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Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman represents a seat in Lincolnshire, I think. This September, 900 five, six and seven-year-olds in Lincolnshire who will be in classes of 30 or fewer would have been in larger classes had the previous Government remained in office.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister will acknowledge that I did qualify my remarks. Although I said that not all children would benefit, I then hesitated and said that, to be fair, some would. However, many of the people who voted Labour on the understanding that their children would be better off will not benefit. Many parts of the country will not see an improvement because, as the Minister acknowledged openly and fairly, the pledge will not be implemented in toto until 2001. That does not accord with the impression given during, or the marketing used by the Labour party before, the election. That is why people are coming to the hard, and arguably fair, judgment that Labour has not lived up to the expectations it created.

I was about to talk about omissions from the pledge. One was the trade-off between class size and choice. We know that many large classes are the result of children being admitted to a school as a result of an appeal. It usually happens at the most popular schools, for obvious reasons. Burgeoning classes stem from the extension of choice--parents want to get their children into a particular school because of its reputation and record.

Inevitably, there is a trade-off between class size and choice. One has to make a political and educational judgment: is it more important dogmatically to put every child in a class of fewer than 30, or to place more emphasis on choice?

Mr. Brady: Would my hon. Friend care to reflect on the contradiction in the fact that the Government appear to have understood the importance of choice by accepting our policy of league tables for schools, but that, by capping numbers in classes of five, six and seven-year-olds, they are limiting choice? That limitation will not only affect parents; it will stop the good schools from dragging up the standards of the bad schools.

Mr. Hayes: It is even worse than that. My hon. Friend points out a contradiction, but there is an implicit reduction in local discretion. Local education authorities have to prioritise and, with governors and parents, they may decide to place more emphasis on factors other than class size. The Government's bland, blanket policy prevents them from so doing.

I had a state education and I have never had any parental connection with private education, contrary to the nonsense we heard from Labour Members. They talk as though the only factor that parents take into account when they choose to send their children to a private school is small class sizes. If that were the only basis on which private schools marketed themselves, they would do considerably less well. People are concerned about the quality of teaching, about leadership and about a school's ethos. Parental support is also a critical factor in a child's educational progress. Constantly focusing on class size dilutes the argument about those other vital factors and may even detract from their importance as issues to be considered in respect of the quality of teaching and learning.

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The figures speak for themselves. Class sizes have risen. I cited figures from the Library that are available to everyone and show that class sizes in the secondary and primary sector have risen under this Government. We may argue about why that has happened. It may be said that the Government cannot proceed with their pledge on class sizes quickly enough as there are other priorities, or that this matter is not so important to them; in any event, average class sizes have increased, but to dwell on averages is in itself deceptive. If we look at LEA-by-LEA comparisons, Labour LEAs are worse. Class sizes in Labour LEAs are typically greater. That raises questions about the historical record of those LEAs in prioritising class size. As hon. Members will know, there is nothing to stop an LEA directing money towards that goal.

Mr. Gordon Marsden: I accept that there will be variations, but will the hon. Gentleman accept--this is borne out by the allocations for this autumn--that many of the Labour LEAs to which he refers have those figures precisely because they are in areas of deprivation and need?

Mr. Hayes: LEAs in areas of deprivation and need could have chosen to place greater priority on class size and to transfer money to subsidise, if you like--in the way that many LEAs subsidised nursery education as that was discretionary expenditure head--smaller class sizes. Many LEAs have chosen not to do so, but the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point in that LEAs are particularly poorly off because, as he will know, the largest classes tend to be in the most popular schools, and the most popular schools are frequently not in Labour LEAs, for obvious reasons.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I wonder whether my hon. Friend would be interested to know that the average class size in Islington is smaller than in the Oratory school.

Mr. Hayes: I do not want to draw unnecessary attention to the fact that the Prime Minister is a highly privileged man who chooses to send his child to a highly privileged school, rather than the local comprehensive. I do not want to repeat that and would not do so, so I shall move swiftly on, but I also find it slightly distasteful that we have a Prime Minister with no background in local government or of using the state sector; he went to a private school with all that entails.

The hon. Member for New college, Oxford and Harvard--the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden)--speaks as though he is one of the people's champions. I note that his interests are mediaeval history, theatre and other, equally arcane, matters--not football and real ale--so when he speaks as the people's champion we have to treat that claim with a certain latitude.

The other omission from the Labour party's account before the election was the issue of the difference between schools within LEAs. Labour LEAs' failure to deal with surplus places means that a number of very small schools--some people would argue unviable schools--with relatively small classes, which are not necessarily the best or the most popular schools, are distorting the average. I should be interested to hear the Minister say in

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her summing-up how we reconcile this class size policy with the issue of surplus places, and how surplus places are to be dealt with in this context.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I give just the example of Gloucestershire, where schools such as the hon. Gentleman has described existed and the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment refused to take action.

Mr. Hayes: I am afraid that I cannot give that intervention the credit or indeed attention that it deserves because my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) was speaking in my ear and, as I am very deaf, I did not hear it all. However, in the spirit of the Minister, when he was dealing with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), if the hon. Lady writes to me, I shall deal with her intervention fully.

Class size is a factor in children's educational progress, but it is not the most important factor. The debate continues. The jury is still out on how important class size is. The important thing about this debate is that the Labour party, now the Government, raised expectations about immediate action on class sizes which it has failed to deliver--indeed, it has been thwarted. The British people are extremely angry that Labour has disregarded those expectations in its priorities.

9.34 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Tonight's debate has been characterised by Tory hypocrisy. That has been clearly demonstrated by the assertion that we are choosing between smaller class sizes and good teaching. This Government offer both. When I was the leader of a local authority while a Tory Government were in power, we battled against cuts in revenue and capital, we battled to stop class sizes rising, we battled against cuts in resources and we battled to keep open opportunities for pupils in access to the arts, basic standards in education and discretionary grants in further education.

We are offering smaller class sizes where it matters most, in infant education, and expanded opportunities for all. That is the beginning of a new era. I congratulate the Government on the splendid start that they have made. I condemn the hypocrisy of the Conservatives. I hope that they learn over the next few years, as the nation gets the benefit of expanded education opportunities for all.

9.35 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): The Government

Those are not my words or the words of my hon. Friends, who have made such excellent contributions to the debate. They are not even the words of Conservative councillors. They are the words of Gavin Moore, the Labour chairman of education in the London borough of Lewisham, speaking last week at the conference of the Council of Local Education Authorities, which was reported on Saturday in The Times in the following way.

    "Parental freedom to choose a child's school must be constrained if class sizes are to be reduced, Labour councillors said yesterday.

    The election pledge made by Labour last year to reduce primary class sizes to under 30 pupils . . . will be impossible to achieve if parents have the right to decide which school their child attends, the councillors claimed."

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The Minister dismisses the words of those local education authorities. They are the words of people who will be responsible for delivering the Minister's pledge at local level. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made clear, there is real local concern about the practical implications of putting the pledge into practice.

It is not surprising that the Minister for School Standards dismisses local education authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) pointed out, the Government are taking away local decision-making powers and centralising control in the hands of the Secretary of State.

The Minister dismissed the concerns of his Labour colleagues in local government, saying that the issues were administrative and managerial, but they are not. The concerns of councillors are about whether children can attend the schools that they and their parents want them to go to, but the issue is about more than that; it is about the quality of education that children receive in our schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) referred to the only analysis that has been carried out on class sizes--the Coopers and Lybrand report commissioned by the Local Government Association. Coopers and Lybrand talked to LEAs, head teachers and governors about their concerns. On the opinions of head teachers and governors, the report says:

The report goes on to talk about where the policy might have a negative impact:

    "At Key Stage 2 (or other Key Stages) if the development causes resources to shift towards Key Stage 1 at the expense of other Key Stages

    at Key Stage 1 and 2 if the policy causes a change to mixed age teaching . . .

    at Key Stage 1 if non teaching classroom assistants are withdrawn . . .

    at schools in areas of social deprivation if the policy causes a shift of resources towards schools in more prosperous areas."

I recognise that the Minister may dismiss the Coopers and Lybrand report because it was commissioned by local government, and he has no interest in and no time for local government. Perhaps he will take some interest in the findings of research undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, which surveyed head teachers' concerns about the practical implications of the class size pledge. The survey said:

    "While supportive, in principle, of class size reduction, headteachers were concerned that fixed limits for key stage 1 classes . . . could produce three unwelcome and, they felt, adverse outcomes: the creation of more mixed age (vertically grouped) classes, even larger key stage 2 classes, and a reduced capacity to employ classroom assistants."

In other words, the pledge will hit the quality of education that children receive in the classroom.

The point about the impact on key stage 2 classes was made very clear to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), when she appeared in front of a number of teachers in Derby, as reported in

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Friday's Derby Evening Telegraph. When repeatedly challenged on the subject of overcrowding in junior schools, she replied:

    "Our current priority is to fund key stage one and we don't have any plans to deal with key stage two at the moment."

In other words, children over the age of seven will suffer as a result of the Government's pledge on five, six and seven-year-olds.

All that the Minister for School Standards did in the debate was constantly to assert that parental preference would not be affected. Yet, when we got to the subject of what decisions the Secretary of State will take, we were told that he must consider only whether local education authority plans have "due regard" to parental preference--not whether it is affected. That is not a pledge to parents who are worried that their choice will be restricted as a result of the Government putting their pledge into practice.

Earlier, the Minister for School Standards refused to give the following pledge. In responding to the debate, will the Under-Secretary pledge that no parent will have a child--be they five, six or seven years old--turned away from the school of their choice due to the class size pledge? Will she also pledge that no parental appeal will be turned down on the basis of class size? We await her response to both those specific questions.

It is clear from the debate that the Labour Government's pledge was ill thought out; it was not properly planned. It sounded good, and fitted on the pledge card, but Labour did not know how it would be put into practice. It is clear from the Minister's refusal to answer all the specific questions put to him that he still does not know how the Government will put the pledge into practice.

The hon. Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) referred to attacks of amnesia. The brief comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) implied the same. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) pointed out, Labour Members are the ones who have had an attack of amnesia.

The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) made a valiant attempt to protect his Front-Bench team--I sincerely hope that the duty Whip took due notice of his contribution--on the timetable of the pledge, by saying that there was absolutely no prospect ever that it would be met in the Government's early days. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Member for Waveney, and to the Secretary of State, who just seems to have confirmed that from a sedentary position, that if that were so, why did Labour Members tell the electorate that the pledge was an early one? That meant to the electorate that it would be met quickly. Now we hear that an early pledge is simply one about which they thought before any others. That was not what they said during the election campaign. They told members of the public, parents and teachers that there was an early pledge to cut class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. The public believed the Labour party and thought that the pledge would be implemented quickly.

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