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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for moving the amendment, although I have some hesitations which I shall express in a moment. I understand that as a result of the policy there will be no reduction in the number of denominational places. If a class in an aided school has to be reduced from 35 to 30, the loss will be made up either by the provision of additional teachers or by the expansion of popular schools, many of which are Church schools.

I am also grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining clearly the point about capital costs contributions. Revenue costs are not met by the Churches, but a 15 per cent. capital cost must be met. If additional buildings were required under the legislation, would the cost have to be met by a 15 per cent. contribution from the Churches?

My hesitation about the amendment relates to the question of where one stops. The amendment gives no indication of whether 30 or 31 is to be the limit. Why should it not be 32? One is into a game of arbitrarily guessing the limit. That will put great pressure on governing bodies which are already powerfully lobbied over admissions. Indeed, I am lobbied by people who want their children to attend Church schools. If the amendment were passed, governors would be subject to immense pressure by parents who want their children to attend Church schools. That desire is not always as a result of denominational allegiance; parents choose Church schools for other reasons.

Perhaps I am reading too much into the amendment, but there is a possibility that it could be used to override the admissions criteria. I am looking at Amendment

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No. 8 rather than Amendment No. 7. Under Amendment No. 8 three criteria are required. The first is the desire expressed by the parents. Many parents express a desire for Church schools. The second is the willingness of the admissions authority. It does not state that it must comply with the admissions criteria. The third is that no alternative place is available. If one goes down that route there is a possibility of putting immense pressure on governing bodies to override their admissions policies and a possible relaxing of admissions criteria to which governors strictly adhere.

While I sympathise with the concerns of the noble Baroness, I am not convinced that this way of handling them is an answer.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: Amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 10 are in the group and I shall address those when addressing Amendment No. 7. I do not share the right reverend Prelate's cynicism about the amendment--

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I used the word "hesitation" rather than "cynicism".

Baroness Blatch: I detected a note of cynicism that parents will want; that simply, because they want, the pressure will be too great and therefore it should not be acceded to. There is one small addition to that. I am sure the Committee will find that parents do not want their children in classes of 35, 36, 37 and 40. Therefore, the policy will become self-regulating for the school and will strengthen the arm of the governors in setting the limit. After all, the governors are the servants of the parents; they are mediators between the school and parents.

I take the right reverend Prelate's point that many people are desirous of their children attending a Church school. Such schools are enormously popular, and for good reasons. However, if the governors and their parent body take an annual view that the class limit should not exceed 30--I have always thought that it should be the exception rather than the rule--we should trust the governors and the parents to reach that view.

I strongly support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Young and I turn to the amendments standing in my name. I wish to speak up for siblings and parental preference. I have carefully read the draft consultation document on reducing infant class sizes. It makes pleasant reading for parents of children in school. But can the Government really deliver the policy? Paragraphs 9, 10 and 11 present a wonderful contradiction. The Government believe that classes should not exceed 30. For many good reasons, that is a limit they wish to impose by law. However, they make an exception. Can the Committee believe that the exception is for a special needs child? The burden on a teacher will be greater if the 31st child is a disruptive pupil, a child with special educational needs or whatever. The school will be able to exceed the limit and receive a special educational needs child. Therefore, the burden on the teacher will be greater than if the child exceeding the limit were without such special needs.

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The Government are making a serious contradiction by stating that schools can break the limit in circumstances which will make life even more difficult for the teacher. If ever there was an argument for special assistance for a classroom teacher it would be in the school which in the course of a year was directed to take a special educational needs statemented child into a classroom which already had 30 children, perhaps when other schools in the area did not have such a problem and were treated more generously. I do not know why the Government are prepared to make a single teacher available to the 31st child with no special educational needs but are not prepared to make available a teacher to the 31st or 32nd child who has special educational needs. Where is the logic in that? It simply does not add up. There is a real contradiction.

Paragraph 13 states that, while it is not possible to guarantee all parents that their child will gain a place in the school of their choice, the class size plans of local education authorities must not lead to a reduction in parental preference. Indeed, it goes on to say that they must enhance it. Therefore, it will be difficult to enhance preference in the more popular schools. It says that LEAs should plan on the basis of enhancing the exercise of parental preference wherever possible. That would mean that no children should have to travel unreasonable distances. Surplus places in poor schools should not be filled by keeping children out of schools that offer higher standards and a better quality of education. Before the Bill passes from this House, it is important that we receive from the Minister information as to what the Government consider to be a poor school.

Let us take the example of a parent who chooses a school and the child is rejected because it is the 31st child. The school down the road is not a poor school but it is a poorer school than the chosen school. Is that acceptable or unacceptable under paragraph 13(c)? Paragraph 13(c) states that,

    "where extra places are needed, they should be created in popular, over-subscribed schools with high standards".

There should be an open-door policy for all popular schools to be expanded and government will pay. That is based on Ofsted reports and value-added, where available. Paragraph 13(d) states that,

    "the proportion of denominational provision for any denomination should not be reduced".

Again, that means that any child who cannot find an alternative denominational school will be allowed to attend that school, irrespective of the numbers, but the teachers will be provided.

In the longer term it states that LEAs,

    "should seek to increase the proportion of provision in popular, over-subscribed schools with high standards".

Paragraph 14--and this is in bold type so the Government mean to emphasise the point--states that:

    "The Secretary of State will not approve plans that do not demonstrate that the LEA has given due regard to the exercise of parental preference".

As former local government member and member of the local education authority, I would say that that is an equation which simply does not add up. I do not believe that that kind of money is sitting there, waiting to fall

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from the Treasury as pre-emptive money; that is, money which comes before money to be spent on high standards, teacher training, capital for crumbling schools or whatever it may be. The first priority, by 2001, is class sizes and whatever it costs, that cost will be met. That is what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said earlier. The local authorities will be pleased to hear that. But those local authorities which have additional expenditure in order to meet the costs incurred by crumbling schools, training of teachers and governors, or improving standards in many other ways will find, before they do anything else, that are hamstrung by this concrete and unequivocal pledge which must be met and paid for.

Of course, I have already mentioned--and it will not be the last time I mention it in the course of our deliberations--that the 31st child shall receive a qualified teacher if it falls into any of the categories in paragraphs 13(a) to (e). The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has, probably more clearly than anyone, set out that unequivocal promise. Therefore, there is no problem about these amendments. There is not a problem above protecting denominational preference or sibling preference, because that would be a parental preference. There is no problem in relation to my Amendment No. 10 which provides an exception where the majority of parents agree by a ballot--and I suggest a ballot could be used.

Amendment No. 11 takes me right back to where we started painfully at the beginning of the day; that is, that when these regulations come forward, they really must be dealt with by the affirmative resolution. I am reminded that that amendment has now been degrouped. I shall deal with it when we reach the appropriate point in the Marshalled List.

If we put together the answers from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and the answers that we have had so far from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, we understand that other areas of education will not be disadvantaged; no higher class sizes for junior school children; and no denial of denominational or parental, and therefore sibling, preference. If that is all written on to the face of the Bill, parents will then be really reassured.

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