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Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have had a brief conversation to determine whether we can recall any correspondence from the hon. Gentleman requesting a meeting and we are unable to do so. My hon. Friend and I have a good record on meeting hon. Members from all parties when meetings are requested. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to us--I do not remember receiving any correspondence from him, but I shall check--I am sure that we will treat his request as sympathetically as possible.

Mr. Amess: I take the Minister's words in good faith, but three days ago--this is a little embarrassing--my secretary received a call from the diary secretary to one of the Ministers to say that a meeting was not possible. As the Minister expressed his view at the Dispatch Box I felt it necessary to respond, but I take what he said in good faith and I should be grateful if he will meet some of the headmasters in my constituency.

I end by reiterating my main point about all the nonsense that has been said about saving money on the assisted places scheme. Labour Members know only too well that the Government may want to reduce class sizes--which I think will be impossible, given that our playgrounds are already overcrowded, not to mention the issue of choice--but from where will the money come? The Chancellor keeps telling us that he is relying on the previous Conservative Government's spending plans; then he says that there is to be a three-year strategy that will be more draconian. I want to know where the money will come from. Frankly, many people in my constituency feel that, under this Labour Government, they will not be able to afford children.

9.12 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), who unfortunately is no longer in the Chamber, put his finger on the issue when he distinguished between opposition and disingenuous opposition. Tonight, we have heard a great deal of the latter from the Opposition Benches.

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The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) referred to the year zero mentality of Conservative Members. I thought that they were more like a collection of Rip Van Winkles who have slept through the last 20 years and now suddenly discovered all these new ideas. I had hoped that, when the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) spoke, we would hear some opposition to that argument, but I could not find much of that in his speech. He said that the Conservative party understood that parents wanted their children to be educated in smaller classes, but there was precious little evidence of that while the Tories were in government. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, those of us who served on the Standing Committee saw much evidence of confusion and outright schizophrenia. I thought that schizophrenia had been confined to the previous members of the Conservative Front Bench, but it has clearly been inherited by the present incumbents.

I understand that, in some quarters, the hon. Member for Havant bears the epithet "two brains". I had always assumed that that referred to his outstanding intellectual capacities, but clearly one brain is there to operate pre-1997 and the other post-1997. By that process, the two brains, rather like something in an H. G. Wells story, are able to proceed on their way without any conflict, but, unlike in science fiction, this problem has not just dropped from the planet Zog. As has been said, the build-up of class sizes has been strong and remorseless. In 1988, 804,000 children in the five to seven age range were being educated in classes of more than 30; by 1997, the figure had risen to 1,344,000. It is instructive to ask ourselves why. What series of factors over that period produced such a rise?

In 1994 and 1996, Professor Neville Bennett of the school of education at the university of Exeter prepared an interesting report on class sizes in primary schools. It was a large survey and took into account the perceptions of head teachers, chairs of governors, teachers and parents. It is interesting to recall what some respondents to that survey said about the then Government and their policy on class sizes.

One head teacher said:

the previous Government--

    "has a policy (unstated) to increase class size. LMS determined budgets for schools, this was rate-capped and therefore budget was reduced. The last pay increase had to come from the budget. The only way to pay for this was by reducing staff."

Another head spoke of

    "teachers in primary schools disadvantaged by a historical funding system which mitigates against smaller classes and non contact time--both sorely needed but not possible under present funding".

Another reason for the increase in class sizes was the previous Government's severe attitude to local authorities that were trying to raise their game and raise educational standards. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who is in her place, can give eloquent testimony of the problems that Lancashire county council experienced in that connection.

The previous Government hampered local authorities; moreover, they gave no thought to expenditure to improve the infrastructure that might support initiatives to reduce class sizes. They gave no thought to the number of

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classrooms that rapidly became unusable, to the number of classrooms that were prefabricated or to the continuously lengthening list of necessary repairs.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the increase in class sizes is the fact that the previous Government gave no thought to it because, as hon. Members have pointed out, too many of their own children were not educated in that system. As a result, they had no first-hand experience of the problems that were building in the primary school sector.

Thankfully, the Government have begun--speedily, as Labour Members have said--to remedy the problem. From September, £22 million will be made available to 65 local education authorities. They include my new unitary education authority in Blackpool where, from September, 1,000 pupils will be kept out of classes of more than 30 as a result of the taking of money from the assisted places scheme.

No sensible hon. Member would argue that it is easy to institute a policy of lower class sizes. There is a complex structure of schools. In my constituency there are 1950s or 1960s schools, where it would be relatively easy to implement the pledge, and schools where space will be a problem. That is precisely why the Government have not gone for a knee-jerk process of implementation, but are ensuring that the policy is implemented in a way that will not restrict parental choice. Tonight, the Minister gave a detailed and thoughtful list of the criteria that will be used. The wide range of schools also explains why the Government have given £40 million extra to build 600 additional classrooms in 1998-99, and why LEAs have been given searching and penetrating targets to institute their own strategy this autumn.

In implementing our strategy, we must take every care not to restrict parental preference. The Government have made a strong and competent start and they deserve more than the Conservatives' knee-jerk reactions and schizophrenia. No Labour Member would argue--as some Conservatives have attempted to portray us as doing--that reducing class sizes is the be-all and end-all of education policy. A measured examination of what the Government have done in early-years education shows that that policy is only part of a raft of measures. My education authority has benefited from the new class sizes initiative, but not only that. We have benefited from an above average rise in education standard spending assessment; £73,000 for reducing class sizes; £24,000 for the national learning grid; £19,000 for literacy; and a total of £1.5 million of extra allocations for 1998-99.

Those funds underline the holistic approach that the Government have taken to early-years education policy, and the pledge on class sizes is an important element in achieving those policy objectives. The Conservative motion therefore deserves to be rejected--and rejected decisively.

9.19 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): As I said in an intervention earlier in the debate, I should like to nail as an untruth, or at least as a misapprehension, any statement that Opposition Members have not before spoken sensibly or in a balanced manner on education issues. Many of us, like Labour Members, have a long history of being involved in education--as teachers, governors and members of local education authorities--

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and, of course, we acknowledge that class size is a factor and an issue in judging the quality of teaching and learning. The crude caricature of Opposition Members drawn in this debate by Labour Members does them far less justice than it does us.

Three calumnies were preached--I use the word advisedly--by Labour Members in the run-up to the general election. The first was that class sizes were at an unprecedented level when the previous Government left office. That is certainly not true. Class sizes were not at an unprecedented high. Figures clearly show that secondary school class sizes, for example, were higher in 1978-79 than they were in 1996-97. The numbers were about the same at primary school level.

The truth is that--largely because of demographic and birth rate factors, not because of Government policy--class sizes dipped in the 1980s. I should not claim Conservative credit for that dip, any more than Labour Members should claim that the Conservatives deliberately increased class sizes through the 1990s as a matter of public policy. Such a claim simply does not bear scrutiny. The full history of class sizes--not over 15 or 20 years, but over 50 years--suggests that not public policy but demography, population growth and the birth rate have been the major determinants of class sizes, both in the primary sector and the secondary sector. However, no Labour Member has mentioned that fact in this debate.

The second calumny was that class sizes were the single most important factor in teaching and learning--in a child's educational progress. That is not borne out by the facts or by a wealth of research. Even those who take the most pro-Government perspective in educational research would argue that class size is only one of the key factors that affect a child's educational progress and the nature of teaching and learning. The truth is that the relationship between class size and educational success has as much to do with teaching and learning methodology as with anything else.

The key factor of methodology has been mentioned in this debate by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who spoke about experience in Switzerland, and by me in my intervention in his speech when I spoke about the far eastern experience. There are a range of views on the importance of class sizes, just as there are a range of teaching methods. There are adherents to and protagonists of each of the different perspectives.

The third calumny preached by Labour before the general election was that a Labour Government would quickly--immediately--do something about class sizes. Let us be absolutely clear about that pledge. Labour Members have told us today that it was always clear that it would take five years to reduce class sizes, but I remember that during campaigning before the general election Labour party campaigners told electors--Labour party candidates who are now hon. Members may have said the same--"Your child will be better off, because your child will be in a smaller class."

Today, we have heard that many of those who currently have children in primary school will not benefit because--in the Minister's own words--the pledge will not come to its full fruition until 2001. We are talking largely about the next generation of children benefiting. That is hardly an early pledge. It is at best an early pledge delayed; at worst, it is a medium or long-term pledge in

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respect of many children's life experience and educational progress. I fear that parents will judge that harshly against the propaganda that preceded it.

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