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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: Before the noble Lord sits down, do his remarks mean that we could find ourselves in a situation whereby children of statutory school age are in classes of limited numbers--I shall not enter into the argument as to whether the figure 30 should be on the face of the Bill, but I refer to a limitation on the number in the class--whereas younger children, because they are not statutorily a part of the education process, can be in much larger classes?

Lord Whitty: No, that is not the intention; nor is it the reality. At present, private sector pre-school provision is subject to regulation, and the public sector is subject to fairly firm guidance. There is no intention of relaxing that as a result of these regulations.

Baroness Blatch: I can tell the Committee that that is far from the practice in the field. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, as he shares the education portfolio on the Front Bench, ought to get out there and see that there is a vast difference between the restrictions on private playschool provision and what in fact happens in reception classes, where four year-olds frequently reside in schools.

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Perhaps I may tempt the noble Lord, who hints at being empathetic and sympathetic to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. There seems to be agreement across the Committee that whatever the outcome of the review--I would not put numbers on it--and whatever the adult-child ratio is for one part of the sector for under-fives, that should pertain throughout, whether public or private. If the noble Lord can give acceptance to that idea, perhaps we can bring forward an amendment to set it down on the face of the Bill that equal treatment should be meted out to under-fives, whether in public or private provision.

Lord Whitty: No doubt the noble Baroness will consider whether she wishes to bring forward amendments to the Bill. However, this clause is not the appropriate point for such an amendment. I am not in a position to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. The view may well be that differential arrangements are appropriate. I accept the noble Baroness's point that there are differing problems in different parts of pre-school provision. Clearly, that will form part of the consultation in which we are engaged with all groups--public, private, parents, local education authorities, health departments and so on. I do not wish today to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation. The noble Baroness is correct in saying that I have some sympathy with the point that lies behind the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Northbourne: I am grateful to the Minister for being helpful. We have not by any means got there yet. I wish to make one point before withdrawing the amendment at this stage; namely, that the definition of "infant class" in the Bill is,

    "a class containing pupils the majority of whom will attain the age of five, six or seven during the course of the school year".

It therefore excludes all younger children.

If we are to have any kind of coherent, seamless policy, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment will have to get their heads together. I hope that they are both participating in the consultation. I shall withdraw the amendment at this stage so that I can look at the consultation and discuss it with colleagues. I may or may not wish to bring the amendment back in another form. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 1, line 21, at end insert--
("(c) provide that schools are separately reimbursed for any capital costs of complying with provision made under this section.").

The noble Baroness said: I notified the noble Baroness the Minister that I shall move the amendments on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lucas, who apologises for not being able to be present today. Most are probing amendments. His Amendment No. 4 refers particularly to the capital costs of complying with provision for schools under this section.

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The noble Lord wished to ask the Minister whether she is able to confirm that this amendment is unnecessary because schools will be fully funded for any improvements that they need to make and will not be expected to dip into their existing budget.

Earlier in the debate today she said with regard to this point that the cost would be met. However, at that stage we were not discussing capital costs. This amendment refers in particular to the capital costs--in other words, extra classrooms, extra buildings. Will the Minister tell the Committee who will be responsible for that extra cost? Will it be fully met by the Government, or will LEAs also be involved in the capital cost? I hope that that is indeed the suggestion that the noble Lord would have put to the Minister. I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 21 in this group. I shall also refer to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.

Amendment No. 21 is also a probing amendment. Its purpose is to encourage the Minister to make a commitment that the money made available from the abolition of the assisted places scheme will be transferred to the revenue support grant by September 2001. That is the date by which the Government have said their pledge on class sizes will be honoured.

In another place the Minister explained that the funding for the reduction in infant class sizes would eventually be distributed through normal grant mechanisms. However, there was no undertaking as to when that would happen. We seek to press the Government to commit themselves to a timetable for the policies that they have pledged themselves to introduce. That should not present a difficulty for them, unless in their hearts they fear that the Treasury may not be able to stump up the money that is required at a later date. We support the Government in this matter. I hope that they will realise that we are trying to be helpful to them in ensuring that the Treasury enables them to take forward their commitments.

I now turn to Amendment No. 4. Behind this amendment is another important issue; namely, space standards. The amendment relates to capital costs. However, in carrying out the reduction in class sizes, those classes will require somewhere to go. I know that the Government, like ourselves, were against the reduction in space standards under the previous government. I have experience of being a governor in a first school and I know how important space is if a large number of special needs children enter mainstream schools. Furthermore, modern teaching methods have seen the introduction of a lot more equipment for information technology. The ability to take small groups aside and help those who are failing, particularly in reading, requires space. Yet under the previous government we saw a reduction in space standards. I had hoped that this was one of the areas that this Government would reverse. Government Ministers, when in Opposition, heavily attacked the previous administration on the reduction in space standards. I therefore hope that today the Minister will give us

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some hope that the Government recognise the problem and can assure us that capital will be available to ensure that children have not only enough teachers, but enough space in which the teaching can be done.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I have not previously joined in the discussion on the Bill. I was unavoidably prevented from speaking on Second Reading and I could not be here to discuss class sizes, which I very much hoped to do because there is a good deal of experience on that subject in Scotland.

On this point, I emphasise that we are not talking about sweeties; very large sums of money are likely to be incurred if extra classes have to be put in. I notice from a brief which the Local Government Association kindly sent me that it is anxious about how the Government intend the finance to be fed to the schools. This matters to it very much. The Government will incur huge expense, the amount of which is unknown, if they meet the whole of their aspirations on the reduction of class sizes to 30. It is a very good aspiration, which no one could possibly oppose, but it is important to know how it will be achieved and how the money will be found. I hope that the Minister has a clear idea of how the capital cost will be met so that the schools may have confidence in the Government being able to back them in what they are trying to do.

Baroness Blatch: This is another practical example of how implementing the policy will cause local education authorities some heartache. It seems to us that the matter needs to be unequivocal, either on the face of the Bill or in Hansard using the Pepper v. Hart reference system. Where a capital cost is incurred which is directly related to the class-size pledge, if the Government do not meet it pound for pound, local authorities' priorities will be pre-empted because they will have to meet the cost. They will have no choice but to do so because it will be the law; the letter of the law will have to be met by local education authorities.

We have already heard that the Government can take action under the Education Act 1996. If that is the case, local education authorities will have no option. Where they are expected to meet a capital cost, if it is not reimbursed, their own moneys will be pre-empted. In many instances LEAs may have very different priorities, concerned with health and safety, for example. Their capital moneys under any government will always be limited. This becomes yet another way of pre-empting what local authorities want to spend and their ability to determine their own priorities. I believe it essential that there should be an unequivocal promise that where capital expenditure is incurred as a result of meeting this clear-cut class-size pledge--it is not an obscure policy; one can see it and measure it--the local authority should be reimbursed and the reimbursement should be at the time the local authority requires the money. Local authorities do not have the ability to put money up front in the hope that, through a bidding system, it may or may not come on-stream at some other time, as the case may be.

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