £40 million a year. The cost of his programme may be £100 million a year, and the cumulative saving after three years will be £100 million, but the Minister should check his sums carefully, because he has got them wrong again.

The abolition of the assisted places scheme, which, like many right-thinking people, I regret, has nothing to do with class sizes. The Government's class size priority will, as the Minister has admitted, cost a great deal more than the £40 million annual saving from the assisted places scheme. The cost of the new capital programme could not be announced until the Chancellor's statement--an admission by the Minister that he had put forward a policy that he did not know he could afford. The cost of that programme, and of reducing class sizes without significantly damaging parental preference or undermining the quality of teachers, will be a great deal more than will be saved from the abolition of the assisted places scheme.

It is significant that when the assisted places scheme was discussed in another place a couple of weeks ago, the Government's policy on having a say over policies on assisted places was cut down by one vote, with support from Cross Benchers and Liberals and not because of a resurgence of Tory backwoodsmen. In areas such as Surrey, where we have our own scheme which local

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people understand and can vote on, policy should be determined by local people. We should not have to justify it to the Secretary of State if we are not relying on additional central Government money to implement it.

Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Surrey scheme and said that people had been able to vote on it. Does he accept that the Government had an overwhelming mandate for their policy of reducing class sizes by phasing out the assisted places scheme, and that they have a duty to implement it?

Mr. St. Aubyn: No one is denying the Government's right to withdraw the £40 million cost of the assisted place scheme, but, on 1 May last year, the people of Surrey also gave an overwhelming mandate to the Conservative party to take back control of Surrey county council and follow sound Conservative education policies in the interests of Surrey. We object to the centralised control that lies behind both the new regulations on partnership schemes and the Government's class size plans.

We welcome any efforts to improve education. Smaller class sizes have a role to play, but, as we have heard already, in many ways the Government's scheme is too expensive and too costly, especially in terms of parental choice. How is it fair to tell parents with a child at a school that a sibling cannot go there because it would increase the numbers going into a class? How will the Minister respond? Will he say that he is prepared to sanction the building of an extra classroom in that school for siblings? Even if he were prepared to do that, at tremendous cost if it were done across the country, how could he possibly achieve it in time to deliver on his promise to satisfy the needs of those children? Many families' children will be split up or will have to travel further. Where I live and in my constituency, the problem of traffic on the roads when children are travelling to and from school will be accentuated by the Government's policy.

We have not yet heard where the extra teachers will come from. The Government have offered no incentive to teachers, and their golden economic inheritance means that there is greater demand for teaching skills in other sectors of the economy. With such a problem of teacher supply, about which our Select Committee has already warned them, how will the Minister deliver quality teachers? When I put that to the National Union of Students and the National Association of Head Teachers there was concurrence that teacher quality is as important, if not more so, than class sizes. Parents and teachers would rather have children in slightly larger classes taught by first-rate teachers than in mathematically correct classes that underperform because the quality of the teacher available is not up to the standard that children and their parents have a right to expect.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend develops an interesting line of argument. Does he accept that, contrary to what was said by the Minister, Ofsted acknowledged exactly that point in its comments on the issue in 1996? Ofsted said that class size was a factor, but not the sole determinant of the quality of teaching and learning; the Labour party, however, has irresponsibly created the opposite perception among our people.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have the latest Ofsted report. I read carefully its section

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on primary schools. In the priorities for action listed by Ofsted, there is not one mention of class sizes. There are important issues for our primary schools that should be addressed, but for the Government to be hung up on a soundbite--an early pledge that will be delivered late--is a betrayal not only of the children but of the trust that passed from our party to theirs on 1 May last year.

It is regrettable that, behind the smirks and self-satisfied looks of Labour Members, there have been no real answers tonight. We will leave the Chamber knowing that the Government are concerned only with presentation and not with the practical effects of their proposals or the high cost for the people whom I and my colleagues represent.

8.45 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): We all know that it is the job of the Opposition to oppose, but it is revealing that, on a topic of their choice on one of their set-piece days, only six of them have turned up to oppose. That is not strong evidence that the Conservative party feels strongly about the issue.

It is the job of the Opposition to oppose, but there is a difference between opposition and disingenuous opposition. What we have heard tonight is disingenuous opposition. Their first complaint was that the Government's pledge was not happening early enough, but they know, because some have served on education committees and, I hope, know something about schools, that the pledge cannot be implemented any quicker. They know that classes are set up at the start of each school year, and that only then can one alter their configuration. They know that the classes that children are in now--the ones referred to in the survey mentioned by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts)--are the same as those set up in September 1997, and the same as those planned and organised, and for which staffing arrangements were made, back in May and June 1997, based on the budgets of April 1997 set by the previous Government.

We have always made it clear where the money would come from. My hon. Friend the Minister read out from our plastic pledge card that it was always linked to the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. Last June, we discussed the Education (Schools) Bill, which received Royal Assent in July. That was a fast pace. We could not have moved any faster, but the dates did not permit activity on class sizes to fulfil the pledge until September 1998.

The Education (Schools) Act 1997 honoured the assisted places that had already been organised for September 1997. Do the Opposition now suggest that we should not have honoured them, but should have told the children that they could not take up their assisted places in 1997 because we had to move more quickly and wanted the money right away? If so, it is the very opposite of what they argued for during the passage of the Bill, when they tabled a raft of amendments to a short, seven clause Bill--the purpose being to slow down the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. They asked for more time, for more youngsters to be kept on until the age of 13, for more of everything. In short, they wanted to delay the implementation of the class size pledge.

I made my maiden speech during the debates on the Bill, and I followed the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), whose main point was that the Bill was being rushed through without enough thought

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being given to it. At the time, the complaint was that we were going too fast; tonight, the complaint is that we are going too slowly.

The fact is that there was no possibility of fulfilling the pledge in 1997: September 1998 will be our earliest opportunity. Would the Opposition have us disrupt classes in the middle of the academic year? If so, I wonder what parents would say. Alternatively, we could have put in additional resources besides those liberated by abolishing the assisted places scheme. Even so, taking action by September 1997 would have been extremely difficult--schools make their plans in May. In any case, we have heard time and again that the Opposition do not want any more money spent. They have argued that the whole idea should be called off owing to a lack of money from abolishing the assisted places scheme. Indeed, they have never argued for extra resources for education.

This September, we will see the beginnings of children benefiting from the Government's policy. That would never have happened under the Conservatives. The real horror for the Opposition, of course, is that they can see that the pledge is being acted on. They can see, too, that phasing out the AP scheme is delivering the money and that the pledge will be fulfilled. So they are trying to muddy the water by confusing people about the timetable for implementation.

The second example of the Opposition being disingenuous is that they are criticising the Government for allegedly not doing something with which they wholly disagree anyway. They spent years denying that class size had anything to do with education standards. Throughout their 18 years in government, I was teaching in the classroom. Nothing infuriated teachers, parents and pupils more than hearing various Conservative Ministers say that class sizes were irrelevant. The Minister referred earlier to crowd control. Anyone who has taught large classes knows that there are times when teaching feels like crowd control--and the way to control a crowd is to reduce its size. That is, after all, the selling point of the private schools.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) has said, we witnessed some spectacular somersaults by Conservative Members in Committee--I note that they are not here today. The new Tory move to suggest that class size did count was led by the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) and by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). Indeed, the right hon. Member for Charnwood said:



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