HC Deb 17 October 1995 vol 264 cc134-6
8. Mr. Khabra

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what research her Department has undertaken on the effect of class size on education standards. [35998]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

We continue to monitor research on Ofsted evidence in this area.

Mr. Khabra

The Minister has given a very unsatisfactory reply. May I draw her attention to the comments of Duncan Graham, the former chairman and chief executive of the National Curriculum Council, who is reported in the press as saying that the national curriculum could not be delivered properly in classes of more than 35 and children in groups of 40 and over were 'getting a raw deal"? We are already nearly 10,000 teachers short of the number required to maintain class sizes. Will the Minister deal with these fundamental questions? I should like a positive response.

Mrs. Shephard

Classes are not too large to deliver the national curriculum effectively. That is not only my view but that of the chief inspector. Clearly, the national curriculum is now slimmer than it was when Mr. Graham was chairman of the National Curriculum Council. I repeat that the quality of teaching depends on the quality of teachers, not class size.

Mr. Pawsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's education reforms have done much to improve the quality and standard of state education? Does she agree, however, that an increase in class sizes may jeopardise those reforms? May I therefore ask her to redouble her efforts to persuade her Cabinet colleagues to fund in full the next teachers' pay award?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is an inspiration and support, as always. He will know that at this time of year it is normal for members of the Cabinet to be engaged in vigorous debate.

Mr. Blunkett

It sounds as though we have another convert on our hands.

Does the Secretary of State agree that when the Deputy Prime Minister said last week that it was necessary to allow 60,000 children to "escape", as he put it, from the inadequacy of inner-city education, he was making the biggest indictment possible of 16 years of Conservative government? If £220 million is available, should not it go to lowering class sizes for 1.5 million children in infant schools or 7 million children in our state system, not merely to allowing 60,000 children to escape Tory incompetence?

Mrs. Shephard

It really is time that Labour Members stopped perpetuating the fiction that they are remotely interested in raising standards in our schools. They have consistently opposed every standard-raising measure that has gone through the House. The opposition of Labour Members to choice, diversity of provision and excellence is well known and well documented; so is their principal motivation of class envy. All those factors are well illustrated in their desire to end the assisted places scheme, which provides real opportunities for children from poorer families. Sadly, the Labour party is the enemy of aspiration.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, despite all the huffing and puffing by the Labour party, pupil-teacher ratios have fallen substantially—from 19:1 to 18:1—since it was in office, that over the same period the number of support staff in our schools has vastly increased, and that how classes are organised within that ratio is entirely a matter for the head teacher?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is right, as always. Class size statistics tell us nothing about how teachers now work and how pupils learn.

Mr. Beggs

Does the Secretary of State agree that, irrespective of class sizes, the class teacher's ability to identify through early assessment the special needs of individual children, and the provision of individual help, will play a major part in raising standards?

Mrs. Shephard

Indeed, assessment and testing at all stages throughout a pupil's career are extremely important, and our nursery initiative will enable us to examine carefully what children can achieve when they reach primary school.

Dr. Spink

Is my right hon. Friend aware that when the Education Select Committee visited Japan it found that in some subjects standards were higher than in this country, yet that class sizes were invariably much higher than in this country? Does she not conclude from that evidence that it is the quality of teaching and the involvement of parents that dictates achievement and outcome, and that those are the areas that we should address most aggressively?

Mrs. Shephard

Yes, I am happy that the Select Committee's visit to Japan confirmed my conviction that it is the quality of teaching that matters.