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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My noble friend Lady Young understood me to say that there is a statutory limitation on class sizes in Scotland. I do not think that I did say that. The limitation is made by the teaching profession through its contract. The limitation is 33 for class sizes right through the school, unless they are mixed groups when the limitation is 25. There is a lower limit in relation to practical subjects at secondary schools. However, those limits apply to denominational schools as with all others and there is inflexibility.

Baroness Blackstone: These amendments cover the question of whether there is a need to disapply limits in certain circumstances. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 apply to foundation and aided schools. They would both allow denominational schools the discretion to have infants in classes of more than 30, if it were necessary to do so to admit a child who could not otherwise find a place in

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a school of that denomination. The effects of the two amendments would be very similar, so I hope that the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Blatch, will be content for me to address these amendments together.

Responding in particular to what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, the Government are of course sensitive to the concerns of parents who practise a particular religion and wish their child to be able to attend a school of a suitable religious character. I also understand that the Churches wish to offer places to children of their faith. That is perfectly obvious and totally understandable.

But I firmly believe that infants in an aided school--or any other denominational school--have the same right as other infants to be taught in classes of 30 or fewer. That is a view that the Church authorities have supported in discussions with Ministers and departmental officials and it is a view which the right reverend Prelate expressed. And the strong mandate that this Government have for acting to cut infant class sizes extends as much to denominational schools as to others. The educational benefits are the same in those schools as they are in maintained schools. It would be extremely undesirable to have a situation where denominational schools had large numbers in their infant school classes--much larger than in maintained schools.

Lord Elton: I thought I heard the Minister say that the educational benefits were the same in the two different kinds of schools. In fact, the point of having Church schools is that the educational content is different. The Minister's statement was surely a false statement.

Baroness Blackstone: With respect, that is not quite what I said and I am sorry that I did not make it clearer. The educational benefits of smaller class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds are exactly the same in denominational schools as they are in LEA maintained schools.

Again, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon made clear, once one breaches the policy of a target of no more than 30 children, where does one stop? It would be extremely undesirable to have much larger classes in denominational schools.

We are seeking to achieve a situation where all children are taught in classes of 30 or fewer but where more children than at present are admitted to a school of their parents' preference. That does not apply only to schools of a religious character. We are aware that it is an issue for rural schools more generally. That is the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on several occasions.

In discussions in another place, the Minister for School Standards gave reassurances on rural schools. He said:

    "Through the regulations and the code of practice on admissions, the Government will ensure that if a 31st child cannot be accommodated within a reasonable distance of a small rural school, the local education authority will be required to provide additional resources so that both problems can be addressed: the child can attend the school and class sizes can be kept below 30".

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The regulations and guidance on which we are presently consulting and which the noble Baroness has received--indeed, she just quoted from them--give further information on how that can be effected.

However, perhaps I may return to Church schools. As the right reverend Prelate said, we made it clear in the guidance that the denominational provision should also be safeguarded. We state that in meeting class size limits,

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

Again, that is something that the right reverend Prelate made clear in his intervention.

Both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked about capital costs and whether Church schools will have to make the 15 per cent. contribution. Perhaps I may state clearly that the Government have decided that a 100 per cent. grant will be paid and that Church schools will not be required to make the 15 per cent. contribution in this instance.

We also made it clear that LEAs will have to consult Church representatives when preparing their class size implementation plans. LEAs must have regard to the demand for denominational provision and find ways to provide suitable provision within their plans.

The principle that all infants--whatever their school--are entitled to the qualified teaching support offered in a class of 30 or fewer is one that we will defend firmly. I do not need to say again that it was a clear manifesto commitment and one that has the support of both parents and teachers. I know that there are implementation issues on which we greatly value the views of the Church authorities; indeed, we have consulted them very extensively in that respect. Their officials have met those of the Department for Education and Employment on a number of occasions. The Minister for School Standards and I will be meeting Church representatives next week. We will of course listen very carefully to any issues that they may wish to raise. Given those reassurances, I hope that the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Blatch, will agree not to press their amendments.

Amendment No. 9 seeks to ensure that children may attend the same school as their siblings. Again, I believe that few of us would dispute that that is a reasonable aim. However, with my own children, who used to argue so much, I sometimes thought that they might have been better off attending different schools where they would not run into each other in the playground. Nevertheless, the amendment is unnecessary. I say that because admissions authorities can determine the criteria on which places will be allocated to children where a school is oversubscribed. The presence of siblings is a factor which almost all authorities--indeed, almost without exception--already bear in mind, though it is perhaps worth mentioning that, even now, a child who has an elder sibling in a school cannot be absolutely guaranteed a place there. There are occasions where that is not possible.

As well as being unnecessary, the amendment could undermine the implementation of the Government's manifesto pledge to reduce infant class sizes in a way

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that I do not believe the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, had in mind. The amendment would allow any admissions authority that wished to disregard limits on class sizes to do so by excluding siblings from normal admissions criteria, knowing that they could still be admitted after the normal admissions round whatever the effect on class sizes. We expect that admissions authorities will continue to use the presence of siblings as one of their admissions criteria. The amendment is, therefore, unnecessary. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree not to press it.

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of special needs as an exception. This would only be allowable where the admission took place outside the normal admissions cycle. I believe that I should make that clear. The aim is to ensure that children with special needs are admitted to the most suitable school. I am sure that all Members of the Committee will agree that that is terribly important. However, that does not mean that extra resources will not be provided. We will ask LEAs to set out what they will do in such cases. We would expect extra resources to be provided in virtually all cases.

Amendment No. 10 illustrates, perhaps more than any other amendment tabled for discussion today, what seems like a fundamental opposition to the principle of the Government being able to set and achieve smaller infant class sizes in every school class in the country. Of course, the noble Baroness is entitled to hold that view, but I should remind the Committee that the commitment to reduce infant class sizes, which must involve some limits being imposed by the Government, is a pledge. The Government received a clear mandate from the electorate a year ago.

The amendment would enable any school to "opt out" from limits that the Government may impose. The circumstances in which ballots could be called are not set out in the amendment. But I cannot accept that such a fundamental and popular aspect of our proposals to raise standards in the early years should be open to school-by-school disapplication in the way suggested. I believe that that would be a betrayal of our pledge. I hope very much that the noble Baroness will, therefore, understand our purpose and will not press her amendment.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Byford: I have a question for the Minister before she sits down. In her response, the noble Baroness implied that it is important, if possible, for siblings to be able to attend the same school, although in her own family's case she might prefer that that did not happen. However, at this stage of the Bill, we are referring to Church schools where the case of siblings is even stronger than it would be at a normal maintained school. Can the Minister comment further on that?

Obviously, if the 31st place in a school arises, there is not, perhaps, another choice of Church school or denominational school for that child to attend. Therefore, if the amendment were not accepted, we could have a situation where it would be necessary to provide, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, suggested

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earlier, a whole range of extra expense for one child which might disappear the next year. Can the Minister comment in that respect?

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