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Class Sizes

4. Ms Claire Ward (Watford): What progress is being made on the reduction of class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. [99343]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): We are well on course to deliver our pledge to limit infant class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 or fewer by September 2001. Recent figures show that the number of children in large infant classes has halved since September 1998, from 354,000 to 181,000 in September 1999. That means that about 300,000 children have benefited from the initiative since January 1998. A total of £620 million has been made available to implement the pledge early in virtually all schools by September 2000.

Ms Ward: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and congratulate the Government on being on target to reach that limit. Is she aware that, sometimes, many primary schools find it quite difficult to keep to the limit when the appeals process is instigated? Does she agree that the Government should revisit the appeals process to ensure that there is a balance between maintaining the limits--the maximum number on class sizes--and giving each child's case a fair hearing? That would ensure that each child who needs a place at a school is considered. The balance is a difficult one, but does my right hon. Friend feel that the Government should reconsider the issue?

Ms Morris: Perhaps this is a good opportunity to point out that most schools are in the fortunate position of being able to offer more places, because we have provided 12,000 additional places in popular schools. That has done much to increase the exercise of parental preference. However, if the number in a class is to be limited to 30, we must be firm about that. I should be worried if the number were to sneak up one by one, because for every child who is allowed to break the limit, 29 other children are in larger classes. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have now allowed admissions authorities to admit

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children above the limit of 30, but only in specified circumstances. I am happy to keep the matter under review, but I am not happy to do what the previous Government did--to turn our back on class size so that the number increases not just to 31 or 32, but to 40 or 45. Neither my hon. Friend, parents nor teachers would want us to do that.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Does the Minister agree that, during the past two years, 1,500 playgroups have closed? What has caused those closures? Does she accept the figures of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which show that, during next year, a further 1,700 will close?

Ms Morris: The number of playgroups tends to differ from year to year: some open and others close. The hon. Gentleman may want to look up the figures for the number of playgroups that has opened, as well as the number that has closed. He may also be interested to learn that, over the next three years, the Government will double the number of places for three-year-olds, and that 80 per cent. of those new places will be in playgroups.

I am happy to pay tribute to the role of playgroups in early years provision. We said repeatedly that the strength of the playgroups, and the time for them to take advantage of the extra resources, would be during the expansion of places for three-year-olds. That is exactly what has happened. Meanwhile, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we have given playgroups financial support to help them over that difficult transition period. I am sure that they will welcome the efforts that we have made on their behalf.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Although I share the fears expressed, a few moments ago, by my right hon. Friend the Minister about the danger of creeping increases, how do we solve the problem? In a Catholic school in my constituency, the addition of one child would take the class size to 31, so the child is being refused a place and will have to be sent to another school. That is not what the parents or the child want.

Ms Morris: If it is not the 31st child, it is the 35th, the 36th or the 41st. It has never been possible to guarantee that every child will attend the school that their parents choose. By expanding the number of places in popular schools by 12,000, we have ensured that more parents get their first choice. However, at some point we must say, "Enough is enough. We are not prepared to allow this class to become any larger." If we did not do so, we should allow everyone to attend the school that they wanted, regardless of size. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that that would be a silly situation.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is part of "The Common Sense Revolution" to let admissions rip.

Ms Morris: It is indeed the Opposition's policy.

The situation must be managed carefully. No one should imagine that before the class size pledge, every child attended the school that they wanted, because that was never the case and it will never be possible.

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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): While the Minister is talking about reducing class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds and selectively collecting information for those ages, as the Government did in September, the same is not true of class sizes for other age groups, as I saw for myself last week in Sheffield, when I visited a class of eight-year-olds with 37 pupils in it at a junior school. Is not the situation especially bad in secondary schools, where there has been an increase of more than 25 per cent. in the number of classes with more than 30 pupils?

While the Minister talks about the 36th and the 40th pupil, is that not a reality now in all too many secondary schools, the number of pupils in classes of more than 36 having doubled under the present Government, and classes of more than 40 now being more common? [Interruption.] Yes. Under the present Government, classes of 40 are more common in secondary schools.

Would it not be fair and more accurate for the Government to give the whole picture instead of picking out part of it? Does it not defy common sense to speak about reducing class sizes for children of one age while allowing class sizes for children of other ages to let rip? Is not this, in effect, yet another example of saying one thing and doing another--the great Labour lie?

Ms Morris: I believe that I have just found out why the Opposition's new policy document on education is so thin. They are spending their time scouring the class size list for one statistic that is not moving in the right direction. I am happy to respond to his invitation to make it clear to the House and others exactly what is happening to class sizes.

Class sizes for infant children are down. Average class sizes in primary schools are down. There are 4,000 extra teachers. There are extra classrooms. The pupil-teacher ratio has fallen. Key stage 2 class sizes are steady. [Interruption.] Yes, there has been a 50,000 increase year on year. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

In secondary schools, there has been a 0.1 increase in class sizes, but the figures on key stage 1, key stage 2, the pupil-teacher ratio, extra classrooms, extra teachers, early years education and nursery provision are all going the right way. We have achieved that in two years because our priority should be younger children, to give them the best possible start.

Having achieved that record--an incredibly good record to defend--in two years, I can give the hon. Gentleman every assurance that, in due time, we shall also tackle class sizes at key stage 3. We have made a start, but we inherited from the Conservative Government such a mess, with all the statistical trends moving in the wrong direction, that if I have to apologise for not quite having moved on secondary class sizes yet, when we have moved on class sizes in every other bit of the system, I shall apologise.

Child Care

5. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): How many extra child care places were created last year. [99344]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): We created nearly 66,000 new places last year. In the first two years of this Labour Government, we created more new child care places than the previous Conservative Government managed to do in 18 years.

Mr. Dismore: Is my hon. Friend aware that Barnet council has been working closely in partnership with Barnet Play Association, Barnet Pre-School Learning Alliance and the North London training and enterprise council to create a total of almost 1,100 new child care places in my constituency in after-school clubs and summer play schemes? I should especially like to welcome the new child-minding network, which has created 24 places on Grahame Park estate--one of the more deprived parts of my constituency.

We still have quite a long way to go in providing child care places for under-fives. Is my hon. Friend aware of the real need to do more work in that direction?

Ms Hodge: I would like to congratulate Barnet on its achievements so far. A massive expansion in the provision of child care will be achieved only if 150 early years development and child care partnerships deliver it. I am delighted by the hard work, enthusiasm and commitment that the partnerships have shown so far. I am aware of the massive task that we still have to undertake to meet the needs of children and the changing needs of families as we move to the 21st century. Our target to create 1 million new child care places by 2003 is on course and the partnerships are exceeding their targets.

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