HC Deb 21 March 1995 vol 257 cc133-4
7. Mr. Simon Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment Her Majesty's Government have made of the links between class sizes and pupil attainment. [13248]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

The accumulated research evidence has not demonstrated any conclusive link between marginal changes in class size and pupil attainment. What matters most is the quality of teaching provided.

Mr. Hughes

Does the Secretary of State accept that 1 million primary school pupils are now in classes of over 30; that the size of primary school classes has increased by 20 per cent. over the past two years; and that this year's settlement will result in further increases in class sizes next year? Will she therefore come clean over Government policy? Do they favour smaller classes, as set out in their 1983 and 1987 manifestos; are they neutral about smaller classes, as they showed by saying nothing about them in their last manifesto; or do they now argue that class size increases make no difference? If the Government think that class sizes make no difference, I presume that their education policy is like their taxation policy, on which they argue one thing but are so incompetent that they produce exactly the opposite result.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I expect that he is overjoyed that Southwark will spend an extra £8 million on schools this year. He must be delighted by the Government's generosity in making that possible. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sorry but I have asked hon. Members to be careful when entering the Chamber when a Minister is responding to an hon. Member.

Mrs. Shephard

It is worth while for the hon. Gentleman to note that, while class sizes have edged up recently, standards have improved steadily at all levels at the same time. Moreover, Ofsted reports have made no suggestion that class sizes are too large, and there is clear professional advice that teaching quality and leadership, to which we are committed, are the key factors.

Sir Malcolm Thornton

Will my right hon. Friend add to those qualities classroom organisation and preparation? Will she reiterate the point that the evidence on class sizes is ambiguous and that, as in the recent past, examples in the former ILEA showed clearly that the linkage between resources and attainment was far from conclusive?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no conclusive linkage between resources and attainment. He is also right that teacher competence is the most important factor, which is why I am extremely pleased that we have been able to devote £250,000 to school effectiveness, in-service training, and grants for education, support and training programmes to achieve that competence.

Mr. Blunkett

Does the Secretary of State believe the head of the private girls' high school in Sheffield who said on local radio recently that the three major reasons why her school was so successful were that she could choose her own pupils, she did not have to follow the national curriculum, and her class sizes were half those of neighbouring state schools? Who does the Secretary of State believe this afternoon: those who are lobbying as parents, governors and teachers, including the heads of private schools, who say that class sizes are crucial; or those around her who believe that the cuts in education imposed in the coming year will have no effect on standards and opportunities?

Mrs. Shephard

The vast majority of pupils are taught in classes of 30 and below. The average size of classes in the primary sector is under 27 and, in the secondary sector, just over 21. One of the reasons why people choose the independent sector for their children is that, like Conservative Members, they value choice and diversity. So, too, do many of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, including the hon. Members for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) and for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). Perhaps he should ask them for their reasons. I am sure that they would be happy to explain.