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Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that I spent many years as a county councillor and always acknowledged that class size was a factor. Would he agree, however, that it is most important for children with special needs? If so, does he agree with the Government's exemption from the pledge of children with special needs?

Mr. Blizzard: Class size is a factor in all types of education, mainstream and special needs. The point is that unless the Government take steps to do something about

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class size, nothing will happen. That is what happened for 18 years under the Conservatives, when class sizes never came down.

Mr. Hayes: It is time to nail this one. Class sizes were at their peak in 1978; Library figures show that they were higher then than in 1997. I seem to recall that we had a Labour Government in 1978.

Mr. Blizzard: It is easy to come up with all sorts of figures, depending on the starting and finishing points.

The Conservative conversion to the cause of smaller class sizes has now vanished. The right hon. Member for Charnwood and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton have disappeared from the Front Bench. I have to say that we questioned their conversion at the time, when amendments were tabled to ensure that no movement was made on class sizes. One incredible amendment was designed to enable parents to choose whether to put their child into a class of 30. The result would have been that 30 parents could choose the legal-sized class of 30, but the 31st parent could come along and insist on a class size of 31. That is a good example of the sort of amendments that we had to put up with in Committee.

The revised Conservative policy evidenced in the motion is that smaller classes are desirable, but that nothing should be done about that. At the time of the Standing Committee's deliberations, my survey of my constituency showed that we had 25 classes of six and seven-year-olds containing more than 30 pupils--involving a total of more than 800. Thanks to the new Act, that will change during this Parliament.

As in Committee, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has again expressed his strong vision for education. He asked the Minister some probing questions about how the Government's plans will be implemented, but he was very weak on the specifics of his own party's plans. When he began describing Liberal policy back in 1947 or thereabouts, I thought he was going to say that his party put an old penny on income tax for education--but had since made progress because that was 1/240th of a pound whereas now 1p is 1/100th of a pound.

I read in the local press this week that the Conservatives have begun to listen to the electorate. Indeed, the local paper announced that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) had turned up in my constituency while I was at Westminster--he made page 63 of the Lowestoft Journal, which shows just how successful his visit was. Had he really listened to parents in my constituency, he would have heard them asking not why smaller class sizes were being imposed but when it was their turn to have them. For as long as the Conservative party refuses to listen, it will remain unpopular, because people do not like a disingenuous Opposition.

8.57 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who made his case well--although that does not take much doing because there can be no doubt that, under the Labour Government, class sizes have increased. I do not doubt the sincerity of Ministers, but I profoundly disagree with their approach to this and other policies.

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I am sick to death of attending in the Chamber and listening to Labour Members talk about the 18 years of Conservative government. Essex county council has been controlled by the Conservatives for only seven weeks and the leader of the Labour party jumps to the Dispatch Box and blames them for all ills, but, after 15 months of a Labour Government, no one seems to want to take responsibility.

When hon. Members speak, they tend to draw on their personal experiences, which is what I shall do. First, I shall talk about my experience as a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Byers: What--about Basildon?

Mr. Amess: If the Minister wants me to talk about my former constituency and what the Labour party did on a private matter relating to education, I shall be happy to speak publicly on the subject. In the years that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have taken a great interest in education matters--

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): In Basildon.

Mr. Amess: Yes, in Basildon. It should be to the eternal shame of the Labour party that when my wife and I decided to send our son to a non-selective, not grant-maintained Church school outside my former constituency because there was no such school in the constituency, the then former Member of Parliament for Basildon, who was at that time the leader of Havering council, decided to make a big issue of the matter and to interfere with our private lives, yet several people who now have responsibility in the Government send their children to highly selective schools. The Minister attempts to chide me about Basildon, which is now represented by two Members of Parliament, one Conservative, one Labour, but he and other Labour Members should ensure that they are better informed than they appear to be at the moment.

As I was saying, I take a great interest in education and in the schools in my constituencies, past and present. I go around schools all the time. If Ministers think that the public are pleased with what they have done in education for the past 15 months they are very wrong. Only weeks ago, not in my constituency, but in the London borough of Bexleyheath, the Conservative party won by-elections, and Bexley is now controlled by the Conservatives. I am informed by the chairman of the education committee, Mrs. Sharon Massey, that education was a leading issue on the doorstep. In May, we took seats from both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.

I also draw on my experience as a teacher in a primary school in the east end of London dealing with children with special educational needs. That is why I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) had to say about the need for class sizes for children with special educational needs to be limited to 30. In addition, while I realise that Labour Members think little of playing politics with their own children--the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) shakes her head, but I can assure her that the Labour party in Basildon did exactly as I described earlier--I have five children, all in state schools, so I am deeply involved in and conscious of their experiences.

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I represent the constituency of Southend, West. At Question Time a few weeks ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), said that there was no problem with the size of classes in Southend and that we had spare capacity. She is quite wrong, and I shall prove that shortly. All the classes and the schools in my constituency are full, and what is happening in Southend is a disgrace.

Southend is controlled not by the Conservative party, but by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party working together. That is why I was appalled by what the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said about education. The Labour party's promises have not been borne out and the Liberal Democrats' claptrap at the general election about the 1p on income tax to be spent on education will never be borne out. They have controlled Essex county council for the past four years and they should be ashamed of their record. At the moment, they control Southend-on-Sea borough council.

All schools in Southend are operating at full capacity. A document written by the Conservative spokesperson, Mrs. Sally Carr, says:


That is what the council has decided, which is stating the obvious, but when the Minister replies, will she tell us how on earth schools in Southend will achieve that? There is no room for Portakabins. All our classes are full--they have more than 30 pupils.

I know that some hon. Members were laughing at my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn). Someone said that he is an old Etonian. My hon. Friend represents a constituency and he is entitled to give his view on behalf of his constituents. I thought that he made his case very well. Is it the case that, under this Government, if one happens to be a Conservative Member, the people one represents do not count? I hope not.

In Southend, 25 per cent. of schools have classes in excess of 30 pupils and that proportion will rise over the next year. I shall give three examples. At Prince Avenue school, which is in a challenging catchment area, the average class size for key stage 1 is 32 and increasing. The head teacher is already having to turn down pupils for next September, and many of their mums and dads are coming to my surgery. At Westleigh junior school, the average class size for key stage 2 is 32 and increasing. In year six, there is even a class of 37 pupils.

I raised the subject of Westborough school with the Minister a few weeks ago. With 800 pupils, it is the largest primary school in Essex. I sought a meeting with the Minister for School Standards about the issue, which I shall come to at the end of my speech. The school is so crowded that there is no room for any more children and the head teacher does not even have an office from which to operate. The average class size is 33 and the largest class has 35 pupils. There are four mixed classes. At present, the school can afford to employ some teaching assistants to help staff, but it will be unable to continue to do so if class sizes are decreased and alternative funding arrangements are not found.

Westborough, which is in a very challenging part of my constituency, has an acute funding problem. I had a long chat with the headmistress this afternoon. The chairman

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of the governing body is a Liberal and the chairman of the education committee in Southend. The headmistress and the governors do not know where the money will come from. When the Under-Secretary winds up, will she tell me--if she does not have the time, she can write to me--what is the solution to the problem of those three schools in my constituency?

In Essex local education authority area, 13,805 key stage 1 pupils and 28,850 key stage 2 pupils--40 per cent. of the total--are in classes of more than 30.

Although one or two sedentary interventions began to exercise me a little, I said at the outset that I did not doubt Ministers' sincerity--and they are courteous in dealing with correspondence--but it is galling that whereas, under the previous Government, I was able to bring representatives--the head or deputy head--from every school in my constituency to meet the Secretary of State, I am now told that I cannot have any sort of meeting with any Minister because they are too busy. That is deeply disappointing, especially as the Government tell us time after time that they are listening to the people. They are jolly well not listening to those whom I represent in Southend, West.


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