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The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): The number of primary pupils in classes of 31 or more in Devon has fallen by 6,500 since January 1998. The reduction for infant classes has been even
Mr. Bradshaw: Parents and teachers in Exeter are pleased that the Government have more than delivered on their class size pledge, and that they have done so ahead of time. Four years ago, some of my classes had more than 40 pupils. There has also been a significant impact on standards. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the figures continue to fall and that standards continue to rise?
Ms Morris: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am delighted that standards are increasing in schools in his constituency, 14 of which have extra teachers as a result of the class size policy, and two of which have extra classrooms. That is key to realising the essential good start that children need in their education. I assure my hon. Friend that class sizes for very young children will remain central to our standards policy.
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): Class sizes may be going down in Exeter but they are going up in south Devon. Is the Minister aware that 90,000 new homes are proposed for Devon but that schools in my constituency are already crammed to the gunnels and that children are already having to travel two hours each way by bus to get to school? Is not the best way to make progress to rehabilitate schools such as the Stoke Fleming primary school? School sites that already exist should be developed and more children should go to those schools, which are already good and performing well. Does the Minister accept that she will not succeed in reducing class numbers unless she either builds new schools or refurbishes old ones?
I am not familiar with the school that the hon. Gentleman named, but if he writes to me about it, I shall address the matter. The class size policy has resulted in extra classrooms being built. New schools are being built across the country to deal with the mobility problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
I welcome the fall in class sizes in Devon and throughout the country. Does it not beggar belief to hear criticisms from Conservatives who, during the previous Parliament, said that class size did not matter?
Has my right hon. Friend observed developments in the American presidential election, where commitments are being made to reduce class sizes to fewer than 20 pupils? Perhaps we should consider building on the substantial achievements that we have already made in primary schools and seek, in the next Parliament, to reduce class sizes in primary schools even further.
Our standards fund initiative also involves placing 20,000 extra classroom assistants in primary schools. Many primary school heads also welcome extra adults in the classroom. I suspect that in future that imaginative combination of placing well-skilled and well-trained adults in primary schools and increasing the number of teachers--both those efforts were achieved by this Government--will help to realise our key aims, which include high standards.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Earlier, the right hon. Lady discussed the dangers of being selective, but is she not running just that risk? Although primary school classes have gone down in Devon, secondary class sizes have gone up by more than the amount by which primary class sizes have been reduced and by more than the average secondary school class size increase in the rest of England. Is it the right hon. Lady's case that secondary class sizes do not matter? Or is she going to admit now that, taking secondary and primary class sizes together, the Government's policy has failed? Will she now admit that failure to the parents and pupils in Devon?
Ms Morris: A conversion--not only do the Opposition think that primary school class size matters, but they now believe that secondary school class size matters, too. That is a policy announcement. No, I was not being selective; the question was about primary school class sizes, which is why I did not refer to secondary school class sizes, but I shall do so now as the hon. Gentleman has asked me.
In Devon--indeed, across the country--if schools choose to use the special grant which the Secretary of State has made available to them, they could not only reduce that increase but double it. They could reduce class sizes by 0.8 per cent. The special grant puts the decision in the hands of head teachers who lead our secondary schools, so if they choose to make class sizes smaller that is their choice. The money is theirs. It is not ring-fenced; it is used for standards. If teachers choose to use it to reduce class size, they will do that. We will then have achieved classes of under 30 for infants and reduced class sizes in key stages 1 and 2, and put resources into secondary schools for heads to use at their discretion to reduce class sizes if they so wish.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): The Department's further education standards fund, which is targeted at improving quality in colleges, is already contributing to rising standards. The fund will increase to £160 million in 2001-02. That is a significant investment alongside the recent £50 million increase in funding for further education lecturers' pay. We are committed to
Dr. Starkey: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I am sure he will agree that further education is important as a route into higher education for a number of pupils from disadvantaged groups. It is extremely important that standards are improved. Will my hon. Friend confirm that one third of full-time teachers in further education currently lack professional teaching qualifications? Is that not a further demonstration of the dereliction of duty on the part of the Tory Government who failed to invest properly in providing education across the board for all?
Mr. Wicks: I can confirm that one third of FE teachers have no teaching qualification, and I take my hon. Friend's points about the Tory party during its lamentable stewardship. What is crucial is that the FE sector now has a vital role to play with the establishment of learning and skills councils, meeting the needs and demands of local economies and communities. It is a sector for the future. We have to place a special emphasis on quality and qualifications, so that we can raise the status of the sector, as we must, and of this important professional group of people.
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Surely the Minister is ignoring the crisis in FE colleges. He will know of the excellent Weymouth college in my constituency where the group of people doing the majority of sixth-form teaching are FE lecturers. What of their standards of pay? The additional funding that has gone into all sorts of schools initiatives has passed them by. They are now in competition with people starting up new sixth forms where the teachers are much better paid. That is a continuing crisis. The Government said that they would solve it, but they have not. They have done nothing about it. It gets worse and worse. When will we get some action rather than warm words?
Mr. Wicks: Not done anything about it? Fifty million pounds extra is going into FE teachers' pay. That is doing something about it, and that is only phase 1. We recognise that those teaching young people both in sixth-form colleges and in further education colleges are making the point about salary vis-a-vis those teaching in the school sector. We are aware of that. That is why the Secretary of State has provided extra money for FE teachers' pay, but it has to be related to quality and we are working up proposals on that. There is more money; we are doing something about it.
Since May 1997, the number of designated specialist schools has increased by 354. There are now 535 in operation, which puts us well on course to meet our new target to have 1,000 specialist schools by September 2004.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, which will be welcomed in my constituency by the talented young people of Reading and Woodley, who have long awaited this expansion of specialist schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a clear demonstration that the Government do not only deliver what they promise, but, as regards the future of our children, they deliver far more than they promise?
Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I do agree with her on that point. We have done much, because we realise the role that specialist schools can play in our drive to push up standards. That is why we are expanding them. There were 181 in 1997; at present, there are 535; and by 2004, there will be 1,000.
Cotham school in Bristol, West recently gained specialist performing arts status, thanks to an excellent bid that included collaboration with--among others--another secondary school, primary schools and a specialist school. Will my hon. Friend clarify how good practice in specialist schools is shared? Is there any evidence of benefits to other schools in an area?
Mr. Wills: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. The bid was indeed excellent; that is why it succeeded. We do not approve every bid; they each have to meet certain criteria, key among which is that they make a community contribution. A third of the budget must be spent on developing good practice in other schools and within the wider community. We have just heard of an example of that in Bristol.
There is another example in Reading where, last year, 200 adult trainees attended a 10-week evening course on computing at the Prospect school. That has obvious benefits for the wider community. In Reading, 28 primary schools, three secondary schools and one special school also benefited from the funding awarded to the Prospect school.
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): St. Peter's school in my constituency is delighted to have received specialist status. I hope that George Abbot school will also receive favourable consideration from the Minister.
Why does the Minister not take the policy further by adopting the Conservative programme of free schools, which would give extra money to every school in the country? Our programme would allow each school to play to its specialist strength and would create the diversity in our maintained sector that parents evidently want.
Mr. Wills: The answer is quite simply because it would cause chaos. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the whole role of specialist schools. It is fundamental in driving up standards, which the Conservatives failed
Does the Minister not realise the mayhem caused for eight local education authorities and many of their constituent schools by the sudden announcement, at the very end of last term, that their pupil numbers in specialist schools were to be capped at only 30 per cent? Ministers will be aware that two schools in my constituency--Kingsbrook and Chenderit--were particularly affected, although I hope that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for them.
Leaving aside that specific issue, will the Minister address the principle? Why does his Department seek--albeit only in certain cases--to ration the number of specialist schools? Would it not be more sensible to enable any school that wants to attain specialist status, and whose bid reaches the necessary quality standards, to do so?
On the question of principle, the measure is temporary and is not a rationing. Under the previous Government, specialist schools were rationed by funding. We have made funding available to expand the numbers dramatically from 181 to 1,000 by 2004. In 1997, the budget was £33 million, which we have more than doubled to over £75 million in this financial year. That is not rationing, but giving schools the resources to expand so they deliver for all our pupils.
The measure to which the hon. Gentleman refers is a temporary one for this phase of funding only and was introduced precisely because we want to ensure that every part of the country has equitable funding. [Interruption.] As usual, the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is muttering away to no good effect, and would do better to listen and learn how specialist schools can benefit the children of this country, which is something that her policies are signally failing to do.