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The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): Perhaps the hon. Lady will tell us whether the Conservative party is saying, as a consequence of its belief that the pledge was to be

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implemented by September 1998, that it expected the assisted places scheme simply to be stopped and no further children to be allowed to continue through it?

Mrs. May: Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to give a pledge now about whether the Government will implement their pledge within the life of this Parliament. Will the right hon. Gentleman give that pledge now?

Mr. Blunkett: Absolutely.

Mrs. May: The right hon. Gentleman says, "Absolutely" from a sedentary position. So we know that. Thank you very much.

When the Labour party unveiled its pledge on class sizes, when it distributed its pledge cards and when those who are not Labour Members campaigned on the doorstep, they did not provide any small print. They did not add any caveats to what they were saying. I see that the Minister for School Standards has to get out his pledge card to check whether there is any small print on it, just to remind himself of what it says. I note that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who will reply to the debate, has had to borrow the pledge card of the Minister for Schools Standards. I think that the hon. Gentleman said earlier that any self-respecting Minister made sure that he or she had a copy of it.

When the pledge card was produced, when Labour candidates went on the doorsteps during the election campaign, when shadow Labour Ministers in the previous Parliament were interviewed during the election campaign and prior to it, and when the now Prime Minister unveiled all the pledge posters and pledge coffee mugs, there was not any small print. There were no caveats. They did not say to parents that they would achieve the pledge only by taking away parental choice. They did not say to parents that it depended on where people lived as to how early--

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No. I must make progress.

Parents were not told that it depended on where people lived as to how early the pledge would be delivered. The Government did not say to parents that they would deliver the pledge only by increasing mixed-age teaching. They did not say that they would do it by taking resources out of key stage 2 so that those children would suffer from a lack of resources. They did not say that they would do it by reducing the number of classroom assistants. They did not say that they would achieve their pledge only by refusing appeals. However, those are the implications of putting the pledge into practice.

That is the reality and that is what will happen to parents and children throughout the country. They will find that choice is being taken away from them. They will find that other classes will suffer. Head teachers will say, as they say to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, that they have real concerns about the impact of putting the Government's pledge into practice in the classrooms. The reality is that the Government have failed to deliver on an early pledge, and they have failed to deliver the truth to the electorate.

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9.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris): I have spent three hours listening to the debate; I am a very disappointed person having listened to what Opposition Members have said. I am still not clear about what they really think about class size. I was in a Standing Committee earlier this year and I heard the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) say that

I thought that that was a conversion; I thought that Opposition Members had seen the light. I thought that today, we would see some sort of revivalist rally--some sort of coming-out celebration--where one Opposition Member after another would say, "Yes, we were wrong. We have seen the light and we have been converted." However, they did not say that. I do not believe that any of them, with the exception of the right hon. Member for Charnwood, has changed his or her mind about whether class size matters. It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman has gone off to think for the Conservative party; I can only hope that he will have more influence on the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) who, having taken over as shadow Secretary of State, has spoken in stark contradiction to what the right hon. Gentleman said in Committee.

Conservative Members may show empathy and say that they want to reduce class sizes, but, at every turn, and again tonight, they have spoken and voted against the means of doing so. Last July, they voted against securing the money and, last year, they opposed the Bill that would have made the reduction possible. Now that we are implementing our pledge, they are warning of imaginary obstacles.

To be fair--we always want to be fair--I must give Conservative Members some credit. There is a yawning chasm between even what they have said tonight and what they did when they had the chance to act on the issue. We have heard three hours of pious words, but they do not make up for 18 years of hopeless inaction. We have heard siren voices galore, but why were those same voices not raised when the Conservative Government were in office? Did we hear any Conservative Member protest when, year after year, class sizes rose? Did we hear a murmur from any of them when, just before the general election, the number of infant children in classes of more than 30 hit the 500,000 mark? More than 4,000 of those infants were in classes not of more than 30, but of more than 40. Given the Conservative party's record, can anyone take seriously what it says today about class size?

As if the Conservative party's preaching about class size was not audacious enough, we have had to put up with a lecture by the shadow Secretary of State on the fulfilment of election pledges. That is the big conversion of the night--a member of the previous Government worrying about whether Governments keep their election pledges. However, not one Conservative Member has said, "Sorry we got it wrong; sorry we were so mistaken about the importance of class size." Not one of them has said sorry to the hundreds of thousands of kids whom they let down, or sorry to the parents and teachers who wanted and deserved better.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) said, the Conservatives act as if the past 18 years did not happen. They may wish that that

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were so--indeed, I wish that it were so--but parents, teachers and the Government cannot act as if it were; we have to pick up the pieces and face up to the consequences of the 18 years of Conservative Government. The fact that the Conservative Government cut budgets year after year and forced up class sizes had a direct effect on educational standards. We inherited a situation in which more than four out of 10 11-year-olds had not effectively mastered literacy and numeracy. One reason--it is not the only one--why that is the case is that class sizes were too large in those children's early years. That is the Conservative party's record on class sizes--we are putting it right, as we promised we would, and we are doing so ahead of time.

From this September, 100,000 five, six and seven-year-olds in 65 local authorities across the country--both Conservative and Labour controlled--will be kept out of classes of more than 30. Moreover, 1,500 extra teachers will be, and have been, recruited to teach those children, and £40 million will be spent to build new classrooms. By 2001, the pledge that we made to the electorate before the general election will be honoured in full and ahead of time.

Equally important, reductions in class size are only part of the wider strategy to raise standards--the hon. Members for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) were right about that, if about nothing else. The 100,000 children who go into smaller classes in September and the children who join them in smaller classes in the next few years will also learn in school buildings that, in some cases, have had repairs for which they have waited for years. They will read better and they will master numbers better because they will be taught by teachers who have been retrained in best practice, and because money has been put in the classroom for the most modern resources. They will use new technology because we shall have ensured that schools are equipped and teachers trained. They will learn both in and outside school because by 2002, one in every two secondary schools and one in every four primary schools will have the opportunity of a homework centre.

We need no lectures from any Conservative Member about class size not being the only thing that matters. We know that it is not. All those initiatives and many more that have been announced are properly funded and, together with class size, will make a real difference to the life chances of children.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) went into semantics about when is an early pledge not an early pledge but, whether it is one year or three, it is a damn sight quicker than 18 years with no action. The hon. Lady wittered away about parental choice. I think that choice is important, but, under the previous Government, the number of appeals by parents who did not get their first choice of school shot up year after year, and they took no action.

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