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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): My hon. Friend refers to the schools in his local area, but the picture that he is painting is not unique to his local authority. Bath and North East Somerset council has similar problems. Newbridge St. John's infants school is very popular and has an intake this year of 87 pupils. Its two requests to the Department for Education and Employment for additional funds for new buildings have been turned down. As a result, the standard number will drop to 60, so that next year up to 27 parents will be denied their choice. The policy is reducing parental choice.

Mr. Webb: I learned of that case only today. I am concerned about such a dramatic swing from one year to

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the next, which is a direct consequence of a rigid law from central Government that is not backed up by the necessary funding to implement it.

Capital funding has been inadequate. My authority says that the figure of £85,000 per classroom is not always adequate. Some of the problems are in rural areas where there is only one village school and children cannot be shuffled around between three or four neighbouring schools. The village school may be an old Victorian building, and adding an extra classroom may not be cheap, because planning regulations have to be adhered to and it must be made with the right stone. The authority has found that the amount of money per school has been inadequate. It is not crying wolf. It has built the classrooms--brick is being laid on top of brick at the moment--so it knows that £85,000 is not enough. It has had to find the money from other parts of the education budget and from other parts of the council's budget.

Not only has capital funding been inadequate; there is also a problem with revenue funding and the rigidity of the rules. The authority dare not breach the requirement for class sizes of 30. One school is expecting 93 infants to start in May. History shows us that by September three or four of them will have dropped out--that is quite common. However, the authority is not permitted to plan on that basis, because if four do not drop out it will be in breach of the law in two years' time when those five-year-olds become seven-year-olds. In the school with 93 pupils, the authority has had to create not three but four classes. Obviously, I have no problem with four classes of 23, but that additional funding may have been better spent elsewhere in the education budget, for example to keep junior class sizes down. The rigidity of the legislation is not helping local authorities to use their scarce resources rationally.

One of the biggest problems identified by South Gloucestershire LEA is that the rigidity of the rules is forcing schools, against their will, into mixed age teaching. St. Mary's in Thornbury is a popular local school with a typical intake of about 35. It achieves superb Ofsted results, and parents want to send their children there, even though the class size is 35, because they believe that the school achieves great things. The school, however, will not be able to accommodate them, because it is going to have to move to mixed-age classes.

I am no educationist. I do not know whether it is better for a child to be taught in a single-year class of 35, perhaps with additional teacher support, or for that child to be taught in a mixed-age class of 30. I am not convinced that the answer is obvious: I am not convinced that it is obviously and automatically true that to have a class of 30 is better than avoiding mixed-age classes. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments.

It is fairly clear that the knock-on effect of the focusing of resources on children aged five, six and seven is to the detriment of those aged eight, nine, 10 and 11. The Minister has said that that should not and will not happen, but it is happening. The number of children in South Gloucestershire who are being taught in large junior classes is rising.

Mr. Don Foster: And nationally.

Mr. Webb: Yes, nationally as well.

My local authority already spends substantially more than its standard spending assessment on education. It is already taking money from other areas on which the

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Government think it should be spending in order to support education, yet it has had to increase junior class sizes.

The director of education wrote to me:

The authority receives good reports from the Office for Standards in Education for key stage 1, but is concerned about key stage 2. That may get worse, and I am not sure that such a development would do our children a service.

Having voted for the Bill that became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, I must take a share of responsibility for its consequences. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made the following prescient comment:

or she--

    "be sent a long distance to another school to meet the requirements of the class size ban, or will there be some flexibility?"--[Official Report, 22 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 701.]

My hon. Friend might have known the Wilsons, but he did not. In any event, he made his point to the Government, and--having looked at the record of the debate--I am not convinced that he received a response. I hope that, in replying to me now, the Minister will tell me what I can say to the parents of Chloe Wilson, and to other parents who say to me, "The rule is too rigid. It is denying our children a place at their local school. We support small class sizes, but must the rules be so strict? Can this rule be relaxed?"

It may not be possible for the rule to be relaxed by September, because plans have been made; but will other children have to go through what Chloe Wilson has had to go through? Can the Minister reassure us that she is aware of the problems, and intends to do something about them?

1.13 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): Wednesdays are becoming a time for regular meetings between Liberal Democrats and me--and so they should be: education is an exceptionally important issue. I feel that I am getting to know the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) quite well, as this is certainly not the first occasion on which we have exchanged views.

I know that the Liberal Democrats support our policy on reducing class sizes, and that they were as cross as we were when, under the last Government, the number of children in classes of not 30 but 40 rose and rose. A generation of primary school children have suffered because that Government were not prepared either to act or to commit money. That is, I think, a common starting point between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

On the whole, the Liberal Democrats have supported not only the extra resources that we have put into key stage 1, but the determination with which we have approached the policy. According to our own criteria, we will meet our targets early.

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I acknowledge that the admissions issue is incredibly difficult. All that matters to parents is their children, and long may that continue, because if the parent does not bat for the child, the system often will not do so. The system has to provide education for all the children in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. This may sound harsh, but when he returns to his constituency at the end of the week, what he must say to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson is what I have to say to a bundle of my constituents who are currently not getting their children into first-choice schools.

By coincidence, this morning I signed three letters to constituents whose 11-year-old children had not got into their first-choice schools. As all hon. Members will know, at this time of year our postbags are heavily laden with letters from parents who have not secured their first choice. We are torn: we know that we cannot deliver to all those parents, but we know the importance to them and their children of securing the first choice. The hon. Gentleman will have to explain the situation in the same way as he has had to explain it every year since he has been a Member of Parliament.

I say that because, when we are talking about children not getting into the schools of their choice, we must not--I must not--allow class-size policy always to be the reason for that. I accept that it is the reason in this instance, but there are many other reasons why people do not secure their first preference. I do not think that we do our constituents a service by allowing them to latch on to that one reason.

Let me give the context of the progress that has been made in class size policy. It is ironic that the hon. Member for Northavon should say that there is not enough money, given that his hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), his party's education spokesman, keeps saying that we spend more than we said we would spend. They cannot have it both ways. [Interruption.] I know that the Liberal Democrats always want it both ways, but my logic tells me that that is not possible.

We have spent more than we said we would. In fact, the cheapest option is to fill up the empty schools. We have adopted the more expensive option for two reasons. One is speed: we will fulfil our pledge 18 months ahead of time. The other is our wish to guarantee parental choice.

We have provided 12,000 extra places at popular schools. The places may not be in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon, but they are real places in real schools that are currently oversubscribed. In many cases, especially in rural schools, that has meant the introduction of two classes. If the figure of 23 had been achieved, rather than 30, rural schools could probably have taken more children.

In deciding class size policy, I have sometimes made expensive decisions in order to prevent a child from having to travel what I consider to be an unreasonable distance. That is why our policy has been more expensive. In all our allocations, we have tried--within what it is reasonable for any Government to do--to accommodate particular pressures, and the wishes that parents may have.

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