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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I rise to support the amendment. As I said on Second Reading, I live in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which is one of the four local authorities which has been carrying out the pilot scheme in the current academic year. As I also mentioned on Second Reading, my daughter is just finishing her year in the reception class of our local primary school. She was too old for a voucher, but the parents of many of her younger classmates received them.

Our local primary school is very popular. It is over-subscribed. As my noble friend has just said, many parents try to get their four year-olds into the school by securing a place in the reception class. They are told that that does not guarantee a place at the school, but many parents nevertheless try to get their child into the reception class there. As a result, my daughter is in a class of 32 children, which I believe to be too large. While I have nothing but admiration for the school and teachers, I believe that the class is too large to teach four year-olds as effectively as they could be taught. I am not alone in raising this concern. Every parent to whom I have spoken has expressed this concern to me and to anyone else who will listen.

It is wrong that a school should be under pressure to maximise the numbers in its reception class in order to optimise the class size when statutory schooling starts. In today's jargon, the school wants to achieve a high market share to secure its future. We are not talking about market share but four year-olds. It should be the role of Government to set the limits within which the market can operate.

Parents have an overwhelming concern about this issue, and I believe that the Government have a responsibility in this area. It may be said that I have a choice and I can send my daughter to another school. I have an abundance of choice of nursery education, but I have chosen to send her to a school within walking distance of my home, and a school which will go on

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to be her primary school. The Government should be responsible for ensuring that the school is not subject to market forces; or they should contain market forces to maximise the benefit to my daughter and other children of four, rising five.

I believe that this is the most important amendment to be discussed this evening. When talking to fellow parents it is the issue which is raised more than any other. I support the amendment.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will urge the House to reject the amendment. While facilities for educating children of this age are very important, I believe that if this amendment were passed it would establish an unfortunate precedent for local education authorities and schools. The words are not for guidance or recommendations but prescription. If this precedent were followed in the rest of compulsory education it could take away from local education authorities the right to determine class size. Even if that is not the intention of noble Lords opposite, I believe that it betrays a lack of trust in local education authorities. Local education authorities have determined many of these matters over the years with regard to the compulsory years of education. We should be content to allow them to exercise their discretion and make their own arrangements in the years of nursery education. I hope that the amendment is rejected.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak after the noble Lord, particularly as for many years he has been one of my colleagues in local government. I should like to put a question to the Minister. Given that there is a national maximum class size agreement in Scotland, will that apply to children going into classes who are in receipt of vouchers under the Government's proposals? Freedom to place children in classes whose maximum size is greater than a nationally agreed level is something I have yet to see supported by parents. Parents do not believe that larger and larger numbers of children in classrooms are a good idea. I repeat what I have said on many occasions. If class size is irrelevant, why does every brochure of every private school refer to the benefits of children being in small classes?

We are dealing with very young children. I believe it is possible to construct a staffing ratio to provide training and opportunities in a reception class which will cater for a child with special needs, or who is immature at the age of four, as readily as for a child aged five who is at an advanced stage of learning for that age group. But I do not believe it is possible to provide a good standard or quality of education if those two children are in the same class with no stipulation as to the adult:child ratio. Given that since the 1980s there would have been protection for children had the then Secretary of State, Mr. Kenneth Baker, not overturned the agreement between teachers and their employers in the final Burnham pay talks, at this stage the least that the Government can do is protect the very youngest.

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6.15 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I rise to support briefly but enthusiastically this amendment. One of the most important matters with which we should be concerned is the size of classes for very small children, or the number of people available in any class to deal with pupils; in other words, the pupil:staff ratio. A class of 25 or 30 children with two adults in the class may work very effectively; a class of over 30 with only one person in the class will almost certainly not give a good standard of education to those in the class, particularly if they are very young. We are talking about laying down not an absolute standard but a minimum standard upon which education authorities and providers of all kinds can build. We are not saying that they must have this or that but that they must not have more than a certain number.

Every parent to whom I have spoken takes this matter very seriously. Parents of children of all ages do not like large classes. It is no good the Government telling parents in various declarations that the educational attainment of children who come from large classes is different from that achieved by those who come from smaller classes. They know that the children are happier, busier and more committed to the class when they have a greater share of the member of staff's attention. If that is true of children in the primary and secondary sectors it is doubly true of children in the younger age groups. I urge the Minister to look upon this amendment with sympathy and perhaps come back to it at a later stage. I believe that across the country there is great support for a movement in the direction indicated by this amendment.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on quite rightly exercising his choice. But I remind him that he made his choice and sent his daughter to a reception class of 32. An amendment of this kind could limit his choice if it reduced the size of a reception class. I believe that that is a matter that he ought to bear in mind.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I live within the catchment area of the primary school. It would not limit my choice if I sent my daughter to that school, but it would limit the number of children within that class. Therefore, it would be to my absolute benefit if the class size were reduced.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am grateful for the frankness of the noble Lord in admitting that that would not affect his choice. It would certainly affect the choice of a number of others, which is an important point to remember.

We discussed this point very late at night in Committee. I appreciate that the debate was cut short somewhat. I should like to respond in detail to the various points that have been made. Like the noble Baroness, Lady David, I begin by setting out the various staffing ratios which apply at the moment. For those settings registered under the Children Act an

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adult/child ratio of 1:8 is required for children aged three to five. We believe that it is necessary to regulate in these settings because of the age of the children and the nature of the provision on offer--often full day care lasting up to 12 hours a day. For nursery classes and nursery schools a ratio of 1:13 is recommended--I stress recommended--where half of the staff are teachers. A ratio of 1:10 is recommended where the head teacher teaches. We believe that it is necessary to provide this guidance again because of the age of the children. Nursery schools and classes cater primarily for three and four year-olds, but it is often the case that two year-olds are admitted.

As noble Lords will know, at the moment there is no recommended staffing ratio, or adult/child ratio, for reception classes. Nevertheless, the Ofsted report Class Size and the Quality of Education published last year found that 54 per cent. of reception classes were of 25 pupils or fewer. Furthermore, 25 per cent. of classes had 20 or fewer. It is also important to acknowledge that in many reception classes there are classroom assistants working alongside qualified teachers. Indeed, it is often the case that when an LEA chooses to move to a single point of admission for all children it specifically addresses the concerns raised by noble Lords by training classroom assistants.

These figures clearly demonstrate that in many reception classes the adult/child ratio is already lower than that recommended for maintained nursery schools and classes; that is, 1:13. We should also recognise that teacher numbers have risen in recent years and numbers of support staff in primary schools have risen significantly. I believe that we also need to recognise the quality of provision that is already on offer in the majority of reception classes. First Class, an Ofsted report on the standards and quality of education in reception classes, published in 1993, found that the overall standards of work were satisfactory or better in nearly 80 per cent. of reception classes seen. And let us remember that we are focusing on outputs, not inputs. We believe that the SCAA desirable learning outcomes are the important factor here.

In assessing an amendment which seeks to impose a staffing ratio in respect of the four year-olds in reception classes, it is also important to realise that few reception classes cater for four year-olds exclusively. The nature of reception classes makes them different from nursery classes. Reception classes are to all intents and purposes, though not in law, the start of the compulsory years of education. Reception classes tend to include children aged four and five, or even four, five and six. It cannot be practical to set a staffing ratio that applies only to the four year-olds in a mixed age group class.

I believe that arbitrary limits on class size would be unhelpful. They would reduce the freedom of schools and local authorities to make the best use of their resources. I believe that we should preserve the freedom of LEAs and governors to do this. I have no doubt that they will keep the number of children in

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reception, and, indeed, in all, classes to a reasonable, manageable and safe level, as they do at present. I do not accept that they will "pack four year-olds" inappropriately into reception classes purely for financial gain, as the noble Baroness, Lady David, implied.

Let us consider the impact on a school of a very large reception class. Once children have gained admittance to a reception class they have a secure place at that school for the duration. A school would have to cope with a large group of children as they progressed through the school. There is no question of taking in a large reception class and then excluding some children from year one of compulsory education. I cannot believe that any governing body or LEA would think such a situation desirable.

Let us also be clear about where the decision lies to admit children to school. Admissions authorities, LEAs in most cases, will decide on the appropriate admission pattern for their area. That control mechanism, coupled with LMS funding, means that LEAs are in a position to take an overall view of the nature of provision they wish to offer and the appropriateness of early admission to reception classes.

Ultimately, of course, this is a matter of parental choice. If schools, for whatever reason, do not offer the type of nursery provision that parents want they will take their children elsewhere. I expect that parents will take into account the size of the groups in pre-school compared to the size of classes in school when they make their choices. The choice was open to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, as he admitted, where there was a wealth of provision in the area.

Nevertheless, so that governors are totally clear about what is expected, guidance on school accommodation is to be published later this summer. It will include a section on nursery provision.

In conclusion, I am convinced that the quality of work in reception classes will be maintained and, over time, will improve under the voucher scheme. I believe that LEAs and schools will continue to do what is best for the children in their charge. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness, Lady David, will not consider it necessary to press her amendment.

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