Infant Class Sizes

4.16 pm

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House notes that the number of infants taught in classes of over 30 has risen by 200 per cent since 2010, to over 93,000 children; also notes that the Government relaxed the rules on infant class sizes; further notes that the Conservative Party manifesto in 2010 pledged to create small schools with smaller class sizes; believes that the Government’s decision to prioritise capital spending in areas without shortages of places through the free school programme has led to chronic pressures on primary school places and has created classes of more than 70 pupils; and believes that capital spending for school places should be prioritised to areas with the greatest pressures on places.

I should like to open the debate with a quote from a great work of fiction—not “North and South”, which I will come to later, but the Conservative party’s 2010 election manifesto:

“A Conservative government will give many more children access to the kind of education that is currently only available to the well-off…smaller schools with smaller class sizes with teachers who know the children’s names”—

a point underlined by the Prime Minister himself, who said that

“the more we can get class sizes down the better”.

That, we were told, was a task absolutely crucial to raising school standards. As the once, twice, three times a Tory schools spokesman, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), the boiled cabbage himself, said back in 2009:

“The other thing”—

on standards—

“is getting class sizes down. Particularly at primary school level. It is really dramatic how big our classes still are compared with other countries”.

More than that, he said that smaller schools were important too

“so that no child can wander around corridors of a school anonymously”.

I know that this Government do not take their manifesto commitments particularly seriously—trebling tuition fees, cutting Sure Start, cutting the education maintenance allowance, top-down reorganisation of the NHS. However, make no mistake: the abject failure of the Conservative party when it comes to infant class sizes is right up there with the most brazen of its broken promises.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con) rose

Tristram Hunt: I am delighted to give way.

Mr Jackson: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure the Lord Snooty act is working that well. Would he like to take the opportunity to apologise for the 200,000 primary school places that the Government of the party he represented took out of the capacity in the middle of the largest baby boom since the second world war? It inflicted grave difficulties on local education authorities, including my own in Peterborough.

Tristram Hunt: For the record, between 1997 and 2007 the Labour party built more than 1,100 new schools, the vast majority being primary schools, and there are now nearly 200 fewer primary schools than

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in 2010. The record speaks for itself, and the people of Peterborough will hold the hon. Gentleman to account for his votes.

The figures are truly shocking. The number of primary schools with more than 800 pupils has rocketed by 381%, so we can forget about the smaller schools with no anonymous pupils and we can forget about knowing every child’s name. More and more so-called titan primary schools are struggling to educate their pupils, with assemblies in shift patterns, multiple lunch hours and expanding class sizes. Head teachers and teachers are doing their best in the most difficult circumstances. The number of infants taught in classes bigger than 30 has soared to 93,655, a staggering 200% rise since 2010.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that all academic work on education shows that the first few years in education are vital to a child’s future performance? What would he say to parents in Warrington, where 840 more children are now in over-sized classes, an increase of over 1,300% under this Government?

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is exactly right about the academic evidence, and I will come to that shortly. To those of her constituents facing ballooning infant class sizes, I say that we know the reason. It is a misallocation of funding away from basic need funding towards a range of priorities that do not support keeping class sizes low.

Some 14,000 kids are cramped into cattle classes of more than 40, nearly 6,000 are stuffed into classes that are plus 50 and, although it is barely believable, last year this country educated 446 children in classrooms containing more than 70 pupils. Is it any wonder that a Netmums survey published last week showed that nearly one in five parents think that schools are squeezing too many children into classes?

Unlike the parties in the Government, the Labour party believes in smaller class sizes because of the academic evidence referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). In small classes, research shows, there is more individual interaction between teachers and pupils, more teacher support for learning per pupil, more attentiveness to the teacher and therefore less disruptive behaviour from pupils, and teachers spend more time teaching rather than managing pupils.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend and his team on securing this debate. It is incredibly important that parents across the country know that their child’s experience is not an isolated one and how serious the situation has become. When I read the list of schools with extra-large classes, I was surprised to find my own daughter’s school on it. This is happening in schools across the country, and parents are not aware of how terrible the situation has become.

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is the case in Chesterfield, in Warrington, in Peterborough and right across England. Constituents will want to know what decisions were made and what spending priorities were determined to allow the situation to get out of control.

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Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the criterion for building a new school should be need? If there is a need for a school in an area, that is where a school should be built. It should not be built where there is no need.

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is exactly right. As I shall explain, it is the misallocation of funding—building more places where there are surplus places—that is producing this crisis in English schools.

The class size and pupil-adult ratio project undertaken by the Institute of Education has shown a strong relationship between small classes and greater achievement. The researchers identified a clear effect in literacy and numeracy attainment, even after adjusting for other, possibly confounding factors. Pupils entering schools with low literacy levels progressed the most in small classes.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con) rose

Tristram Hunt: I am delighted to give way to the hon. Lady, who is ready to explain to her constituents why class sizes are ballooning in her constituency while money is being misallocated to the free school programme.

Angie Bray: I think that people in my constituency and right across the country are only too aware that immigration was allowed to run out of control by the previous Government. It puts enormous strain on infrastructure of all sorts across the country, and clearly schools are not immune. One reason class sizes are going up is the chaotic immigration policy exercised by the previous Government.

Tristram Hunt: We all look forward to the Government achieving their target on migration—something, I think, that will be very far away.

Why have the Government allowed class sizes to increase and to damage the education of children in English schools? Because they have spent the money that should be used to keep class sizes down on their discredited free schools programme—the programme that has brought us the Al-Madinah free school, the scandal of the Kings science academy and terrible results at IES Breckland.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): Hundreds of parents in my constituency went through picket lines organised by radical teachers against the free school in Bedford. They wanted to give their children a better education. Were they wrong to aspire to a better education for their children? Is Labour policy against what they want?

Tristram Hunt: Parents in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency rightly want the best for their children. I cannot help thinking that they will not necessarily achieve that given that the number of children in primary class sizes of more than 30 has increased by 134% in his constituency. I cannot imagine that that will increase the attainment and the results that his constituents are looking for.

On 10 May, The Observer reported that the previous Secretary of State had raided £400 million from the basic need fund used to keep class sizes down to pay for the free schools programme. The paper reported that

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“Gove had secretly taken the money from the Basic Need fund…in the face of stiff opposition from the Lib Dem schools minister David Laws.”—

clearly not that stiff an opposition.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I am sure that the Liberal Democrats in Stockport will be proud of the record that the number of children in large class sizes has increased by 202%. What does my hon. Friend say to my constituents in Tameside, where more than 1,600 young people are now being taught in large class sizes, an increase of 2,567% since 2010, which is an utter disgrace?

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is exactly right; it is a disgrace. I say to his constituents and to parents in his constituency, as I do across the country, that they should vote Labour to make sure that spending is prioritised in areas where it is needed.

We know from the National Audit Office that two thirds of all the places created by the free school programme have been created outside of areas classified as having high or severe primary school need. We also know from the Public Accounts Committee that a quarter of free schools opened by September 2012 had 20% fewer pupils than planned. Most recently of all, the Institute of Education has found that free schools do not even fulfil their supposed purpose of spreading opportunity to the poorest pupils, particularly when it comes to primary schools.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): We are talking about NAO reports and I sit on the Public Accounts Committee and hope to contribute to this debate some of the points that we have raised. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the NAO found that the number of primary places fell by almost 207,000—5%—between 2003-04 and 2009-10? I believe that was a time when there was a Labour Government.

Tristram Hunt: I could repeat the facts about the Labour party’s building programme in office. Between 1997 and 2007, Labour built more than 1,100 new schools, the vast majority being primary schools. I am very happy to stand by our record in office of raising standards and providing places.

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, pointing out the consequences on the ground of this misallocation on funds. On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that my constituents in Blackpool, where the number of infants in large classes has risen by 300% since 2010, are now suffering a double whammy, not just from that but from the extra pressure of transients that seaside and coastal towns have? That can be seen in all of these figures—Portsmouth up 250%, Medway 415%, Plymouth 600%. Are not this Tory Government and their coalition allies failing seaside and coastal towns in this respect?

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The challenge facing seaside towns is often particularly acute in the case of educational disadvantage, so it is absolutely right that we focus on smaller class sizes. It is absolutely

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right that young people coming into class with lower literacy levels have a good working environment in which to succeed, particularly in the early years.

Labour will tell every parent who is angry that their infant is being educated in classes of well over 30 that the fault lies with the Government’s ideological determination to pour money into the free schools programme. By September last year, the Government had spent £241 million on free schools in areas with no shortage of school places. The Hawthorne’s free school in Bootle was built in an area with no shortage of school places and now faces falling rolls, yet despite being judged inadequate it has received nearly £850,000 in extra “start-up” cash from the Government. Money is spent on adding extra places in areas with a surplus of places, while it is withdrawn from areas of need.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman’s spin just will not wash with the electorate in Leicestershire. The last Government allowed net immigration to rise to an eye-watering 3.5 million while reducing the number of school places available and, during their time in office, Leicestershire’s schools received the lowest funding per pupil in the whole country.

Tristram Hunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. More work is needed to raise standards in Leicestershire, and one element that worries me is the growing attainment gap under this Government between children who are on free school meals and those who are not. If we strip out London from the data showing the achievement of children on free school meals, we see that this Government’s record is absolutely lamentable.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the evidence given to the Education Committee showing that the Government are throwing money at free schools where there is no basic need, such as the one in Bedford that is less than half full, yet the number of primary school places needed is growing and class sizes are also growing enormously?

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend speaks with great wisdom. I did not know that the Bedford school was only half full—

Pat Glass: Less than half full.

Tristram Hunt: Less than half full, while there are over-sized primary classes. The constituents of Bedford will hold their MP to account for voting for policies that increase class sizes in those schools while misallocating funds. Politics is about choices and priorities, and the Government have chosen the wrong priority.

Mr Sheerman: Before my hon. Friend moves on, will he put a question to Conservative Members: what is the evidence that larger classes benefit students? I have not seen any such research, but I have consistently deplored the fact that the all-party agreement that smaller classes were better for a child has been broken by this Government.

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend is exactly right: it is so disappointing to see this Government break the political consensus that Labour worked so hard to achieve in 1997.

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Labour is committed to ending the free schools programme and refocusing spending on areas where it is needed most. Our message to parents is absolutely clear: Labour would make a choice, and schools enduring crippling infant class sizes would be our priority. We want to see great teachers, committed parents and innovative educationists opening new schools under our parent-led academy programme, pioneered by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but those schools will have to be targeted on areas with a need for new places.

We had all hoped for a change of direction from the new Education Secretary, so I read with great interest her interview in The Sunday Telegraph, in which she explained how

“we have seen the first same-sex marriages take place, which is great.”

Indeed it is, but why did she seek to prevent it from happening by voting against the policy? If she really thought it was great, she would have supported the policy.

In the interview, the Education Secretary also revealed that her favourite work was Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvellous “North and South”—a tale of how a conciliatory, practical, confident woman steps in to save the reputation of an aggressive, right-wing, Gradgrind-like ideologue. Mr Thornton was a man

“who would enjoy battling with every adverse thing he could meet with—enemies, winds, or circumstances”,

and he quickly finds himself in an epic struggle with the trade unions. I can see the Education Secretary’s attraction to it. But alas, our modern Margaret Hale is on autopilot, determined to repeat the mistakes that got Mr Thornton his unenviable reputation. Nowhere in that interview was a commitment to ending the chaos of the free school programme, introducing new policies to improve the professional development of teachers, rebuilding the atomised school system, stopping the downgrading of apprenticeships, closing the attainment gap, or offering affordable child care.

Now, this afternoon, news has broken of the Education Secretary’s plan to introduce compulsory setting in all schools. Will she confirm that she will rule out compulsory streaming? What does she make of the Education Endowment Foundation’s research into the impact of streaming on children from deprived backgrounds? What evidence has she used to inform her plans—which specific academic findings? What assessment has she had on the impact of her plans—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am sure that that point is very interesting, Mr Hunt, and that we would all like to know the answer, but it is not the subject of the debate. As far as I am aware, the proposal is not on infant classes. While I am on my feet, let me say that infant classes probably behave better than most Government Members at the moment. Perhaps we can stop the cat-calling—Mr Heaton-Harris, please do not look so disappointed—and concentrate on the debate on the motion before us.

Tristram Hunt: Unlike so many Government Members, I always obey the rulings of the Chair and would seek no dishonour to it at any point, so I will immediately move on, Madam Deputy Speaker.

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The Government’s failure on infant class sizes contains many different components—administrative incompetence, financial mismanagement, ideological pigheadedness, and a refusal to re-examine the evidence—yet it also speaks to two markedly different visions for the future of this country’s education.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tristram Hunt: Labour Members want to see a world-class and highly qualified teacher in every classroom, studio and workshop. The evidence says that that is the most effective way to boost our children’s attainment. We want to right the wrongs of the Butler Act and offer young people excellence and opportunity in vocational education. That is what our economy needs most in terms of skills and competitiveness. We want to provide young people with a rich and rewarding educational experience that, alongside the academic and vocational basics, also nurtures their character, resilience and well-being. That is what our children need to thrive and survive in a world that is being transformed by digital technology.

In contrast, the future that our new autopilot Education Secretary offers is much the same as the recent past. She makes absolutely no pretence at being here to do anything other than implement her predecessor’s vision. That means growing class sizes, more failing free schools, more unqualified teachers, a rising attainment gap, no local oversight or accountability, fewer opportunities for the forgotten 50%, and no strategy for delivering excellence and opportunity in vocational education. It means ignoring basic need and continuing an ideologically motivated allocation of capital funding.

Mr Rob Wilson rose

Tristram Hunt: The bottom line is this: the Prime Minister has broken his party’s manifesto promise of smaller class sizes. He has chosen free schools over basic need, and ideology over reducing infant class sizes. Fortunately, though, in eight months’ time the country also has a political choice. Let me assure Government Members, as my colleagues will be doing over the coming months, that we will be telling parents exactly where the Government parties stand on infant class sizes. We will be telling them that five more years of this agenda will mean 450,000 infants taught in class sizes of more than 30 by 2020. We will be telling them that only one party is committed to refocusing spending on areas where it is needed most, that only one party is determined to deliver an education system that works for all pupils and that does not prioritise spending on one school type over another, and that only one party believes in a one nation education system. That party sits on the Labour Benches and I commend the motion to the House.

4.40 pm

The Secretary of State for Education (Nicky Morgan): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Let me begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), because it shows a huge amount of courage for a Labour politician to call a debate on this of all issues. Perhaps I should address the historian in him by comparing him to Lord Cardigan at the battle

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of Balaclava: brave but leaderless, charging ahead on a kamikaze mission when everything around him was lost. We all remember the record of the previous Government—the hon. Gentleman’s party—and that makes it very brave indeed to raise this issue now.

As we have heard from Government Members, we remember how Labour cut 200,000 primary school places at the very time that this country was facing a dramatic baby boom. We remember how it cut the funding for basic need places by £150 million at the very time it was needed most, and how they penalised those councils with the foresight to refuse to meet their demands. And we remember how Labour made this all so much worse by allowing immigration to spiral out of control, adding further pressure to the system and leading to so many of the concerns we are talking about today.

Toby Perkins: The right hon. Lady is comparing the situation now with that under the previous Government. She will be aware that in Leicestershire, the county she represents, there were 2,376 children in infant classes in January 2014, compared with just 1,000 before. The figure has gone up by 121%. Does not that show that, under this Government, things have got significantly worse since 2010?

Nicky Morgan: I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for his intervention, but in terms of basic need funding, which is what we are debating today, Leicestershire’s has gone up from £13 million to £51 million, while between 2007 and 2011 Chesterfield got £9.3 million, but now it will be getting £30 million up to 2017.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): May I ask the right hon. Lady about an issue specific to Leicester with which she will be familiar, namely the Falcons primary school, which is a Sikh free school that was due to open this week? She will know that the Department effectively pulled the plug on it last Friday and 69 pupils were supposed to start there today. Can she give us an explanation as to why it got to this late stage before the Department pulled the plug, and will she undertake to send officials from the Department to meet Leicester city council and the wider community to discuss an urgent way forward?

Nicky Morgan: I hope you will bear with me for a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, while I answer this very important question. The hon. Gentleman will know that I spoke to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about this matter on Monday evening. It is a serious situation and not something that the Department would do lightly, but it became very clear that there were serious governance issues in relation to the proposed school. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House know—this is at the heart of schools—that we have to make sure that the right school and schooling are available for the pupils in question. We have been working very closely with local authorities to make sure that all the pupils have places. The hon. Gentleman will also know that departmental officials offered to attend the community meeting on Sunday, but that was not welcomed, and that I have set up urgent meetings between the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lord Nash and the community. We have offered to

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discuss matters and I very much hope, as do other Ministers, that there will be a Sikh-ethos school in Leicester. Applications are open until October for another wave of free schools and I very much hope that there will be an application along those lines.

Mr Rob Wilson: I welcome the sensible and measured way in which my right hon. Friend is responding in this debate, in contrast to the shouty and rather juvenile way in which the shadow Secretary of State spoke. He refused to take an intervention from me. I would have asked him to correct the record. In response to interventions, he said that basic need funding has gone down under this Government. In fact, it has gone up. Perhaps he would like to intervene on the Secretary of State to put that right.

Nicky Morgan: I do not see the shadow Secretary of State leaping to his feet to correct the record, so for the benefit of the House, let me set out some of the other mistakes he made in moving the motion.

As I have said, we would now be facing a crisis in school places given everything that did not happen under the last Government, but fortunately—as with the economy, immigration and welfare—this Government had a plan to clear up the previous Government’s mess. We had a plan to reverse Labour’s cuts in school places by investing £5 billion, which is more than double the amount spent by the hon. Gentleman’s Government during their last years in office, to create 260,000 new places by the summer of 2013.

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I am conjuring up a picture in which everything is doubled, but capital investment in schools is halved, because that is actually the reality. Will the right hon. Lady reflect on this paradox? We have a situation in which, as we have learned, tens of thousands of youngsters in infants school are now in classes of over 30 at a time when the Government are spending £1 billion to subsidise free school meals for the most wealthy parents of those same infants. Is it not a paradox that they can get a free school and a free meal, but they cannot get a place in an infants school with a class size of fewer than 30?

Nicky Morgan: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he will not be surprised that I disagree with its sentiments. I realise that he, as one of my predecessors, has expertise in this area. Let me remind him, however, that in his local authority the funding for basic need has risen from £22 million to £71 million over the past few years. In fact, this Government are spending £18 billion on school buildings during this Parliament, which is more than Labour spent in its first two terms combined. We are absolutely investing in the school estate.

Several hon. Members rose

Nicky Morgan: I will make some progress.

We had a long-term economic plan to get the economy back in shape. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central yawns, but if, after the note left by the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying that there was no money left, he does not think that getting our economy back on track was important, he has missed the entire point of this Parliament.

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We wanted to invest an additional £7 billion to fund a further 500,000 school places by 2021, and we had a plan to help teachers and parents open an unprecedented number of new schools. More than 300 new free and technical schools have been opened across the country since this Government came to office, and a total of 400 new schools have been opened or approved that would simply not exist if the hon. Gentleman was standing at the Dispatch Box instead of me.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): May I tell the Secretary of State about a free school that has opened? The Hawthorne’s free school in Sefton, which was opened in an area that had surplus secondary places in 2011, has had a knock-on effect on two neighbouring secondary schools, which have seen their rolls decline, and is now less than half full. At the same time, primary schools across Sefton have had 500 more pupils in classes over 30 in size, which is an increase of 321%. How can that possibly be the best use of such money?

Nicky Morgan: Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that investment in Sefton has gone from £2.6 million to £3.6 million in the course of this Parliament. The fact is that seven out of 10 free schools have opened in areas of basic need. I wonder whether he has listened, because free schools are opened in response to parental demand. The parents and the local community wanted a free school to be opened.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): If everything is going so well, will the Secretary of State explain why almost one in five parents thinks that schools are squeezing too many pupils into classes and have deep concerns about class sizes? They will find her response in this debate incredibly complacent.

Nicky Morgan: The hon. Lady and I had a great sparring relationship when I was in my previous role and she often tried to use the word “complacent”. She will know that I am never complacent about the concerns raised by MPs across the House. This debate is about airing the issues, but parents might not be quite so concerned if the shadow Secretary of State were honest and open with the figures that he is bringing to the House today.

Richard Fuller: The Secretary of State has faced a number of confusing interventions from Opposition Members, one of which repeated something that was said in The Guardian today, which was that she was about to announce a policy of compulsory setting. Will she take this opportunity to say whether she is going to do that?

Nicky Morgan: Let me confirm for the benefit of the House that there is absolutely no truth in those rumours. There are some people outside this House who have a rather unhealthy interest in speculating about what I am or am not about to announce. They would be better served if they spent less time on Twitter and talking to journalists, and more time reflecting on the importance of the policies and reforms that have already been implemented by this Government.

Mr Sheerman: Will the Secretary of State give way?

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Nicky Morgan: No, I am going to make a bit of progress.

The figure of 400 new schools that I have given includes 251 free schools, with 79 opening this month alone and about 70 more in the pipeline. Those are schools that pupils, parents and teachers want, but that would not exist if it were down to the shadow Secretary of State. The figure includes 30 university technical colleges, which are working with employers to give young people the skills that they need to succeed in key industries such as engineering and science, and 37 studio schools, which prepare young people for work by offering a rigorous academic education alongside employer-backed technical and vocational qualifications.

None of that has been easy. It took this Government, working in partnership with teachers and parents up and down the country, to get it done. However, as a result, young people who are going back to school this week have more chance of going to a good or outstanding school than at any time since Ofsted was established.

I give way to the former Chairman of the Select Committee.

Mr Sheerman: Education is a partnership. When the Secretary of State was appointed, I had high hopes of her. I hope that she will not disappoint me. I know that her party is under pressure from UKIP, but three times in this debate on education, immigration has been prayed in aid when discussing the problem with our schools—once by a Government Back Bencher and twice by her. I have not heard that in an education debate before. Is it a UKIP-inspired point? It is. Two times she has mentioned immigration. Will she please not do it?

Nicky Morgan: I had high hopes of a better intervention from the hon. Gentleman. If he does not think that that issue has affected public services in this country, he absolutely encapsulates why the Labour party will remain on the Opposition Benches after May 2015.

I have set out the record of this Government. Let me compare it to that of the Labour party.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on her performance so far at the Dispatch Box. Surely when the National Audit Office says that two thirds of the places created by free schools are not in areas of need, it raises serious questions about the Government’s spending priorities.

Nicky Morgan: I respect the hon. Gentleman very much and enjoyed working with him when we were Whips on opposite sides of the House, but I do not recognise those figures. Seven out of 10 free schools that are currently open are in areas of basic need and eight out of 10 free schools that are planned to open will be in areas of basic need. Free schools are a response to the need for places and to the demands of parents and teachers for more good schools in a local area.

Mr Marsden: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Nicky Morgan: No, I am going to make some progress.

I have set out the record of this Government. Let me compare it to that of the Labour party. It took four years for Labour to open the first 27 academies, seven years

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to open the first 133 academies, and five years to open just 15 city technology colleges. I am a generous person, so I can see that not everything Labour did was wrong. There were some good initiatives. Some Labour Members understood and even helped to inspire the academy and free school programme that this Government have made such a success. Let me make it clear that, unlike the shadow Secretary of State, who has spent the past 11 months distancing himself from the policies of those brave reformers in the Labour party who came before him, I will make no apologies for the work of my predecessor, who was one of the most successful, passionate and committed education reformers of the 21st century.

We could have a genuine debate about some of those things. Indeed, I am sure we would all be fascinated to know the latest views of the shadow Secretary of State, given how often they change. He has flip-flopped from free schools being a

“vanity project for yummy mummies”

which he said on 18 May 2010, to 13 October last year when he apologised for that description and said:

“I regret those comments because I think any parents, be they yummy mummies or faddy daddies, involved in the education of their children is great”

He also said that he would put “rocket boosters” under parents who wanted to set up schools, but two days later he U-turned again, describing free schools as a “dangerous ideological experiment”. Which one is it? His position is completely inexplicable.

Mr Rob Wilson: Is it my right hon. Friend’s understanding that the Labour party will close free schools; indeed it will try to close them on the basis of a bogus review of free school buildings? I wrote to the shadow Secretary of State and his deputy nearly a year ago, and neither have replied to me about the bogus review of school buildings. Through my right hon. Friend’s good offices, perhaps she will get the truth out of the Labour party.

Nicky Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for his point and I shall certainly try to get the truth from the Labour party. Would the shadow Secretary of State like to intervene to tell the House what he thinks about free schools today, and whether he will provide clarity? Parents and children attending schools need clarification and to know whether he would keep them open were he—heaven forbid—in government.

Mr Stewart Jackson: I do not want to detract from my right hon. Friend’s litany of disastrous Labour failures in the 13 years to 2010, but I will add my penny’s worth to it. The Education Committee recently found that under the Labour Government the performance of white working class children in receipt of free school meals plummeted and was among the worst in the western world. That is a badge of shame for the Labour party.

Nicky Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I know he is passionate about this issue. The fact of the matter is that by 2010, one in three primary school age children were leaving school unable to read and write properly. Anyone who is a parent, godparent or who has a relationship with young children and visits schools will know that if someone cannot

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read and write they cannot play a full part in modern Britain. It is deeply unfair on any education system to leave its children poorly educated.

Let me turn to class sizes as they are mentioned in the Order Paper today. The motion claims that

“the number of infants taught in classes of over 30 has risen by 200 per cent”,

but as we shall see, the shadow Secretary of State based his entire case on one snapshot of the school year, which he has used—whether knowingly or not—in an opportunistic way. I know hon. Members will find that hard to believe, but let me set the hon. Gentleman right. The truth is that despite everything we inherited, the proportion of infant pupils in classes of more than 30 has gone up by just three percentage points, while the number of pupils requiring a place has risen by 11%.

Bill Esterson rose—

Nicky Morgan: I will make some progress. In fact, the proportion of primary school pupils in very large classes has fallen under this Government. How has that been possible? How have we managed to keep class sizes down despite the huge rise in the number of pupils requiring a place? It is because we have added almost 4,500 infant classes since 2010, which means that there are more infant classes today than at any time in the past decade. The motion notes that

“the Government relaxed the rules on infant class sizes”.

That is true. We have made it easier for parents with twins and multiple births, the children of members of our armed forces, and looked after children, to get a place in their chosen school.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Give us a break.

Nicky Morgan: The hon. Gentleman says, “Give us a break.” If he does not think that helping vulnerable children in that way is important—

Kevin Brennan: It’s a smokescreen—

Nicky Morgan: Well, we hear it all now. What is best for these children is a stable start to their school life. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to tell us which of those categories of people he would like to take a school place away from first. When he does so, perhaps he could explain it to some of the 83% of parents and others who supported this change when we asked them their view.

The motion mentions the Conservative party’s manifesto pledge to

“create smaller schools with smaller class sizes”

and we are delivering on that. Despite everything, the average number of pupils in an infant class is 27.4, which, as the shadow Secretary of State will know, is considerably less than the specified limit. But here is the difference: we chose to trust head teachers and local authorities to make good, sensible decisions that are best for them, their pupils and their schools. If he wants me to apologise for doing that, he will be waiting a long time.

Then, the shadow Secretary of State makes his boldest claim, the one he has been making a lot lately, on television, in the media, wherever he can—the claim

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that pupils are regularly being taught in classes of 70 or more. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have just returned from a short break, and I took with me a little light reading. Here it is—available in all good, and not so good, bookshops. Before I looked at it, I checked out some reviews—this one, for example:

“It’s profound stuff from Hunt, whose book Ten Cities That Made An Empire has a number of inaccuracies, including calling Viscount Powerscourt ‘Powerhouse’, and getting the wrong date for the Corn Laws.”

As a result, I have learned to be wary of the hon. Gentleman’s claims, and apparently rightly so, because the claim that children are routinely being taught in classes of 70 or more is simply wrong. The evidence actually shows that these pupils are taking part in activities such as swimming or arts and crafts while being supervised by adults. It is hardly unexpected to find this in a normal primary school on a Thursday during the year when the census is taken. It is not, however, how they would normally be taught in a classroom. He apparently has as good a grasp of school census figures as he does of 19th century history.

Andrew Bridgen: Does the Secretary of State agree that there could well be more than 30 pupils, for example, in assembly, on a school trip or during physical education or sports events?

Nicky Morgan: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head.

Every time the shadow Secretary of State makes the claim, he ought to think about the impression he is creating on teachers and head teachers, who roll their eyes in frustration. Mr Andrew Smith, executive head of White Hall academy in Essex, says that his claims are not only wrong, but potentially damaging to his school, and he wants the record put straight. So let us put this to bed once and for all: the hon. Gentleman has misread the facts. There is absolutely no foundation to his claim, and it is nothing but scaremongering of the worst kind. He is not just wrong about children regularly being taught in classes of more than 70, but wrong about them being taught in classes of more than 60, 50 and 40, and it is doing him no favours with teachers and head teachers up and down the land. I give him the opportunity to withdraw his claim, strike it from the motion and commit to never using it again.

Bill Esterson rose

Nicky Morgan: Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw the claim on his hon. Friend’s behalf?

Bill Esterson: The Secretary of State talks about facts. Will she confirm the fact—stated in evidence to the Education Committee—that £400 million of basic need money has gone into the Government’s free school programme, and that that money, as I demonstrated earlier, has been spent in areas with surplus places, not areas of need?

Nicky Morgan: I will touch on that point in a moment, but I dispute that evidence. I note, however, that the hon. Gentleman did not dispute what I was saying about classes of 70 and more. It was just a snapshot. He thinks it perfectly acceptable to upset teachers like this. We can have a legitimate debate about school places, we can disagree about how we got into this situation and

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what we are doing to sort it out, but there is no place for scaremongering on such an emotive and important issue.

We have learned today that the shadow Secretary of State is opposed to free schools, although I am not sure because it is hard to keep up. It is Wednesday. It could be anti-free school day on the Opposition Front Bench, but he had better ensure that the 21 Labour MPs and his three shadow Cabinet colleagues who have publicly backed free schools in their constituencies get the memo.

Richard Fuller: Is it not depressing that the Opposition motion is premised on division? It divides teachers in free schools from teachers in other schools, parents from parents and children from children. Would my right hon. Friend not like to see a more positive education policy that can inspire the next generation, not set one against the other?

Nicky Morgan: In order to have a positive vision for education, one needs a plan for education, and that is what the Government have in our drive for high academic standards, high-quality teachers and the best schools possible. All that is absent in Labour’s education plan.

The shadow Secretary of State is fond of claiming that free schools divert money from areas of basic need, but it will come as no surprise to right hon. and hon. Members to learn that he is wrong again. Seven in 10 mainstream free schools have been opened in areas of basic need. That figure is higher still for the free schools opening this month, and higher again for those approved in the most recent application round. Free schools are also helping to provide good school places in some of the most challenging parts of the country. Half of free schools have been established in the 30% most deprived communities and they have to abide by the same admissions code as all state-funded schools. In total, open and planned free schools will provide 175,000 new places, with the vast majority in areas facing a shortage or areas of deprivation. This is an amazing story of success, but it is not just our story. None of it would have happened without the hard work and dedication of the parent and teacher groups that made it possible.

However, free schools are just part of the story—a vital part and one that is helping to raise standards in all schools, through the new ideas and approaches they bring and the support they provide to other schools and institutions, but only one part of our plan for education, which is delivering real results. What is the shadow Secretary of State’s plan? What would he do? What would a Labour Government offer to young people in education today? It is no good looking to him, because his view changes all the time. As we have heard, he was for free schools before he was against them, and against AS-levels before he was for them. Once he makes up his mind, he is full of indecision.

Let us look not at what the Labour party says, but instead at what it does. An all-out pursuit of mediocrity; subjects dumbed down; exam grades inflated; many young people leaving school barely able to read and write properly, with the most disadvantaged young people suffering most; and, as we know, slashing the number of school places by 200,000 at the same time as the number of people demanding a school place was rising—that is the Labour party’s record. That is what Labour Members offer, because they have not learned their lesson. They

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never do, which is why today the shadow Secretary of State has set his face against everything that has been achieved in the past few years.

The shadow Secretary of State has set himself against the changes that have given more young people the opportunity to go to a good or outstanding school than ever before, against the reforms that have given every child the chance to get a good grounding in the core academic subjects, and against the changes we have made to get children off the exam treadmill and to ensure they spend more time in education and less time in exams. Above all, he has set himself against the progress that has been made, not by me or my predecessor, but by thousands of the hard-working and dedicated teachers who have quietly got on with the job and put the Government’s plan for education into action.

We know what the shadow Secretary of State is against; we just do not know what he is for. However, we do know that, like Lord Cardigan before him, he has been sent out on this hopeless mission by a weak and confused leader who, devoid of any plan of his own, can do nothing more than send his troops forward to inevitable defeat. Let me make it clear again. We would indeed be facing a crisis of class sizes in this country today—we would indeed be seeing children struggling in classes that are too big to work—if it were not for this Government’s plan to clear up the mess the last Labour Government left behind.

The shadow Secretary of State spoke for 24 minutes, but he did not mutter the one word that parents and children need to hear from the Labour party on this subject perhaps more than any other: sorry. He is fortunate that, as so often, we have picked up the pieces, so that young people do not have to suffer for his Government’s mistakes. Let us resolve today never to allow the future of our children to be placed in Labour’s hands ever again. I urge the House to reject the motion.

5.7 pm

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate.

The ability of parents to send their children to a good local school and have them taught in suitably sized classes is something that the vast majority of British people would deem a pretty basic feature of life in the UK in the 21st century, but sadly in my constituency of Lewisham East it is becoming more and more difficult for families. During the last six years, competition for primary school places in Lewisham has been growing significantly, a phenomenon replicated across the whole of London. A rapidly rising birth rate, fewer people moving out, because of a broadly stagnant housing market, and high inward migration from the other parts of the British isles, as well as internationally, have all contributed to the need for more school places in the capital.

The present Government’s failure to adequately fund extra classrooms in areas with the greatest need means that many parents in Lewisham and London more widely are left wondering why public money is being spent on opening new schools in leafy areas of low demand when their own children are being squeezed into more and more crowded schools. In the last 13 years,

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the birth rate in Lewisham has increased by 32%. In real terms, that means that approximately 1,000 more babies were born in Lewisham last year than in the year 2001. Since 2008, Lewisham council has created nearly 3,000 more primary school places. The vast majority have been in temporary bulge classes—extra forms of entry, which then move up through the school as the children progress to their next academic year. Only 500 or so of the extra places have been in schools that have been permanently expanded. This is partly to do with funding, partly to do with very constrained school sites, and partly to do with the need to act quickly to meet the demand for extra spaces in the next academic year.

Classrooms have been put up on playgrounds, and music and art rooms have all but disappeared from schools in Lewisham, having been converted into much needed full-time teaching space. Some children inevitably find themselves being taught in classes with more pupils. The pressure on primary schools also means that an increasing number of children are being taught in schools a long way from home. Time and again, whether it be at my advice surgery or when I am out speaking to people on the doorstep, I meet parents who are really angry about their inability to get their son or daughter into a local school.

These are not “pushy parents” who are unrealistically limiting themselves to an over-subscribed outstanding school—although who could blame them if they were; more often than not, these are parents who would be happy to send their children to any one of five or six good local schools. The schools, however, are simply full up, so the children are allocated a place far from home, often involving multiple bus journeys in rush-hour traffic—no small feat in London, with small children in tow. The strain this places on family life can be considerable. I have repeatedly had women telling me that they may have to give up work in order to drop their children off at school. Sometimes siblings can be at different schools, miles apart. Many of my constituents do not have cars, so it can be almost a physical impossibility to get one child to one school and another child to another school on time.

I do not have children, but if I did I could not imagine that navigating long distances to get them to school at the ages of four or five is the sort of start to their education that I would want for them. I understand it when parents say that they want their children to be taught in small schools with small classes and close to home. I understand that, as a parent, one would want to feel confident that every teacher was able to know every child as an individual, to be able to monitor their progress and understand what they are good at or not so good at.

I know that parents do not want to have their children disappearing into a sea of faces at the back of a classroom, but this is the direction in which the current Government seem to be heading. That is not right—not right for the parents, not right for the children and not right for the school and the teachers who are trying to provide education in school buildings that are bursting at the seams. It is made worse by the fact that central Government funding for school places is not going to the areas that need it most.

How this Government can justify opening new schools in areas of low demand when they do not adequately fund the areas with the most pressure on school places

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is beyond me. Let us take London as an example. We know that the capital has a 42% share of the national demand for extra school places, yet receives a 36% share of basic needs funding. How do Ministers account for that? The money provided by central Government to my local authority of Lewisham to meet the rising demand for school places has quite simply been inadequate for the task.

I am grateful to the Minister for Schools for twice meeting me and the mayor of Lewisham over the last year to discuss the issue. He knows—and I hope to bring this to the attention of other Education Ministers—that the local authority of Lewisham has identified a £19.5 million shortfall if it is to meet all the demand for extra primary places up to 2016. I am aware that in the last round of funding allocations, the Government provided a 2% uplift to London local authorities. It was a helpful start, but even with this, the funding does not fully reflect the additional costs of expanding schools in the capital: there is fierce competition for land, site acquisition costs are higher, and even the costs of construction are higher in London. The Government need to look at the methodology they use for allocating funding. Assumptions in the funding formula about the percentage of permanent spaces created by local authorities recently have worked against local authorities such as Lewisham, where very few permanent expansions have taken place.

The Government also need to start thinking about the looming crisis affecting secondary places. My local authority has opened a brand-new secondary school in the last few years, but anticipates that it will need another by September 2017. Secondary schools do not come cheap, and they do not come quickly. Indeed, London councils have estimated that the capital needs a further £1 billion if it is to meet all need come 2016.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s speech. She has made some important points, but I should point out that the Government have delivered what they have been able to deliver. Between 2007 and 2011, under the last Government, allocation for basic need stood at about £25 million. Under the present Government, it has risen to £78 million, and a further £18 million has already been allocated to Lewisham for 2015-17. I shall be happy to discuss the issue further with the hon. Lady, because I know that she is sincere and passionate about it, but I hope that, in return, she will acknowledge that a total allocation of £96 million between 2011 and 2017 is a very significant sum in the current economic circumstances.

Heidi Alexander: I acknowledge that money has been spent; I am just not sure that it is keeping up with the scale of demand for extra places. I believe that there are fundamental questions to be answered about how the Government allocate resources, and how they plan to ensure that future generations can gain access to the education that they deserve.

Kevin Brennan: Has my hon. Friend noticed that Ministers never quote the true figures for spending on schools during the period in question? During that period, the last Government recognised that more places would be needed. They provided extra core capital funding of £400 million a year from 2007-08 to 2010-11,

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and an annual safety valve which included, in the latter years, the allocation of an extra £266 million. Ministers never quote those figures, because this is a smokescreen.

Heidi Alexander: My hon. Friend is entirely right. All that I know is that there is a significant problem in my constituency and other parts of London, which the Government urgently and desperately need to address.

We know that the economy in London outperforms that in the rest of the country, and we know that more and more people want to live here. In the next decade, the population is expected to increase by the size of Liverpool and Leeds combined. Just as we need to build homes to accommodate that growth, we need schools to educate our young people. In Lewisham, we are lucky to have outstanding primary schools. Yes, more work needs to be done at secondary level, but our head teachers do inspiring and incredible work. Naheeda Maharasingham at Rathfern primary school, Michael Roach at John Ball primary school and Dame Vicki Patterson at the Brindishe schools federation are some of the most impressive individuals I have met when it comes to the delivery of our public services. I believe that the Government should be helping those impressive individuals to do their job by ensuring that there is adequate funding for school expansions.

The education system does not need money to be siphoned off to areas where there is questionable demand for extra school capacity, and it does not need the uncertainty of children being offered places at free schools that do not even have sites from which to operate. The education system just needs the Government to recognise their responsibilities, and to ensure that scarce public funds go where they are needed most. Parents in Lewisham think that that is a reasonable expectation to have of a Government, and so do I.

5.18 pm

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who had the great benefit of being educated in my wonderful constituency. I think that that shone through the whole of her speech.

I asked to speak in today’s debate. I am normally ruthlessly positive in my speeches—I always try to focus on “looking on the bright side of life”—but when I saw the motion, I was staggered. Indeed, I have been disgusted by the absolute cheek of some of the points that have been made. I speak from experience not only of membership of the Public Accounts Committee—to which I shall refer later—but of 10 years at the coal face as a ward councillor in a new build area, fighting the crazy views of Labour councillors who hated parental choice and did everything they could to force parents to send their children to schools that they did not support.

Let me return to my time as borough councillor. The incompetent, useless Labour council in Swindon, which was so bad the Labour Government had to step in and put it into special measures, managed to rack up a staggering £68 million backlog of repairs in schools. We had schools such as the Moredon primary school where not only were the roofs leaking, but the windows did not fit properly, and kids had to come to school in coats and bring their own buckets—as featured on the TV. It was an absolute disaster and it was a relief that the last

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Labour Government at least took it away from that hopeless Labour council. Thankfully, we seized control of the council and we immediately started tackling that £68 million backlog for schools.

I represented a new development—an area that, when I first got elected in 2000, had 1,800 houses, but which by the time I was elevated to become the MP 10 years later had 10,000 houses, and every single time we needed a brand-new school Labour councillors blocked it. They blocked it for the same reason that Labour MPs today are putting forward in their interventions and speeches—namely, that there are surplus places in other schools. These were schools that were not good; they were not exceptional, they were not acceptable to parents, and they were a long way away, but Labour councillors, determined to remove parental choice—[Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State can chunter away on the Front Bench, but this is about parental choice. I have met many angry parents, and having had the biggest swing in the last general election in the south-west, I can assure him that a lot of that was driven by very angry people who were denied the basic right of parental choice in terms of schools.

Continuously, the Labour Government and council sought to build schools after houses were in place, not as part of the infrastructure plan for new developments, because, they kept saying, there were spare places in other schools. That is absolute nonsense.

Heidi Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is talking about parental choice. Does he accept that the constituents I described in my speech have zero parental choice? They may choose five or six schools to send their children to, but then be offered none of them. Does he not acknowledge this is a real issue in certain parts of the country?

Justin Tomlinson: I thank the hon. Lady for that important intervention, and I can say, absolutely, that is where my anger is coming from. The hon. Lady is experiencing what I went through for 10 years in Swindon. Luckily, in my constituency now 90% of parents get their preferred choice; we are in the top quartile in that respect, and we have done very well as we have expanded, as we saw in the Public Accounts Committee. The underlying point here is that the last Labour Government robbed this country of 200,000 places in the middle of a baby boom. It is an absolute disgrace, and the hon. Lady’s residents are now paying the price. I will come back to this and address in detail what is being done about it because parents are absolutely furious.

We have always had finite resources, but we also had the ludicrous Building Schools for the Future costs. We said to local authorities, “You can go ahead and build schools, but I want every single bid to be unique. I want you to redesign the wheel every single time.” Each and every single bid was costing £5 million in order to reinvent the wheel—money that should have been going to front-line services. The bids took a long time to deliver, they were slow, they were complex and many of them failed, and that, again, caused huge delays in delivering new schools.

The last Labour Government, determined to make sure the current generation did not pay for infrastructure facilities, were obsessed with promoting private finance

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initiatives, as we covered extensively in the PAC. It was the only show in town. Anyone who wanted to build new schools had to have very expensive PFI schemes. The two flaws with that are that future generations will continue to pay for them—again, robbing money from front-line schools budgets—and that they are incredibly inflexible. As we have started to release additional money to expand the number of school places, we are finding that it is an absolute nightmare to renegotiate the schools with PFIs. Also, because they were privately built, they were often landlocked and space was very limited, even if a deal could have been thrashed out, at great expense to local rate payers.

I was staggered that developers were given the green light to press ahead with developments without providing these places, so time and again people were paying high premiums for new houses—they could see in the plans that a school should be built, but those schools would get further and further behind, creating yet more chaos.

Things are changing, but it takes time—when we have had such a shock to the system, with 200,000 places ripped out of the system, it takes time. I pay tribute to the Conservative council in Swindon, which I was proud to be part of for 10 years. We have expanded Orchid vale, St Francis, Abbey Meads and Haydonleigh primary schools and Even Swindon school; we have incorporated Penhill primary school in Swindon academy and completely rebuilt Seven Fields primary school; and the new Tadpole Farm school opened today for its first wave of new children. That is because our councillors have completely understood and supported parental choice. This Government have helped by doubling the amount of funding available for new school places, and my local authority has ensured that it has been at the front of the queue to get it. This goes hand in hand with other education funding, especially the fantastic decision to deliver fairer funding, from which my local authority has benefited greatly.

The free schools programme has been covered extensively by the Public Accounts Committee, which has been very selectively quoted by the shadow Minister, who clearly does not understand how the free school principle works. It is driven by parental demand. It is not about a top-down approach; it is about local communities having the ability to apply to have a school. The hon. Member for Lewisham East rightly highlighted the next challenges to secondary schools, and we are looking at that in the same way in my constituency. We are using the free school model, which involves parental demand and the need to get 900 signatures from local parents.

It is convenient for Labour MPs to ignore the fact that those involved have to prove that there are no surplus places in either good or exceptional schools within a natural catchment area. We are not building schools in areas where there are already good places. If there are surplus places in failing schools, parents have the right to an alternative. It is fine for those who can afford to choose a private school, but the vast majority of parents cannot do so, and neither they nor their children should be robbed of the opportunity to have the very best education. Let me remind the House that they get only one opportunity.

We have also started to be a lot tougher with developers, and as new infrastructure proposals are brought forward, schools are being built at the beginning of the process. An example is the Tadpole development in

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Swindon. Before the first house has been moved into, the Tadpole Farm primary school has already opened. It has been completed ahead of the development, rather than afterwards, when demand might have exceeded supply.

Given the failure of Building Schools for the Future, in which each and every school had to spend £5 million reinventing the wheel, we are rightly encouraging the use of modular school buildings. Schools can be the same right across the country; we can use set designs. We have reduced the cost of building a new primary school from £7 million to £3.5 million. The shadow Minister seems to find that amusing, but halving the cost of building a school means that we can build twice as many. That is elementary mathematics.

I am incredibly proud that we have achieved a figure of 90% for preferred choices, and I should like to offer MPs a piece of practical advice that they can take back to their constituencies. Whenever parents do not get their child into the school of their choice, they are incredibly angry. I know of no other issue that has such an effect; it is even more emotive than the threat of a library closure. We started to take schools admissions staff out to parents in the community in the weeks leading up to the parents having to fill in their three choices. For example, a parent might come in and say, “I live on Queen Elizabeth drive, and I would like my child to go to St Francis primary school.” The admissions staff would then be able to tell the parent that, given previous years’ data, that application would be unlikely to succeed. They would tell them still to apply, but also advise them on where the best available schools with surplus places were likely to be, so that they could put them down as their second and third choices. In that way, they would at least be defaulted to a school that they would deem acceptable. By going that extra mile before the applications went in, we were able to work with parents to ensure that alternatives were in place.

I am normally incredibly positive in my speeches. I try not to get involved in party politics, but given that the Opposition have tried to gloss over the fact that the last Labour Government stole 200,000 places in the midst of a baby boom and have the cheek to complain about the results of their actions, I felt that I had to contribute to the debate today, and I have done that.

5.28 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Much of the debate has focused on numbers, and will continue to do so. Those include the number of classes with more than 30 or 35 pupils. Shockingly, in my constituency, there are even classes with more than 40. I want to start by looking behind the numbers and discussing why large classes matter to pupils, parents and schools. It has not been clear to me, listening to the contributions from Government Members, whether they consider the increase in class sizes to be a problem. We have heard a lot of denials and the blaming of immigrants, and we have heard a variety of reasons why it is not the Government’s fault, but we have not heard whether this result was the design of Tory party policy or whether it is something they regret. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether there is a strategy for class sizes or whether the problem that we are bringing to the attention of the Government is recognised by them.

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The evidence on the importance of reducing class sizes has been available since 1982, when a study by an American laboratory for educational research concluded that reductions in class size

“promise learning benefits of a magnitude commonly believed not within the power of educators to achieve.”

Thirty years later and much closer to home, studies have shown that class sizes of more than 30 are particularly damaging for children of low ability or for those with special needs. Small class sizes are central to Labour’s vision of what a world-class and inclusive early-years environment should include. The Government seem to be determined to take education back to some mythical golden age when children learned everything they needed to by rote.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman explain what has changed in Labour policy on class sizes since 2008? The then Schools Minister in another place told the teaching union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, that it was perfectly acceptable to teach maths to pupils in class sizes of 70.

Toby Perkins: That is interesting, as not long ago we heard the Secretary of State talking about class sizes of 70 happening now. I do not recognise that as something that the Labour party wants to see, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) has secured this debate because he wants to make it absolutely clear that the Labour party’s commitment back in 1997 to rescue our schools from the catastrophic and mediaeval state they were in after 18 years of Tory government burns in his heart. He wants a reduction in class sizes and to get away from the huge increases we have seen under this Government.

On the subject of the vision for education held by the previous Education Secretary before his dismissal—I am sure that my two colleagues on the Front Bench are not the only people sitting on a Front Bench at the moment who were pleased to see him disappear—this Government’s approach has led, in my experience, to a demoralised teaching work force, a betrayal of the Government’s rhetoric when they came to office of a commitment to the early years, and a fragmented landscape that has seen enfeebled local authority provision, schools driven unwillingly into becoming academies and the appalling realisation that although money has flowed towards free schools, often in areas that had sufficient demand, there has been a 200% increase in the number of infant pupils taught in classes sized over 30.

Any MP who has taken the time to visit their local schools cannot fail to be moved by the pressure put on our schools by this out-of-touch Government, but the seeds of that educational approach should have been revealed to anyone who took the time to read the Conservative party manifesto, which was referred to a few minutes ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. It stated:

“A Conservative government will give many more children access to the kind of education that is currently only available to the well-off: safe classrooms, talented…teachers, access to the best curriculum…and smaller schools with smaller class sizes with teachers who know the children’s names.”

I do not know about other MPs, but as someone who has been a councillor, a school governor and a parent in Chesterfield over the 13 years of Labour government

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I find that description, as though that was what schools were like back in 2010, downright offensive. It seems to be a view of our education system based on the views of someone whose only experience of schools was what they had read in the

Daily Mail

. But that was how the Tory party represented what education looked like back in 2010. Sadly, it is consistent with how out of touch the Government have been on education and a raft of other issues throughout their time in government.

It is not the fault of Ministers in this Government that the education team was entirely privately educated and that does not prevent them individually from being perfectly good Ministers, but when the basis of their education policy is founded on such a narrow and misguided view of what schoolchildren in my constituency experience, I cannot help but think that a wider perspective across the team would help their approach to be slightly more grounded in reality.

Let me return specifically to class sizes. The old “hug a hoodie” David Cameron used to get it. Back in 2008, when he was still a modern Conservative, he told the Yorkshire Post that

“the more we can get class sizes down the better”.

In the 2010 manifesto, he promised

“small schools with smaller class sizes”

That incarnation of David Cameron—oh, how long ago it seems—understood that every extra pupil adds to a teacher’s work load, with extra marking and planning, and means less time to be spent on pupils. If we want primary education to be about more than just presenting something to pupils, class size is important. Smaller classes mean more attention per pupil and more opportunity for children to develop their analytical thinking skills.

That is why the last Labour Government made class sizes such a priority and made such great strides on this issue. In 1997, as one of our five key pledges ahead of the election, Labour promised to cut class sizes to 30 or under for five, six and seven-year-olds by September 2002. Remarkably, the Labour Government actually achieved that a year early; by 2001 it was clear that it would be met. I cannot imagine that many of the promises made by the current Government will be achieved a year early—they will certainly not be achieving what they promised on the deficit. Unfortunately, those achievements have been thrown away by this Tory-led Government, particularly by two specific policy mistakes they have made.

Whereas Labour outlawed class sizes going beyond 30 for children aged four to seven, so that if a class did go above 30 in one year it had to be brought back down the following year, this Tory-led Government relaxed those rules so that class sizes can be above 30 for several years—we heard the Secretary of State proudly boasting about that today. Worse, the Government’s unfettered and ideological free school programme has diverted funding away from areas that need school places most. Instead, we have heard of the disgraceful situation where free schools have been set up in areas with an oversupply of infants schools and are sat there half empty.

Some people who were planning to set up a free school in Chesterfield came to see me at one of my surgeries. I said to these two parents, “So why do you want to set up a free school?” They said, “We don’t think we can get our kids into Brookfield. We want our kids to go there.”

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So this entire school was being set up because they could not get their children into one school, even though there were other schools they could get into. When I suggested that they could join the governing body of the school in their catchment area and see whether they could improve that, I was told, “Well, it is a bit of a risk.” So I said, “You are setting up a school that doesn’t exist, that has no teachers, that has no building, that has no other pupils and that has no facilities. That is not ‘not a risk’, is it?”


The hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) is shouting “yes” and he has a free school in his constituency that is half empty. We heard the Education Secretary saying today that a new free school that was due to be set up has, in the middle of September, when most pupils—

Richard Fuller: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Toby Perkins: Let me just finish the point. The Education Secretary was talking about a school in Leicester that, at a time when most children all around the country are going back to school, has been told that it cannot open, and 69 children are left without a school. She says, “Well, we have to get these things right.” The Government should have looked at that when they were going through all these proposals and giving the money to set up the free school. That is the basis of this education policy.

Richard Fuller: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because the Labour party is trying, yet again, to divide people on the issue of free schools and is pointing to Bedford as an example. Local people and local teachers have worked very hard to make sure that the free school could be part of the family of schools and, contrary to what he is saying, the Bedford free school is one of the largest free schools that have been set up from scratch, with more than 400 pupils. Their parents have decided that that school is right for their children, and I am very proud that this Government have enabled them to make that choice.

Toby Perkins: The hon. Gentleman talks about a divisive education system, but I have never seen a more divided education system than the one that has been set up by this Government. We have seen an incredibly divided, fragmented system. We have seen schools that do not want to be academies forced into it because they cannot afford to be anything else but academies. The Opposition made it absolutely clear that we support parents getting involved in their schools, but the ideological approach of setting up free schools in a place that already has adequate supply and at the same time seeing infant class sizes at the disgraceful level that has been discussed in this debate is an utterly divisive way to approach education policy.

National Audit Office reports demonstrate that fully two thirds of all of new places created by the free schools programme have been created outside the areas with the most need. Extraordinarily, that has left some local authorities in a position where they want to build a new school to manage a primary places crisis, only to be told that the Department for Education will allow a new school to be built only if it is a free school and only to find out that nobody wants to build a free school in that area. That approach is utterly against the best interests of our children.

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Free schools were supposed to fill gaps in the market, but they are in fact doing the opposite and are stacked up in places where there is already sufficient demand. We have seen the consequence of that approach in my constituency. Across Derbyshire, the number of infant school pupils who are in classes with more than 30 children has increased by 117% since this Government came to office. A freedom of information request to the Department for Education exposed the full scale of the class-size growth scandal. How pitiful the Prime Minister’s promise to cut class sizes now looks.

In Chesterfield, schools are grappling with class sizes that were absolutely unimaginable under a Labour Government. Hollingwood primary school has one class of 36; Hasland Hall infant school a class of 39; Abercrombie primary school a class of 44; and Walton Holymoorside, just over the border in North East Derbyshire—it is the school to which my own children went—a class of 36. For anyone who remembers the huge class sizes that we had under the last Tory Government—the one that actually won a general election—those figures will come as no surprise.

Chris Heaton-Harris: The hon. Gentleman is a very nice bloke. I am sure he is an excellent MP for his area and a great parent, but does he think that his children’s education was bad because they were in slightly larger classes? If so, what did he do about it?

Toby Perkins: That is a very interesting way of putting it. The education provided by my children’s school was very good. The hon. Gentleman seems to be making the case that class sizes do not have a lot to do with the quality of education. If that is the case, then he will obviously be saying to the voters in Daventry, “Vote Conservative to get higher class sizes.” Evidence suggests that class sizes are an important factor. Anecdotal evidence from teachers points to the fact that they find it a lot more difficult to perform their role in huge classes. Obviously, he is making an alternative case, and he will have to take that to his electorate and see what they think about it.

As I was saying a moment ago, anyone who remembers the huge class sizes under the last Tory Government will not be surprised by these facts. The speech by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) complaining about the private finance initiative took my breath away. The reality is that in 1997, the Labour Government inherited a state education system that had been chronically underfunded. The quality of the school estate was disgraceful. Over 10 years, the Labour Government had to pay off the deficit that had been left behind by the previous Conservative Government. At the same time that we were radically trying to improve our health service and education system, we were also reducing the deficit that had been left. It is absolutely outrageous for the Tories then to say, “It’s a shame you didn’t pay for it all out of Government funds. You tried to bring in the private sector to support some of the building of the schools and you shouldn’t have done that.”

Tory Governments always end the same way—divisions over Europe leading to paralysis, waiting times in the NHS reaching critical levels, hollowed out local government unable to serve the needs of their local communities, and six-year-old children being educated in classes of 44. We can change the faces but they are all still Tories.

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The choice for the British public at the next general election is clear. They can back the ConDems, get an ideological commitment to expensive free schools, a refusal to retain laws that keep class sizes down, weakened local authorities, demoralised teachers, a fragmented system that betrays our children and the threat of ever more children crammed into large class sizes. Alternatively, they can choose a Labour future where we transform standards with a qualified teacher in every classroom, a commitment to every child, new schools where they are needed most and real action on class sizes. Why wait until next May to give parents that choice? No one wanted this Government, not even most of those who are in it. Our children deserve better, so let us have a general election.

5.44 pm

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I, too, had expected that my colleague would be present to seek to catch your eye; I am sure he will be on his way back to the Chamber in a matter of seconds.

It is the right time of year to begin my comments by wishing well all those children who are starting their schooling this week or very soon, and starting, in some cases, in an entirely new school. For both parents and children it can be a daunting time of year. I also wish very well all those slightly older students who picked up results this summer, and I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, you would join me in that, as I am confident do those on the Government Front Bench.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Yes, I certainly would.

Chloe Smith: Quite right, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Parts of Norwich North have a rising birth rate, and therefore, as a local MP, I have already been active on this problem on my constituents’ behalf for some time, and have been working with schools, parents and the local authority to look into what needs to be done. I welcomed, therefore, the increase in funding for school places—£33 million for Norfolk school places in particular. Dare I say it, that is a better figure than for our neighbouring county, Suffolk, and for Cambridgeshire. But of course I welcome that increased funding for Norfolk because it is in keeping with what this Government have done to put right the inequalities in funding that Labour left behind.

Labour did not do well in Norfolk. It did not help schools there to beat the bulge. As we have heard many times today, Labour is the party that cut 200,000 primary school places in the middle of a baby boom. That had an impact on Norfolk. Labour is the party that failed to adjust the funding formula in a way that would be fair to rural counties and would have been fairer to my constituency. We, in government, have done those things and I congratulate those on the Front Bench on doing so.

As I said, I have worked with infant and junior schools in the north city area of my constituency over several years on the issue of planning sensibly for the local bulge in births. I welcome the fact that councils now have a three-year allocation of funding for the first time. I welcome the foresight that comes with that type of decision. It allows Norfolk county council, like any

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other education authority, to plan ahead and to ensure that every child has a school place. I urge my local authority to continue doing that planning. Only this week I contacted the local authority to highlight the fact that the latest information that I have received from Norfolk county council shows that 17 of the 25 infant, junior or primary schools listed in my constituency are forecast to exceed their current capacity.

We could turn that sentence several ways around. We could talk about “forecast to exceed their current capacity” or we could talk about the schools needing to provide more places for local children. The Government have put the funding in place for that to happen and I welcome that greatly. I think it stands in stark contrast to the attitude of those Labour Members who lost sight of what their own Government did, cutting 200,000 primary school places in the middle of a baby boom while letting immigration soar. It stands in great contrast to the actions of that party in failing to give Norfolk a fair funding formula. I also think, for what it is worth, that it stands in great contrast to what some Members, notably the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), seem to think of Norfolk, and I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) agrees with me. We were dumbfounded to hear the right hon. Lady, who is not in her place—perhaps she is in another television studio, saying the same thing right now, actually—

Tristram Hunt: Who told you to say this?

Chloe Smith: The right hon. Lady has been out on the airwaves repeatedly this week, suggesting that Norfolk, in the form of Norwich, and Suffolk, in the form of Ipswich, ought to be some kind of dumping ground for the rest of the country. I do not think that is a respectful or constructive attitude to my constituency or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich.

That is what Labour appears to think of Norwich and Norfolk. It also appears to think—

Kevin Brennan: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chloe Smith: Of course; I would be delighted. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us what he thinks of Norfolk.

Kevin Brennan: I think Norfolk is delightful. Can the hon. Lady confirm, for the record, that she told my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) that she was going to mention her views in the course of the debate, to give her the opportunity, if she so wished, to come to the Chamber and to put her side of the case? That is the normal courtesy?

Chloe Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and I have discussed the matter with the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles. Perhaps Labour Front-Bench Members would like to accord colleagues the same courtesy in the endless visits they will now be making around the country, as they always do. I distinctly remember making a point of order in this place five years ago, when a member of the then Labour Government failed to accord me the due courtesy of telling me that they were going to visit my constituency.

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Kevin Brennan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I intervened to give the hon. Lady an opportunity to clarify for the House whether she had informed my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles that she planned to refer to her comments. It was not clear from the hon. Lady’s remarks whether she had. Could you confirm that it is normal practice for hon. Members who wish to refer to other hon. Members in that way to observe the usual courtesies?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): It is up to the hon. Lady whether she wishes to answer, but it is normal courtesy to let an hon. Member know if you are going to mention them or their constituency.

Chloe Smith: I welcome your guidance, as always, Mr Deputy Speaker. In this case I shall be happy to go and address the matter directly with the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles. Her comments are, of course, already a matter of public record, having been repeated on various media outlets this week.

I come back to the current Labour party and its views on parents, parental choice and free schools. It does not accept that parents want better for their children. It does not accept that parents want the security of the best possible education they can find for their children. I do not think that it accepts that we ought to have higher ambition for many of our children. Data released in June show that Norwich, my city, has been the worst city in England for GCSE results. That is a shocking statement—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate title is “Infant Class Sizes”. I have been very lenient and allowed some latitude, but that does not mean that we can concentrate on GCSE results. [Interruption.] Order. Mr Fuller, you should know better than to point while I am in the middle of giving good advice. Let us keep the debate to the subject of infant class sizes, and I will allow some latitude, but not too much.

Chloe Smith: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome your advice. The topics are linked because they relate to what a local authority can do for the children under its care, and I am coming to the subject of Norfolk county council. Labour Members laugh. They should be ashamed to the depths of their souls to be heard laughing at the children of Norfolk. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) should come to Norfolk. No doubt he would campaign against me if he did, but he would have to justify laughing at the point that I am trying to make, which is that over half of Norwich 16-year-olds recently left school without five GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and Maths. Perhaps he laughs at the future that awaits them; perhaps he laughs at the idea that those are not only figures but real people; perhaps he laughs at the idea that those people may now struggle to gain a job and that some of them may not be able to read, write, add or function very well. That is all extremely serious.

This is about the ambition that we have for our children. It is about how we manage the school system to allow for that ambition. All those children are being let down if we say that low ambition is acceptable.

Toby Perkins rose

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Chloe Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman have ambition for Norfolk’s children?

Toby Perkins: I am very interested in the topic that the hon. Lady is talking about. She is obviously very concerned about the education of children in Norfolk. What would she say to the parents of the 283 extra children now being taught in classes of more than 30 in Norfolk under this Government? What would she say to them about their educational chances, because they are being failed by this Government, are they not?

Chloe Smith: I would say that they are looking for respect in this debate. They are looking for honesty and for figures to be used responsibly. They are looking for a Government who are putting right the messes of the previous Government. The hon. Gentleman stood up to make the preceding speech, for which I thank him—of course, I should have observed that courtesy at the beginning of my comments—and I thank him for reminding us what schools were like in the years following 1997. I sat in a classroom of more than 30 pupils when I was at school, in a Norfolk comprehensive, so I have personal experience, should the hon. Gentleman wish to hear it, of having been at school under Tony Blair. You are about to remind me, Mr Deputy Speaker, to return to the subject of infant class sizes.

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): My hon. Friend was an infant.

Chloe Smith: At one time I was an infant. I shall now return to the point in hand.

We need to set out high ambition for our children from infant school through to the point where our young people emerge into the world. I want children to be told about the stars and to be taught how to get there. I want them to be well educated and equipped with a passport to the world of work after that. I want them to be an asset to their city and their family and to themselves. I want to see our local authority continuing to pull its act together, which it has done in recent years in Norfolk, and I want to see our local authority continuing to apply those high educational standards.

I will continue to work with that authority to ensure that the funding being made available by this Government benefits Norwich and Norfolk children in their infant school experience. I do that because I believe in peace of mind for parents. I believe they deserve the security of a decent and ambitious education for their children. We owe those children and their parents honesty and a responsible approach to their money and their choice. It is the same old Labour party; on the last count, it would spend the same money 12 times over. It is dishonest to do so. It is also disrespectful to knock the choice of hundreds of my constituents who attend free schools in Norwich. The Labour party does not understand parental choice and does not understand good quality. It does not understand the taxpayers or their money. It has no plan on this point.

To sum up, I am backing those parents in Norwich. They want that peace of mind for their children’s schooling. We have made that funding available to put right the Labour party’s wrongs in culling 200,000 school places at the height of the baby boom. This is intensely relevant to Norwich. I want to see this put right for the constituents

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whom I represent and I want to see those constituents served well, with a better tone of debate than we have seen at times this afternoon.

5.56 pm

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). We are both graduates of the university of York, of which I am very proud, and I am sure she is too. I want to echo the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who spent 10 years on his local authority before being elected to this place; I did likewise.

I should declare an interest. First, I am the father of three children, all of whom attended local infant and junior schools in Pudsey, Leeds. Secondly, I was a city councillor in Leeds for 10 years and I was on the education committee, ending up as chair of that committee, before being elected here. Thirdly, I have seen at first hand, as I am sure have many hon. Members, the effect of smaller class sizes on the quality of a child’s education—both the children of my constituents and, of course, my own children, who attended what was then a separate infant school in Pudsey.

If the current trend in the growth of class sizes continues, it will be tragic for the educational prospects of our children, because within six years from now up to 450,000 young children could be in classes of over 30. Time and again we have heard evidence that has pointed to the educational benefits of small class sizes. Many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned that. That is especially the case for children between the ages of four and seven. It is no coincidence that one of the strongest selling points for fee-paying private schools is small class sizes. Surely that is what we would all like for every child. I am sure that no hon. Member would disagree with that.

Like every hon. Member, since 2010 I have dealt with a growing number of parents who cannot get their child into the school of their choice. They face either an appeal, which if won leads to larger class sizes, or their child attending a school miles away, often in a very different community. Imagine the anxiety of so many parents whose child cannot attend the same school as an older sibling; other Members have mentioned that. It is even worse when three children in a family are forced to attend three separate schools, as has happened to some of my constituents. The hon. Member for North Swindon talked about choice, but what choice does that situation leave parents in my Leeds North East constituency? There is no choice.

Toby Perkins: My hon. Friend talks about choice. Is there not a difference between the experience of some of his constituents who have three children all going to different schools and that of the entire Government, who all seem to have been to the same school?

Fabian Hamilton: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

We talk about choice, but we should recognise that surplus places are needed for that.

Mr Gibb: I went to a state school in Pudsey—Pudsey Bolton Royd school—for three weeks. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that between 2007 and 2011 the Labour

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Government gave £16 million to Leeds for basic need, whereas between 2011 and 2015—a similar period—this Government allocated £99 million? Can he explain why the figure between 2007 and 2011 was so small when there was already evidence of an increase in the birth rate?

Fabian Hamilton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course I cannot explain that in detail, because I was not party to the decisions made at the time. What I can explain is that at that time there were falling rolls and a number of surplus places in the city of Leeds, and many of us argued with our own Government that in order to have true parental choice there must be surplus places and that inevitably the birth rate would go up.

I remember well Fir Tree primary school in my constituency. The local authority was controlled by the Conservatives and Lib Dems—it was a foretaste of the coalition that we have in government today, but in Leeds city council—and it decided to close that school. I was one of the many people who said, “Don’t close it, because it’s likely that we will have a rising birth rate”, which is exactly what has happened, and that debate is very current in that part of my constituency today.

I do not think that the issue of overcrowding in some of our schools is particularly related to the insistence on smaller class sizes; rather, it is related to the dogmatic insistence on the establishment of free schools, as many right hon. and hon. Members have already mentioned.

I hope that I will not upset my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State by saying this, but personally I am not opposed to free schools in principle. However, I am totally opposed to the funding for those schools being top-sliced from the budgets for local authority schools. That is appalling. Local authorities should plan school places; that should not be removed from local authorities. I have never understood the antipathy of those on the Government Benches to the idea of allowing local authorities the democratic accountability that they bring when they plan school places. It seems appalling that we have almost a free-for-all in the allocation of places.

Mill Field primary school is in the very deprived Chapeltown, Chapel Allerton part of Leeds North East. Its head teacher, Stephen Watkins, one of the most experienced primary heads in west Yorkshire, tells me that the rule on class size limits at key stage 1 is now “widely ignored”, mainly because local authorities cannot open new schools in response to local demand. He says that the decisions of independent review panels will often be to admit pupils in spite of the class size ceiling being a maximum of 30 pupils. The result is not only larger class sizes but a lot of primary schools that are now so large that they have many hundreds of children on their rolls.

According to the Office for National Statistics, more babies were born in 2011-12 than at any time since 1972, which means demand for primary school places is set to soar and put even more pressure on the system in 2015 and 2016. But what is the Government’s response? It is the creation of more free schools—schools that have little or no public scrutiny of their operations, at the expense of areas of high need, as highlighted by many Members. It is all very well to say that 500,000 new

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primary school places have been created under this Government, but what use are they if all of them, or at least very many, are in the wrong places? As always with the coalition, choice is greater for those who already have it but denied to those in greatest need.

It is interesting to look back at some of the statements made by the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) has already quoted this one, but I will quote it again to remind Members of what he said to the Yorkshire Post, of all newspapers, on 18 April 2008:

“A Conservative Government will give many more children access to the kind of education that is currently only available to the well-off: safe class rooms, talented and specialist teachers, access to the best curriculum and exams, and smaller schools with smaller class sizes with teachers who know the children’s names.”

He went on to say:

“The more we can get class sizes down, the better.”

So what went wrong? We now have more than five times as many primary schools with over 800 pupils in England than we had in 2010. According to the Office for National Statistics, three times more infants—93,665—are now taught in classes of over 30 pupils than in 2010. As a Leeds MP and former chair of the city’s education committee, it troubles me, as well as every parent in the city, that the number of infants in classes of over 30 pupils increased from 568 in January 2010 to 2,346 in January 2014—an increase of 313%. That is a poor testament to this Government’s oft-boasted commitment to our children’s education and a complete contradiction of the Prime Minister’s promise made in 2008, and many times since.

Sadly, it is not the Prime Minister or his Government who will suffer as a result of these broken promises but the thousands of young children whose educational opportunities will be reduced as a result of this failure—often those in the most deprived parts of our country who never had much opportunity to start with. The Secretary of State should hang her head in shame at the way in which these children have been let down by a Government who promised so much and have delivered so little.

Kevin Brennan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) mentioned the Secretary of State. Apparently, while our debate is going on, the Secretary of State is participating in a live video webchat with The Times Educational Supplement rather than attending the debate that she opened and listening to the remarks that my hon. Friend has just made. Is that within the courtesies of the House?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Mr Brennan, you know very well that that is definitely not a point of order. You know as well as I do that as long as there is a Minister on the Front Bench, that suffices for the debate taking place. We all want to get the speeches in, and I want to hear you later as well—in which case, let us get under way.

6.8 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I am quite pleased that the Secretary of State is doing her job in articulating our excellent policies on education to the

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public of the United Kingdom. I hope that the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) informed the Secretary of State of his comments, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) informed the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) about raising her non-appearance previously.

I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I inadvertently did not catch your eye in the right order. I was not looking at you and did not bounce up at the appropriate time.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Do not worry about it—obviously your chat was more important than catching my eye.

Chris Heaton-Harris: I can’t answer that, can I?

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). There have been a number of interesting contributions by Opposition Members, as well as a reasonable amount of confusion. I left midway through the speech by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). I was agreeing with a lot of what she said until she got to the bit where she decided that free schools were a poisonous idea in the British education system. After this debate, and given what the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), said, I would be fascinated to know what exactly the Opposition’s policy is on free schools.

My constituency is fairly well-off and has a very low unemployment rate—the long-term economic plan is working very nicely in Daventry, and I think most of my constituents want to make sure that it is a Conservative Government who keep that going after the general election —but it does have areas of rural deprivation and there are other needs. A group of parents got together because they want to form a free school for children of all ages with special educational needs. There is a need for such a school in my constituency and, indeed, the general area of my part of west Northamptonshire. I wonder whether the Opposition’s policy is to tell those parents and children who need special provision, “No; because you happen to live in what we perceive to be one of the better parts of the country, you can’t have that educational need.” That is a very dicey approach to policy.

It is a shame we have not taken a step back during this debate and considered educational needs across the country, because they are so varied in every location. I know that my constituency is remarkably different from many others.

I have the privilege of sitting on the Public Accounts Committee and I will make a few points with regard to that in a moment when I talk about class sizes. The Chairman of the Committee is a feisty Member of Parliament and represents Dagenham and Redbridge—[Interruption.] Sorry, she is Barking, isn’t she?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I don’t think she is.

Chris Heaton-Harris: God, I hope Hansard does not pick that comment up.

The right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) is an excellent Committee Chairman: she is feisty and interrogates her witnesses very well. Occasionally we go

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on away-days related to the subjects we are considering. We looked at school places in 2013 and visited the right hon. Lady’s constituency to see the pressures that migration and immigration have brought to our country. We visited the Gascoigne primary school on the Gascoigne estate. I can honestly say that I was both shocked at the size of this second biggest primary school in the whole country and amazed by the quality of teaching being delivered by the teachers. Even though numerous languages were spoken at the school—I believe there were 70 of them at that particular time, but I might be wrong—and that one class had had a turnover of nearly 80% during the previous school year, a fantastic education was still happening. Although class sizes are very important—I guess this is the point I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins)—so is quality teaching, and I saw some excellent examples of it on that particular day.

The pressures faced by that particular school and catchment area in Barking are so different from those in my constituency that I do not think it is possible honestly to say that a one-size-fits-all education policy will work for the two areas. More flexibility and more different types of schools—the more choice we give people—means we can provide a better education for the kids who go to school in Barking and in Daventry. Having exactly the same system is not the best thing.

School places is a very political subject. Members of the Public Accounts Committee get to read the odd National Audit Office report, which are excellent and provide us with lots of statistics, one of which I mentioned when I intervened on the shadow Secretary of State. It is true that the previous Government cut 200,000 primary school places in the middle of a baby boom, at a time when immigration and migration were soaring. The stat was from the report “Capital funding for new school places”, dated March 2013. The exact statistic was that

“the number of primary places fell by almost 207,000 (5 per cent) between 2003/04 and 2009/10.”

We are chucking statistics around, as we can in this debate—it is really easy to do in education—but they sometimes do not tell the whole story.

With a growing population, there will always be pressure on school places. The hon. Member for Leeds North East mentioned the baby boom that we have just had. To deal with that will require intense planning and investment in our education system in a very short period, and it would test any Government to match school places with population in those circumstances. To be quite honest, if we look behind the scenes at where this Government have already delivered some school places, we can see that although they could do better—every Government could do better—it is not doing as badly as he made out.

I am pleased that this Government are giving councils £5 billion to spend on new school places during this Parliament, which is double the amount allocated by the previous Government over a similar period. Some 260,000 new school places have been created under this Government. The majority, although not all, of them are where there is a shortage of places now. The population is growing in Daventry, as it is in urban centres: not all such places will be created in the places of highest need, because there is an equal need across the whole country.

I am very lucky to have a university technical college in my constituency. It gives a different type of education to secondary pupils, and it is doing remarkably well. It

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is in addition to the provision that already exists, but it is needed. We can see from the increase in the birth rate now that we will need such secondary places in the years to come. That sensible investment in education infrastructure is much needed by my constituents, but I understand that other Members will want to ensure that equal provision is made for theirs.

I do like free schools, because they add something to the mix. When the Opposition have a sensible debate on free schools, I hope in future that they will not just cast their eye over them and think, “It’s a Conservative idea, therefore it’s a bad one.” If we look at where the idea was spawned and where communities have been helped in America and Sweden, we can see that the schools—they are not what we would call free schools but the set-up is similar—have delivered an amazing level of education to pupils in areas of the greatest need. Free schools could be a part, if just a part, of the solution to some of the issues raised by Opposition Members.

Seven out of 10 free school places in this country have been created in areas of most need.

Tristram Hunt: Another dodgy stat.

Chris Heaton-Harris: It is not a dodgy stat, actually. As 78% of statistics are made up on the spot, some of them will be vaguely rogue, but that one is true.

The Government are spending £18 billion on school buildings during this Parliament, which is more than double the amount that Labour spent in its first two Parliaments. A lot of good stuff is going on in our education system.

I want to return briefly to the Public Accounts Committee’s report on “Capital funding for new school places” from back in March 2013. If we took a tiny part of the politics out of this issue and looked just at our headline findings, we would see, first, that there was a reasonable level of agreement between both sides of the House, and secondly, an understanding that we needed a bespoke solution for pretty much every part of the country, because educational needs are very different in every part of the country. One of our conclusions was:

“The Department was slow to respond to the rising demand for school places.”

That was a fair criticism. However, we understood the reasons. We took evidence from the permanent secretary. As the hon. Member for Leeds North East said, if one looks at how the birth rate accelerated in 2011-12, one can see that it is very difficult to predict. I was quite impressed by the structure and processes that the Department has in the background. It grabs the statistics from the Office for National Statistics and then looks at birth rates and migration trails to work out where the resources would be best placed in the education system. I did not even know that that happened before we took that evidence.

The Department has improved the way in which it targets money to areas of need, but there are still gaps in the understanding of the full costs of delivering new places. The Department was getting there two years ago. If one looks at the Treasury minutes and the outcomes of what we found, the Department has improved even further. There is therefore good news as well as bad.

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It would be nice to hear Opposition Front Benchers say that they understand that there are different needs in different parts of the country and that a one-size-fits-all education policy with the same provision all over the place simply will not work to the benefit of all our children.

6.21 pm

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). It was interesting to hear him draw on his experiences on the Public Accounts Committee. That was a good contribution.

I disagreed with the hon. Gentleman fundamentally on one point. He said that education should not be the same throughout the country. Of course, he was right about that. However, education never has been the same everywhere in the country and it certainly did not become the same under the last Labour Government. We actively supported specialist schools and introduced academies. Far more choice was generated by the Labour Government than we are given credit for.

Although neither the hon. Gentleman nor the Opposition want education to be exactly the same, one thing that we do want to be the same is the opportunity for all children. That, plainly, is not the case at the moment. Equal opportunity is not afforded to all children regardless of their background. That is why this debate counts. It is not about a very small area of the garden. We are talking not just about infant school class sizes nudging up over 30, but about what that means for the future. We are talking not just about the children who are now experiencing education in very large classes, but about what that means as it continues. I remember being at school in the ’80s under a Tory Government—we are all talking about when we were educated—when class sizes were much larger than they are now. I do not wish to see that for children who are currently in infant schools. When they get to secondary school, will they still be taught in classes that are larger and larger? The detriment is exaggerated as a child gets older.

I am particularly concerned about this matter because I see the huge disparity between the outcomes for the 7% of children who are privately educated, with the opportunities that they can access—they do very well—and the outcomes for the 93% of young people who are educated in state schools. That issue has been well debated. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has had a huge amount to say about the critical role of education in providing better opportunities to kids from all backgrounds.

According to the OECD, state primary schools have class sizes with four or more pupils larger than those in independent schools. The difference in secondary schools is significantly worse. Average class sizes in UK state secondary schools are more than double those in independent schools at 21.1 compared with 10.

Justin Tomlinson: The hon. Lady is giving a characteristically great speech. I agree with absolutely everything that she has said. Will she therefore explain the logic of the last Government cutting 200,000 places, thus denying people opportunity and choice?

Jenny Chapman: When I consider the issue I look at what is happening now, and numbers in my constituency have risen by 66%—66% more infant school pupils are

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being taught in classes of more than 30. That is happening now, and I am interested in what the Government will do to fix it.

I am a bit like some of my colleagues who said that they did not want to upset the shadow Secretary of State—of course I do not want to upset him. I do not think he would be upset by what I am about to say, but I do not produce a lot of antibodies at the mention of a free school. In Darlington we have a school that is a free school in name only. It was established by a local academy that wanted extra provision for pupils with special needs. We are a pragmatic bunch in Darlington and will go where the money is. These days, if we want capital money, we make ourselves a free school—“Thank you very much, we’ll have one of those.” We have that and it is going fine. There was not a peep out of me as a Labour MP or the Labour council. We will get on with it, and if it gets us the outcomes we need for young people in the town, that is what we will do.

We have another free school that is a little more unusual because it is a private school that decided it would like to become a free school. That got me scratching my head a little—I think that finances may have been a little tight, which may have focused its mind on that transition. However, as a good socialist, the opportunity to take away a fee-paying school and make education available to all was not something I was going to let pass by, and I have worked with those trying to set up the free school and wish it every success. It will be relatively small and will help to provide the additional places that we may need in Darlington, particularly for primary education.

I have listened to colleagues from different parts of the country and it is clearly not the experience everywhere that the additional resources—scarce though they are—are following the additional need. That is where our objection lies. This is not about governance. We are quite relaxed about different forms of governance in education, as we can prove by our record. It is about ensuring that we spend the money where it needs to be spent, so that we do not end up with class sizes creeping up slowly over time.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Everyone would agree that capital spend, limited as it always is, should focus on areas of greatest need, but does the hon. Lady recognise that the problem in Enfield was that the previous Government did not follow that through? They focused on Building Schools for the Future to fund secondary school buildings, and £1 million spent on consultants and not a brick laid to build more. Our primary schools were bursting at the seams, and desperately in need of what they have now achieved in terms of doubling spending and getting more primary school places. That is what the Government are now doing.

Jenny Chapman: I do not know the situation in Enfield, obviously, but I recognise the Building Schools for the Future that the hon. Gentleman describes. I tried to get BSF money for Darlington for three schools that badly needed it, and found the process absolutely tortuous. The process was perhaps too heavy and too rigorous, but it was there to ensure that resources went to the schools that needed them most. We had to demonstrate that the places we were creating and building capacity for would be needed, that we were not creating

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surplus places and there was demand for places in those schools, and that the right decision would not have been to go and expand another popular school somewhere else. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s criticism of BSF up to a point, but this Government have gone too far the other way. There needs to be some kind of procedure to ensure that money is spent where it is needed, and I have not heard any real answer to that throughout the debate.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Is the hon. Lady aware that in my constituency there were, I think, six secondary schools, and that from today there are seven? The reason their number has grown—the reason we needed a new school—was that one school was good and five were poor. The creation of a new school will give the other children the chance to do well.

Jenny Chapman: I am not familiar with the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and he did not actually tell me where his constituency was, so I am slightly disadvantaged, but I support the idea of looking at the choices parents make, and where there is pressure on a small but popular school, I favour its expansion to enable parental choice, if that can be done without harming the educational standards of the students already there. Opposition Members have supported that approach in their constituencies for years, so I do not see it as a point of debate.

My concern is about the standard of education afforded to children being taught in extremely large classes. I queried our briefing on this debate, which said there were classes of 70, and I could not believe it possible—it is not something I have ever witnessed—but I was assured that it was happening. If so, it is an urgent problem that must be addressed immediately. It would be galling if hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), saw money being spent in other boroughs, while her parents cannot get their children into classes of reasonable sizes.

It might seem like we are picking at a sore just to make a political point, but that is not it; this is about the future and what it signals not just for young people being educated now, but for all children as they progress through their school careers. We must nip this problem in the bud because if it continues it will only get worse, and children’s secondary education will be affected far more. Schools are probably managing quite well now, so this is more about the future than the argument over free schools or what the last Labour Government spent on school buildings. I am proud of what that Government achieved. In 1997, we had outdoor toilets in schools in Darlington, but we rebuilt, I think, every primary school in the town. Outcomes for young people and children there have soared ever since; the achievement gap between the highest and lowest achievers has narrowed, and the achievement of the top kids has got even better. That is a great record, and I am very proud of it, and it would be a shame if we let something like class sizes prevent that opportunity from being afforded to young people growing up now.

6.32 pm