HC Deb 02 June 1997 vol 295 cc21-117

Order for Second Reading read.

3.38 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I believe that I am right that the Bill was published in the recess. Having returned from the recess, we now find ourselves with that Bill; we are to debate its Second Reading today; and further proceedings on it could commence as early as Thursday. Are you satisfied that that time scale is proper and gives adequate time for hon. Members to consider the Bill properly and, in particular, to table amendments, and for outside interests to play their legitimate role? In the light of that, can you give us guidance about whether it would be appropriate to table manuscript amendments?

Madam Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is not quite correct. If he looks at the back of the Bill, he will see that it was printed while we were still in session, on 22 May, giving the two full weekends that are normal and which I consider reasonably adequate. In answer to his last point, I think that about 14 days is long enough to table amendments, and I would not accept manuscript amendments.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The Bill was not available until the morning of 23 May, when, I believe, the House was in recess.

Madam Speaker

I was not aware of that, as it is printed on the Bill that it was available on 22 May. I take on board the right hon. Lady's point.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The Bill has been introduced in undue haste and the Library tells me that there is no compliance cost assessment so we have to rely on the explanatory and financial memorandum. I believe that that memorandum is both incomplete and inaccurate: it does not cover the additional cost to the taxpayer of the increased numbers of children to be educated in the maintained sector; of increasing staff; and of the capital required to expand the system.

Can you advise me, Madam Speaker, whether we can proceed with a Bill that so obviously misleads us as to its financial implications and, more particularly, whether the proceedings this evening on the money resolution should be delayed pending a proper compliance cost assessment from the Government?

Madam Speaker

Let me deal with the last point first. The money resolution can adequately be dealt with, as has always been the case since the new procedures were introduced, in the discussions on the Bill. The other matters that the hon. Lady raised are matters for debate, and she should put her points to Ministers at the Dispatch Box to see what their response is.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Before all this discussion ends, would not it be worth noting that it was not too long ago that the Tory Government introduced changes in procedure in the House? The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) might not have been listening, but the Tory Government got rid of the debates on money resolutions. We used to be able to speak for 45 minutes, but that lot got rid of the debates so everything goes through on the nod. What hypocrisy.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. If you get further points of order about these matters, perhaps you could refer hon. Members to the final chapter of my book, "How to Leave Office Gracefully (or, anyhow, as gracefully as possible)".

Madam Speaker

I have not reached the final chapter yet.

3.42 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Neither have I, Madam Speaker.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Class size matters. We all know that it matters. Those who buy private education for their children know that it matters, as do those who applied to have private education for their children subsidised. Having agreed that it matters—

Mr. Forth

I have not.

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that he has not agreed, but the professional weight is against him, even if the physical weight is not. We, the profession, teachers and the majority of parents have agreed that class size matters. We must therefore ask: to which children does it matter? Does it matter to only a few or to all our children in all our schools?

The answer is very simple: we have a choice between excellence for a few or high-quality education for the many. We have made a choice in favour of the many, because we know that, both for the individuals concerned and for social cohesion and the economy, literacy and numeracy matter to every one of us. Giving children at the earliest stage of their education—at five, six and seven—the chance to succeed, to be taught well and to target their individual needs makes good common sense. If there are resources available, they should be targeted to ensure that all our children, wherever they live and whatever their background, have their opportunity. That is what the Bill is all about.

The Bill is a commitment to restoring the nation's confidence in the education system as a whole, rather than in one that believes that it can deliver excellence only to a tiny minority. In simple terms, the choice is between what the former Deputy Prime Minister described as children being able to "escape from" inner-city inadequacy and investing to ensure that that inadequacy is overcome. This afternoon, we must choose whether to set aside a scheme that has benefited only a tiny minority—in the forthcoming academic year 36,000 children at the most—or to benefit the 450,000 youngsters who are in classes of more than 30 in the relevant age groups.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)


Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)


Mr. Blunkett

I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and then to the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Campbell

Is my right hon. Friend aware how important the Bill is to my constituency, especially to parents at Milton Road infant school, which had an excellent Ofsted report earlier this year but now has to implement £25,000 of cuts imposed by the previous Government? The sooner that we get the Bill into place, with more resources for primary schools, the better.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is worth emphasising that when the previous Government were proposing to impose even more draconian cuts in years ahead, they were prepared to double the assisted places scheme in circumstances that would have resulted in even bigger cuts to the majority of schools.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman on that point.

Mr. Foster

The Secretary of State said that the previous Government were planning further draconian cuts. Has not his Government accepted that they will follow through the previous Conservative Government's spending plans? Is he, for the first time, admitting to the House that, under a Labour Administration, there will be further draconian cuts to our schools?

Mr. Blunkett

I did not hear myself say that. I said that doubling the assisted places scheme would have taken additional money from the rest of the system and, therefore, from other children in other schools. I repeat the manifesto pledge that we stood on. We will not delude people that we can do it overnight, but we will spend a higher proportion of national income on education than did the previous regime. I have every intention that we will do that.

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. I appreciate that he has some difficulty in identifying people across the Chamber. The Bill is silent on the mechanism whereby the resources that it seeks to save can be diverted to other parts of the education system. How will he put in place a mechanism to ensure that increased expenditure takes place when many Labour-controlled local authorities, such as Northamptonshire, have not passed on the extra money that was made available through the standard spending assessment to help with class sizes and schools? How will he achieve that when it was not possible under the previous Government? Will he infringe the rights of local authorities to do it?

Mr. Blunkett

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not have to see his face to give way to him and that I do not need patronising by anyone. I am always happy to take voices and give way as appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the standard spending assessment. The previous Government appeared not to understand the difference between SSA, which is an assessment of what the central Government believe should be spent locally, and the revenue support grant, which backs that up.

It is time that we got the cards well and truly on the table. Had it not been for Labour local authorities, and those supported by the Liberal Democrats, spending about £500 million a year more than the previous Government's SSA, there would have been enormous further cuts in the education system across the country. SSA and revenue support grant are not one and the same thing. Increasing SSA, but then expecting social services to be cut and highways not to be repaired is something that we need to address.

We shall not be able to put that right overnight or in the next 12 months—we made that clear in the run-up to the election—but a degree of honesty about what is happening and the difficulties faced by local authorities would not come amiss. It is my intention to ensure that there is transparency in what we do in the months and years ahead.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it ill-behoves Opposition Members to start to make a fuss about the accuracy of SSAs for student numbers, when, during their period of Government, they made no assessment of SSAs in relation to the increased numbers of students in our schools, year upon year upon year?

Mr. Blunkett

That is an extremely good point and answers entirely the point of order made before the start of the debate. Over the past 10 years, under the previous Government, there was an increase of 450,000 in the number of pupils in state schools and a drop in the number of teachers of approximately 6,000. In other words, the Conservatives put in less money when there were almost half a million extra children in our schools. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated that the marginal cost was so small that it was discountable. The Opposition cannot have it both ways, and they will not have it both ways, either this afternoon or in the foreseeable future, and the nation must be greatly relieved that that is so.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

May I add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said? It is a matter not simply of SSAs, but of the ability of local education authorities to pass money through to schools. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) spoke of cuts in a school in her constituency, yet she will know that a Conservative administration in Cambridgeshire, which was returned on 1 May, is setting about the task of increasing the delegation to schools by £3 million. That dwarfs the amount of money that would be made available by the abolition of the assisted places scheme. That is the right way to go about reducing class sizes—through more efficient expenditure.

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to raising the floor of delegation to 90 per cent., which the Conservatives did not do when in office. However, I have to make it clear that increased delegation should not come at the expense of key and core services such as provision for those with special needs, and we shall protect those services in future.

Let me address directly the issue before us—the assisted places scheme. The Opposition have often claimed that the worse-off benefited from the application of the assisted places scheme: yet a third of those who are currently receiving an assisted place were already in the private sector when those places were applied for and received. They were already paying and felt able to pay for a private sector place—what the former hon. Member for Buckingham, Mr. George Walden, used to describe in several areas of education policy as "dead weight". We have therefore established that some now in receipt of a subsidy did not previously believe that one was needed.

The claim that the poor and the dispossessed are those who benefit is also set aside by the private sector's own research, which found that more than half of those currently receiving an assisted place were described as either middle class or upper middle class in terms of their socio-economic background.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

As I understand the figures from the House of Commons Library, 42 per cent. of the 37,600 parents who send their children to school through the assisted places scheme earn less than £10,000 per annum. They are the underprivileged. I wonder how the Secretary of State feels about taking that away from them?

Mr. Blunkett

The net income of the individual is taken into account, not earnings. As the former Tory Member for Buckingham, Mr. Walden, rightly said in this place, when Lloyd's names find themselves eligible for assisted places and when others find themselves with enormous capital assets following separation or divorce from an extremely wealthy former partner, as a result of a clean-break settlement, they can apply for and receive assisted places. Against that background, who is benefiting from the scheme? That is my point. The better-off seem to be doing pretty well out of the scheme, and have done so over the past 16 years.

The previous Member for Buckingham made a comment that sums up the way that we feel about the scheme. He said that there were only two things wrong with it: the principle and the practice. I cannot put it more succinctly than that.

The practice discriminates and prevents resources from being applied to the many. We know that the principle has been to deny the opportunity that we all seek, including even many Opposition Members, to transform the education service so that we do not have to have a two-tier system, and certainly not the belief that only a few can benefit from the service.

We are dealing with a scheme that, in every essence, is flawed. Substantial sums have been applied to very few children. The amount of money directed to individual places under the scheme massively exceeds the amount of money that is available to children in the state sector.

The current average under the standard spending assessment is £2,780 for a secondary school child in the state sector. The average of the assisted places contribution results in a fee of £4,100 being paid. That rises to well in excess of £10,000 in some of the 477 schools that are helped in England, as well as a small number of schools in Scotland and Wales. The Bill obviously applies to schools in Scotland and Wales as well.

Schools are benefiting from a substantial subsidy. The amount paid through the assisted places scheme for individual children is, on average, almost 50 per cent. in excess of what is available to the average child in a secondary school in our neighbourhoods. It is no wonder that parents think that the scheme is a good deal. I do not blame any parent wishing to see his or her child being educated in smaller classes with better equipment and with the ethos that many of us would want to see for ourselves.

I believe, however, that we have an obligation as a Government to ensure that that ethos, those class sizes and that equipment become available over time to our children as well as to others. In that way, we can transform education. At the same time, we can apply resources carefully and in a targeted fashion to best practice in all our schools.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Secretary of State has just said that it is his ambition to take the ethos of private schools into the state system. Is he giving us a commitment that it is his ambition to reduce class sizes in the state sector to those that are found in the private sector, which means that we are talking about class sizes of 20 pupils in both primary and secondary schools?

Mr. Blunkett

I have an ambition for excellence for our children in our schools. The Government's endeavour over, God and the electorate willing, and a similar life to that enjoyed by the previous Government, will be to reverse what I described earlier as the appalling legacy of 450,000 more children and 6,000 fewer teachers. That is the legacy which we inherited following literally two decades of neglect. It will take us time to reverse that, but our ambitions should be high and our endeavour clear so that we can set about doing the job that the previous Government neglected.

We have seen class sizes rise—last Friday, the Minister for School Standards announced, in our statistical submission, that the pupil-teacher ratio had worsened once again. Over the past 10 years, there has been a substantial worsening of the PTR in both our primary and secondary schools. Again, that is another legacy which we have to address.

It is very simple really. The Bill enables us to reuse resources so that we can give that life chance, that beginning, to our children, and ensure that they do not feel that they have—in the words of the former Deputy Prime Minister—to escape.

Clause 1 ends the duty on the Secretary of State to operate the scheme, and that we will do from the next academic year.

Clauses 2 and 3 put in place arrangements to phase out the scheme, and provide for regulations to prescribe the transitional provisions that are required.

Clause 4 deals with the definitions in the Bill.

Clause 5 enables us, because of the different education and legal system in Scotland, to apply the Bill to Scotland as well.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

On clause 2, is the Secretary of State aware that, just a month before the election, prep school head teachers asked the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who was then the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on education, whether assisted places schemes for children at prep schools would continue up to age of 13? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the hon. Gentleman, speaking on behalf of the Labour party, said: If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13"? Why is the Secretary of State going back on that pledge in clause 2 and finishing education at the age of 11? Is that not the clearest example of a breach of promise?

Mr. Blunkett

I have the letter from my hon. Friend to Mr. Davies-Jones of St. Andrew's school in Eastbourne and am aware of what he said. I am very clear, and so is the Bill, that assisted places will remain in primary education up to the normal age of transfer at 11. Where an alternative transfer age applies in that area, the Secretary of State will have discretion, and my ministerial team and I will use it wisely, to ensure that we do not have a situation where 500,000 youngsters transfer at 11, but other people think that they can transfer at 13, even if 13 is not the normal transferable age in that locality. It would not do the children a favour if we pretended that we could do that. Discretion is the better part of valour, and we will use it wisely.

The Bill is more than simply a transfer of resources and a way of lowering class sizes; it is an article of good faith. It is about indicating to Britain as a whole that the Government have a different set of values and a different intent in terms of the way in which we address the needs of the individual and the needs of the nation for many years to come.

We believe that we can succeed in our education system. We believe that we can spread best practice from the best schools to the rest. We believe that we can learn from what is happening in the rest of the world and apply it to this country, which is why we have established the standards in effectiveness unit, and why I have established the new standards task force.

I believe that we can do it. Those who do not will want and encourage people to opt out. I know that we will not be able to set aside a private sector for education in this country. We can ask it to work with us. We can seek co-operation, and we will, but, in the end, we will succeed as a nation not if we have trickle down from the better off to the rest, or if only a few succeed and the others are faced with mediocrity—but only if every child and every family knows that they are valued and that their success is our success, because in the end that is what it is all about. We sink or swim together. It is not a few—five, 10 or even 20 per cent.—being able to carry other people because they have done very well for themselves. It is about the 80, 85 and 90 per cent. who have, for too long, carried people who have done very well at their expense.

It is time to start afresh, with the choice that we have made today: not a low-tech, low-wage, low-added-value economy, but the very reverse: a Britain that believes in itself; a Britain that is prepared to invest in the future of our children and our country; a Britain that makes the choice that it is the many who will carry us forward, and not the success of the few.

4.4 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

The Bill is the first element of the new Government's education programme, and today gives me my first opportunity to make it clear at the outset that we shall support any constructive attempt by the Government to develop and build on the work that we did in raising education standards.

The Secretary of State has heard me say many times, in the House and elsewhere, that high education and skills levels are vital for individuals and for the nation, and he agrees. That is why, through our guiding principles of transparency and accountability, choice and diversity, we put in place the framework on which the right hon. Gentleman can now build.

We introduced transparency through inspection, performance tables, testing, reform of teacher training, qualifications for head teachers and measures for failing schools. We introduced accountability, with more freedom for schools, colleges and universities to manage their own affairs, target setting and more involvement for parents and local communities. We provided choice and diversity within the system, through a variety of schools—comprehensive, grant-maintained, specialist and so on—and a variety of routes for individual pupils: selective schools and the assisted places scheme.

Those principles of transparency, accountability and choice and diversity help to drive up standards, and standards are rising. We have seen year-on-year improvements in examination results; we have seen a revolution in access to higher education; we have seen steadily improving vocational routes. The Secretary of State is fortunate to have inherited a framework that is so firmly in place. We shall expect him and his team to try to improve it still further, and when the Government offer constructive and practical proposals to raise standards, we shall support them in their aims.

However, we reject the Government's clearly held view—so well illustrated by this mean little Bill—that choice, the freedom to make that choice, diversity of types of school and diversity of routes for individual pupils should be replaced by centrally planned uniformity. When the Government's proposals are driven by dogma, when they support that central planning at the expense of parental choice and when they self-evidently will not deliver what is promised, we shall strongly oppose them.

Let us set the Bill against those criteria. Is it driven by dogma? Does it restrict choice and the freedom to choose, thereby driving down standards and destroying excellence? Will it deliver what it promises? For the answer to the first question, we need only consider why a Conservative Government introduced the assisted places scheme. In 1976, in the International Monetary Fund-driven heyday of the previous Labour Government, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science—now a Member of another place and of another party—abolished the 200 direct grant schools in England and Wales.

Many of those schools had prided themselves for centuries on their tradition of educating a broad cross-section of the community, a tradition greatly prized by schools such as Colston's girls school in Bristol, Bradford grammar school, Leeds grammar school and many more—including Thetford grammar school in my constituency. Old Labour failed in its attempt to destroy that tradition in the 1970s, but, dogma-driven still, new Labour is returning to the attack in the 1990s, still persuaded of the view that, if all cannot have, none should.

Secondly, the Bill restricts parental choice. Its purpose is to remove from children in families on low incomes the opportunity of independent schooling and a different route.

Amid the avalanche—the myriad words uttered on every possible subject, at all hours of the day and night, by members of the Government since 1 May—two words have been strangely absent. They are "freedom" and "choice". Some members of the Government value and exercise choice for themselves and for their children, but those freedoms are not to be extended to everyone else's children, and most certainly not to able children from poorer families via the assisted places scheme.

Last year, close on 38,000 places were offered, and we put in place plans to double that number. Contrary to what the Secretary of State said in his uncharacteristically sneering comments, more than 80 per cent. of parents with children on the scheme earn less than the national average. He is hostile to choice. It was, after all, he who said that he would have no truck with middle-class, left-wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to another school outside the area. He should not be hostile to excellence.

The assisted places scheme achieves excellent results. In 1995, assisted places pupils achieved pass rates of more than 94 per cent. in both GCSE and A-level. A London School of Economics study has shown that, in 1995–96, assisted places pupils attained A-level results up to three grades higher than other pupils.

Mr. Blunkett

I hope that the right hon. Lady will take it the right way when I say that she is making a much better speech than she used to make when she was in government. Will she confirm that in only one of the three indicators used in the LSE study was the difference statistically significant? Therefore, there was no provable difference, despite the fact that enormous sums of money had been spent on those pupils.

Mrs. Shephard

No, I do not accept that. There is no question but that assisted places pupils do extremely well at GCSE and A-level. Contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman said, they achieved A-level results up to three grades higher than other pupils.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind compliment. It is his turn to be a touch patronising, but I dare say that it is because of the car and the building, and he will get over it.

Mr. Boswell

I promise that I shall not patronise my right hon. Friend: indeed, I would not patronise any hon. Member. Did she notice that the Secretary of State referred to his welcome readiness to work alongside the private sector in the interest of improving standards? Does she believe that the Bill will break the links between the private and the state sectors in education? How can it possibly contribute to forging those links?

Mrs. Shephard

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The provisions of the Bill and the indecent haste with which it has been introduced—it was published after the House had gone into recess, and we have only a meagre amount of time to prepare for Committee stage and Third Reading—show that the Government are perhaps a touch ashamed that they are destroying the scheme. I believe that the Bill will also destroy the good relations with the independent sector that some members of the Government claim they want to develop.

Ms Hodge

The right hon. Lady may find it a little difficult to have a Government who so swiftly keep to their pledges, which is what the Bill is all about. Will she explain why, during 18 years of Conservative government, no attempts were made to extend, beyond the assisted places scheme, the partnership between the public and private sectors? That might have broken down the divide that we have inherited as part of the legacy.

Mrs. Shephard

I hope to show how the Bill cannot deliver what it promises, despite the fact that the Labour party had 18 years in which to prepare it.

The Bill is driven by class-envy dogma. It restricts choice, the freedom to choose, and it destroys excellence. It fails to recognise the contribution that choice, variety of school and variety of route make to raising standards.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell)

The right hon. Lady says that we are restricting the choice of 38,000 children. The Bill that she lost at the end of the previous Session was proposed that schools could select up to 50 per cent. of pupils. What effect would that have had on parental choice? Would not it have affected the choice of many more parents than will be affected by the Bill?

Mrs. Shephard

I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that the nature and exercise of choice is well understood by some Government Front Benchers. It is a great pity that they do not choose to exercise that principle to benefit all parents. Of course, none of that should surprise us, because at local level Labour mounted street demonstrations, supported by Labour Members, against the setting up of city technology colleges. At local level, it would not allow pupils from grant-maintained schools to play games against pupils from maintained schools, and it forced grammar school pupils to pay for their own transport to school. Labour is hostile to choice and diversity.

Mr. Steen

When my right hon. Friend was Secretary of State for Education and Employment—and what a splendid job she did—she visited my former constituency of South Hams. She may remember that she visited two very good secondary schools. Can she say how 1,011 children currently on assisted places in Devon can be accommodated in the secondary schools in my constituency, which are full to capacity? As I understand it, the only way in which that could be done would be by increasing class sizes or building more schools. How does my right hon. Friend see that happening?

Mrs. Shephard

One of the joys of opposition is that I do not have to reply to such questions. However, the Government do have to respond, and I intend to ask them those questions later.

It is one thing, for reasons of class-envy driven dogma, to destroy choice, opportunity and excellence, but it is quite another to do that in the name of a reform which so far has not been costed or quantified, the timing of which cannot be predicted, the mechanism for which has not been devised and which in short, cannot and will not be delivered.

Under the heading "Financial effects of the Bill", it is claimed: The Bill's provisions … will be spent on reducing infant class sizes in the maintained sector. We note that the compliance cost assessment has not been placed in the Library. Ten days ago, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment could not tell the House, because he did not know, the cost of educating assisted place pupils in the maintained sector if they are returned to it. It must be deduced that the Government's idea of the cost and the timetable for achieving class size reduction is at best hazy. That brings me to my third criterion, that of judging the effectiveness of the Bill—will it work? The Government cannot save enough money from abolishing the assisted places scheme to enable them to reduce primary class sizes, as they promised, during the lifetime of this Parliament. As the National Association of Head Teachers has said, even if the money were available, and it will not be, the policy could work only if the Government put in place measures to restrict admissions to primary schools, which would be yet another blow to choice.

The Secretary of State and the Government have some questions to answer during the disgracefully short passage of this destructive Bill. I noted that the right hon. Gentleman failed to answer the question about the pledge by the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, who wrote to the chairman of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, stating: If a child has a place at a school which runs through to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13. The hon. Gentleman is not here today, adorning the Government Front Bench. He has been banished to the inner recesses of the Cabinet Office where, so we are told, he languishes unhappily. Fancy sending him to Lancaster just because he is going to break a promise.

As we have consistently pointed out—and here we are in the company of the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, the Government's adviser on these matters, and the Institute of Public Finance—the sums do not add up. Both bodies agree that the annual cost of reducing primary school class sizes would amount to around £65 million. The IPF has also calculated that, by 1999–2000, the savings released from the abolition of the assisted places scheme would amount in total to only £34 million. In short, by the time the full assisted places savings are realised, there will be a shortfall to the public purse of £250 million.

I noticed at oral questions that we are to be promised a White Paper and that the answers will be found in the White Paper. What a relief to us all, but the House is owed answers to some of these questions this afternoon. How will the financial shortfall be met? What is the timetable for the reduction of primary class sizes? What mechanisms will be used? What changes will be made to the standard numbers assessments, to the powers of admission authorities and to the appeals mechanism? How will parental choice will preserved?

The House is today being asked to agree the destruction of the centuries-old tradition of some of our most illustrious schools to provide for a full cross-section of pupils. It is being asked to agree to the destruction of choice and of the freedom to choose a different route for many thousands of children from less well-off families.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

If the right hon. Lady is so concerned about private schools not taking in working-class children, does she think that private schools will offer free places to working-class children out of their own budgets to allow for that cross-section of society in those schools?

Mrs. Shephard

Some of those schools do, as the hon. Gentleman should understand, with his knowledge of education, but it must be obvious even to him that the assisted places scheme has extended that opportunity to many more pupils.

As I said, the House today is being asked to agree a destruction process—the destruction of those schools, of their policy of encouraging a cross-section of pupils, of choice and of the freedom to choose. It is, at best, grossly incompetent and, at worst, breathtakingly high-handed—even for this Government—for the House to be asked to agree the Bill before the consequent implications and costs can be laid before it.

I said at the outset that we shall support the Government where they introduce policies that are constructive and raise standards. I suggested three criteria by which their legislation should be judged: is it driven by dogma; does it restrict choice and the freedom to choose, thereby driving down standards; and can it work? Not a word about the way in which the changes would be achieved has been heard from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. This mean-minded Bill fails all three tests. It is faithful to the old Labour dogma: if all cannot have, none should. It destroys choice and excellence in the name of improvements that are not costed, not tested, cannot be promised and will not be delivered. We oppose the Bill.

4.23 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on his appointment and on introducing the Bill so speedily. It is an important election pledge and it is being implemented within a month of the Government taking office.

I listened with interest to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) opposing the Bill. I was interested in some of the concepts, or rather her interpretation of those concepts. She accused my right hon. Friend of imposing centrally planned uniformity. What is the assisted places scheme if it is not a centrally planned scheme imposed by the Government on local authorities throughout the country?

The right hon. Lady spoke about taking away freedom of choice. She has a bizarre concept of freedom of choice. The assisted places scheme consists not of freedom of choice, not of freedom of the many to choose, but of the freedom of a tiny minority to be chosen. I do not regard that as freedom of choice.

The right hon. Lady said that my right hon. Friend was removing the possibility of the assisted places schools having a full cross-section of society. Again, it is a interesting concept. A small number of pupils—between 30,000 and 40,000—does not strike me as a full cross-section. Certainly, in the schools in my constituency that are involved in the scheme, there is not a full cross-section of society.

The Bill is the reverse of what the right hon. Lady said. It sends a signal not only about the Government's attitude to education, but about their attitude to the nature of society—not winnowing out a small number of children to have privileges conferred upon them, but maximising the opportunity of all pupils to realise their abilities.

The Bill is especially important to my constituency. It has high unemployment, with extraordinarily high youth unemployment, and deprivation and poverty prevail far more than they should. There are three assisted places schools in the constituency—Manchester grammar school, Manchester high school for girls and William Hulme's grammar school. Over the past seven years, those three schools have received £13 million from the taxpayer under the assisted places scheme. That compares with just under £24 million in the past financial year for all 39 state schools in the constituency.

Last year, each assisted places school received an average of £709,000 in public money; each school in the state sector received an average of £614,000 in public money. We must remember that that state funding of £709,000 for the assisted schools is in addition to their already ample funding from private sources. By contrast, the state funding for the 39 schools in the state sector—13 per cent. below the state funding for the assisted places schools—was all that they received; that was their lot. Some £1,658.58 per head was spend on the 14,205 pupils in the state sector schools, while £3,219.36 per head—almost double—was spent on the assisted places scheme pupils.

What about numbers? There were 14,205 pupils in the state sector schools in my constituency in the last school year. In the three assisted places schools there were 661 pupils, but of those only 95 were resident in my constituency. The rest came from elsewhere. Young people studying at the three assisted places schools in my constituency had an average journey time of 40 or 50 minutes. Only 95 pupils resident in my constituency were in assisted places compared with a total of 14,205 pupils in the state sector.

I should make it clear that I have nothing against the three assisted places schools in my constituency, and I have very good personal relations with their head teachers—or high master, as the head of Manchester grammar school is called. I have been invited to the schools on many occasions and have accepted those invitations. The schools certainly provide an education commensurate with their overall funding and—as the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said—with their class sizes. Some of their facilities clearly demonstrate the contrast between funding schools with assisted places and funding those in the state sector. The ample playing fields of Manchester grammar school, which is right in the heart of my constituency, contrast with the thwarted yearning of those at Spurley Hey high school to get their hands on a filled-in clay pit that is next to the school. That example demonstrates both the contrast and the opportunity.

A couple of months ago, I was invited by the headmistress of Manchester high school for girls to visit the school, and I accepted. I was met with the utmost courtesy, which I am sure was inherently in the nature of the headmistress, although it may have had other connotations. I had a feeling that my invitation was not entirely unconnected with the possibility that the House might consider legislation such as the Education (Schools) Bill.

I was shown the facilities for teaching music at Manchester high school for girls, and I was deeply impressed. I saw a row of soundproofed rooms, each with its own piano, and I contrasted that with the recent experience of Stanley Grove school, where staff had to give music lessons on the stairs. It may well be that Manchester high school for girls has a better academic record in music than does Stanley Grove school, yet I know that the pupils at Stanley Grove, if given a chance, are just as bright, eager, hopeful, ambitious and talented as those at Manchester high school for girls.

On Saturday 14 May 1997, the under-13s team of the excellent Wright Robinson high school—which is a state school in my constituency—won the Auto-Windscreen school shield at Wembley, by beating 713 other schools from across the country. When I visited Manchester high school for girls, however, one of the assisted places girls told me that if she had not been awarded an assisted place, she would have had to attend Wright Robinson, and spoke as if that were a fate to be avoided if at all possible. That is the type of attitude that has been inculcated in good young people by that assisted places school.

Today, I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I give him notice of it—in support of Wright Robinson's application to become a sports college. I am sure that he will agree that that school's success at Wembley the weekend before last reinforces its already impregnable case to achieve such status.

The money saved by ending the assisted places scheme could provide an additional two teachers at every state school in my constituency. I want that money to go to the many and not to the few—to the 14,205 and not to the 95. In my election address at the general election, I made my strong advocacy for ending the assisted places scheme absolutely clear. I made my position clear also at all seven meetings that I addressed during the general election—including four meetings in which other candidates participated—and in discussions with constituents individually. No one in the Gorton constituency could have been in any doubt about my attitude to or ardour for that key Labour policy or for the Bill, which, admirably, has been introduced so swiftly.

The parents of the 14,000 not only pay taxes to educate their own children but pay extra taxes to provide opportunities for the 95 which are not available to their own children. They pay to educate their own children and they pay extra to provide opportunities for other children which are not available to their own.

This is an excellent Bill, because it narrows the gap between the unduly privileged and the underprivileged, a gap that was created and then widened under the Tory Government. I support the Bill because it redistributes taxpayers' money from the few to the many. I support it because it redistributes taxpayers' money from the private sector to the public sector. It is a sensible, forward-looking and necessary Bill. It substitutes justice for discrimination. In short, it is a socialist Bill and, as such, it has my support.

4.35 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and to speak so early. I listened intently to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and although I do not doubt for a moment the genuineness of his commitment to improve standards in education and provide greater opportunity for all children in his constituency, I fear that he is still wedded to the old-fashioned socialist dogma that greater diversity and choice and the capacity for innovation in the provision of education are the enemies of higher quality. Like the Government, he still seems committed to the notion of uniformity and levelling down. That is a clear illustration of the difference between the Government and the Opposition.

It is a tragedy that the last Labour Government removed direct grant status from the three Manchester schools that the right hon. Member for Gorton mentioned and that the present Government now wish to abolish the assisted places scheme. This will disadvantage academically gifted pupils who would otherwise have benefited from that education.

Some of the points that I shall make this afternoon can perhaps be dealt with at greater length in Committee on Thursday. I preface my remarks by saying that I do not doubt the commitment of the Secretary of State—or, indeed, that of the Minister for School Standards or the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), both of whom I have had some dealings with in the past—to increase opportunities and improve standards in education. I hope that, if not on this Bill, there will be instances of cross-party agreement on how to improve the quality of education in state schools, but I am fundamentally opposed to the Government's proposals.

I will comment first on the arithmetic that underlies the Government's proposals and the claim that the abolition of the assisted places scheme will somehow make it possible significantly to improve the quality of education for children at key stage 1 in state schools. The Government claim that savings will total £100 million by the year 2000, but their analysis assumes that the pupils who would otherwise have been educated under the assisted places scheme can be absorbed into the state sector with no corresponding increase in resources. It assumes that there will be no need to recruit additional teachers to state schools, to build additional classrooms and laboratories or to provide additional sports facilities for the 34,000 pupils who, on the Government's assumptions, will have to move to the state sector within a few years.

Independent assessments by the Institute of Public Finance suggest a significant discrepancy between the savings claimed from the assisted places scheme and the cost of the class size reduction proposed by the Government—a discrepancy amounting to £250 million by the time that full savings from the assisted places scheme are realised. The Government must come forward with a more coherent explanation of their arithmetic to persuade the House that their proposals will provide the reduction in class size and the improvement in education quality that they claim.

Mr. Steinberg

Will the hon. Gentleman give us statistics on how many extra children, on average, each local authority will have to cater for?

Mr. Lidington

It would be helpful if the Government published such figures as part of their compliance cost assessment. If they were not proceeding with the Bill with such indecent haste, we would have an opportunity for a full debate on the merits of the Government's proposals and the arithmetic behind them—a debate that Conservative Members want.

Mr. Steinberg

The hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be based on local education authorities' need for extra money to cater for pupils leaving the assisted places scheme. He must be able to tell us how many children are to be catered for, because his argument depends on that. How many children, on average, will each local education authority have to cater for?

Mr. Lidington

That is for the Government to explain. I have crossed swords with the hon. Gentleman in the past in the Education Select Committee. He is falling into the error of thinking that he is still on the Opposition Back Benches. He may indeed still think of himself as being on the Opposition Benches, and his right hon. Friends may realise that in due course. His Government have come forward with legislation that they are asking the House to endorse. It is for the Government to provide the detailed analysis that he has demanded and to explain how they propose to make it possible, through the local authority grant system or some other mechanism, for each local education authority to match the additional demand which, as the hon. Gentleman implies, will clearly vary a great deal from one part of the country to another.

I want to deal with the more general issue of the value placed on smaller class sizes. Any parent or teacher—or anyone married to a teacher, as I am—knows that common sense tells us that smaller class sizes are desirable in principle. I see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) nodding, which is all that he is now allowed to do in his elevated but mute role in the Government Whips Office.

The Government must answer some serious questions. Most of the claims about the benefits of smaller class sizes in the early years are founded on the Star project from the state of Tennessee, which found significant benefits in reducing class sizes for infants. However, that study was based on reducing class sizes to 15 or 16 pupils—a much greater reduction than any aspired to by the Government.

In its 1995 study entitled, "Class Size and the Quality of Education", the Office for Standards in Education cast doubt on the benefits of reductions in class sizes unless the reductions were of the scale proposed by the Star researchers. The conclusion of the chief inspector, in whom we know that the Secretary of State still has a great deal of confidence, was that a reduction in average class size was probably not the best way to bring about an improvement in standards of education in state schools—it was not the single most important use of whatever additional resources were available to the Government.

Mr. Kaufman

Would the hon. Gentleman recommend that the three assisted places schools in my constituency increase their effectiveness by increasing their class sizes?

Mr. Lidington

That is a matter for the schools concerned.

The Ofsted study assessed that the cost of reducing the average class size in nursery, reception and key stage 1 classes by just three would be £250 million. I hope that when the Minister of State winds up he will be able to say whether the Government accept the chief inspector's assessment of the approximate cost of the class size reductions that they are proposing. The cost of reducing classes to the size recommended by the Star research project was £1.2 billion. Not even the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is yet proposing to spend quite that amount on that reform.

Will a reduction in class sizes make much of a difference on its own? In a report published a couple of years ago, the National Commission on Education came out in favour of giving a high priority to reducing class sizes for early years pupils. However, it added a rider. Briefing paper No. 12, on class size, which I believe was written by Professor Mortimore of the Institute of Education, says that the benefits seen as arising from reduced class sizes will not come about automatically, but only if teachers alter their behaviour and classroom organisation". It is not possible to consider the issue simply in terms of numbers. We must also consider the quality of leadership from the head teacher, the style of classroom teaching and the way in which learning is organised in a classroom to determine whether reducing the number of pupils in a class will make much difference.

I am concerned that the apparent priority given by the Government to this one indicator risks a mechanistic approach. Many detailed questions must be answered. It is not satisfactory to expect the House to vote the Bill through and wait for all the details to be revealed miraculously in a White Paper in a couple of months' time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) referred to the impact of the Government's proposals on standard numbers for admissions. That is a matter of huge importance for parents in every part of the country.

I remember being a governor of a comprehensive school in north London before open enrolment was adopted as Conservative Government policy. I remember how the admission limits on popular schools were held artificially low because it was convenient for the local education authority to manage things in that way. Will we see artificial limits imposed once again on admissions to popular schools? If so, Labour policy will indeed be revealed as selection—selection by the depth of a parent's pocket in terms of ability to buy a house within the catchment area of the school to which he or she wishes to send his or her child. Labour's policy will lead to a bonanza for estate agents, but to a narrowing of choice for parents and, above all, to a narrowing of choice for parents with modest incomes who cannot afford to pick and choose which house to move to.

What will happen to the appeals system under the Government's proposal? If parents cannot get their child into the school of their first preference, they go to the LEA's panel. How do the Government propose to constrain the appeals panels to ensure that their decisions on individual cases do not push a class size above the level prescribed by the Department for Education and Employment?

Will smaller class sizes be the best approach even if they mean that a head teacher will have to mix year groups to comply with the numbers handed down from on high? How will the statistics for measuring class size take account of the deployment by heads of teaching assistants in larger classes? The pupil-teacher ratio is an inexact measure of what is going on in individual schools.

I would see more logic in the Government's approach if they talked about finding additional resources for primary schools, from wherever in their spending plans they proposed, to be used at the discretion of the heads and governors. I suspect that what is really needed in many schools is an additional staff post rather than an arbitrary limit on the number of children who can be educated in a particular classroom.

The Secretary of State said in his opening remarks that the assisted places scheme benefited relatively few children. The corollary of that remark is that the abolition of the scheme will disadvantage children, albeit a relatively small number, who would otherwise have been able to enjoy an enhanced level of academic education. Neither the Government's arguments nor their arithmetic give us much confidence that their policy will deliver the improvements in the quality of primary education that they have promised.

We know that their policy will harm the few, and I see no evidence that it will help the many. Worse than that, the Secretary of State's logic and his arguments about levelling down could be used in relation to city technology colleges or any other type of school where selection is made by aptitude. The argument seems to be that, if everyone cannot benefit, no one should be able to benefit.

There is another route. Labour Members made the jibe that when my party was in office it did not work out a way in which to forge a new partnership between the independent and state sectors of education, ad there is some point in that comment. Although I did not agree with everything said by my former constituency neighbour Mr. George Walden—I did not agree with him on the assisted places scheme—I believe that in his recent book he came forward with an imaginative idea to try to bring the benefits of the highly selective, highly academic education provided by many independent schools to a much larger number of pupils than can currently benefit through the assisted places scheme.

I would have liked the Government to follow that route rather than the negative and small-minded measure that they are presenting to the House today. I look forward to my party developing Mr. Walden's ideas so that we can present them to the electorate in future as one ingredient in an education policy that will attract the support and capture the imagination of the British people.

4.54 pm
Ms Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech during our consideration of this important Bill. To be able to stand here today as the new Member of Parliament for Don Valley and to speak on behalf of my constituents for the first time is a humbling experience—humbling because I am here by the grace and good will of the people of Don Valley and because my predecessor, Martin Redmond, who served the people of Don Valley for 14 hard years of opposition, was deprived of the opportunity to stand here as a new era of Labour Government begins.

In the 10 weeks from my selection as candidate to polling day, I learnt much from the people of Don Valley about Martin. A private man, he remained living in the same village that was his home. He remained friends with the people he knew from before his election. He made time for individuals and he was regarded with warmth and affection. In his maiden speech in July 1983, Martin was able proudly to describe Don Valley's main industry as coal mining. Now we can but say that coal mining is part of the heart and character of Don Valley, but that it is no longer the main employer. Martin saw the heavy price paid by the mining communities that are strung from east to west of the constituency as their industry closed without the necessary foresight and investment needed to build a new economic life to replace the old.

Like many constituents who supported new Labour on 1 May, Martin Redmond understood the value of work. He believed in reward for hard work, in the respect and achievement derived from a lifetime of work and in the dignity that should be the rightful reward to be enjoyed in retirement. Martin understood the corrosive effects of persistent unemployment and the dangers of enforced idleness. He criticised the insecurity that seemed to be built into too many jobs.

Martin Redmond witnessed a Britain divided between the haves and have-nots—those with work and those without, and those with opportunities and those without. Martin Redmond would have been proud of the start that this new Labour Government have made—the concerted plan to tackle youth unemployment and the plan to shorten NHS waiting lists. He would have been as proud as I am to welcome this Bill, which will make good the key pledge on class sizes for which Labour has received a clear mandate.

Don Valley's history is steeped in mining. Every previous Member of Parliament came from mining and I pay tribute to them all. Indeed, in 70 years, the constituency has had but five Members of Parliament. James Walton, a miner, was the first Member of Parliament to represent the constituency from 1918 to 1922. He was the only Labour candidate in the history of Don Valley to have the unofficial support of the Conservatives.

I would love to boast that I am the youngest Member of Parliament in Don Valley's history, but I am not. Tom Williams, later Baron Williams, was elected in 1922 at the age of 34. I would love to aspire to be the constituency's longest-serving Member of Parliament, but Tom Williams served 37 years, until 1959, and I cannot imagine having such a substantial tenure. He served through great and turbulent times; his seventh general election victory was in 1945. As the right hon. Tom Williams, he then served as Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries until 1959. He made a distinguished contribution to the House and I would be proud to be mentioned on the same page in the history books.

Tom Williams was succeeded by Dick Kelley, who served the people of Don Valley for 20 years. In his maiden speech, in November 1959, Dick Kelley was concerned for the economic survival of the village communities he represented. He pleaded: These villages must be kept alive."—[Official Report, 9 November 1959; Vol. 613, c. 72.] In the weeks leading up to the 1997 election, that view was expressed to me many times.

I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having been allowed to make this speech so soon after my election to this House. I would love to have claimed that I was the quickest of the six Don Valley Members to have made a maiden speech, but that honour remains with Mick Welsh, who was Member of Parliament from 1979 to 1983 and who was later the Member for Doncaster, North. He addressed the House just 20 days after the general election. In his maiden speech, Michael Welsh celebrated the genuine community life of the mining villages of Don Valley. Those men embraced, celebrated and championed Don Valley's culture and communities for the best part of a century. I celebrate it, too.

Don Valley is a changing constituency. It is perhaps fitting that I am the first woman to represent it. I am not from a mining background. At the time of my selection, try as I might to discover that a distant grandparent had once spent a long weekend in Don Valley, I could not. I determined then that honesty was the only policy. My curriculum vitae announced, I won't try to kid you that I'm from South Yorkshire. I'm not. Labour party members, and subsequently the electorate, welcomed me with warmth and friendliness to put down roots in the constituency, as they did for so many people before who moved from the four corners of the United Kingdom to make Don Valley their home. Indeed, I am very proud to have been made a life member of the Official's club in Edlington, and to have been presented with a badge bearing the white rose of Yorkshire and welcomed as an honorary Yorkshirewoman.

In his 1941 book about Don Valley entitled "Old King Coal", Robert W. L. Ward wrote: Men from Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Durham, Northumberland, Wales and Ireland came in hundreds, bringing with them customs, dialects, superstitions and faiths foreign to the Don Valley. Gradually these foreigners from the midlands and the north have become digested by their South Yorkshire hosts. And such digestion has done something to enrich the local strain. The Don Valley that I know is a diverse community. It is dominated by the former mining villages of Conisbrough, Denaby, Edlington, Rossington, and Hatfield—a new addition to the constituency. It is a constituency of striking landmarks, scenic villages and many beauty spots. It includes villages stretching to the borders of Nottinghamshire, such as Bawtry. The constituency has seen a rapid expansion of villages such as Auckley, Finningley and Sprotbrough, with new families and their young children moving to the area every week.

Don Valley is the historic heart of South Yorkshire, boasting two castles—Tickhill and Conisbrough, which is the setting for the classic story "Ivanhoe", penned by Sir Walter Scott in a room in the Boat inn at Sprotbrough falls. If The Mirror is to be believed, "Ivanhoe" is the favourite book of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

In the book, Sir Walter Scott describes Conisbrough castle. He wrote: There are few more beautiful or more striking scenes in England than are presented by the vicinity of this ancient Saxon fortress. The soft and gentle River Don sweeps through an amphitheatre in which cultivation is richly blended with woodland, and on a mount ascending from the river, well defended by walls and ditches, rises this ancient edifice. Conisbrough castle is part of Don Valley's past, but it is also part of its future. Along with the Earth centre on the site of the old Denaby main colliery, Conisbrough castle affords opportunities to attract visitors from afar and become part of Don Valley's economic regeneration.

I know that the people of Don Valley will welcome the Bill, which will pave the way to reducing class sizes. That pledge, coupled with the ambitious goal of raising education standards and opportunities for children and young people, will be received with great enthusiasm by the electors of Don Valley. Families with young people in Don Valley know that, unlike for previous generations, the mines will not provide the gateway to employment for the many. They know that education is the foundation. The achievement of their children will determine their life chances thereafter. The Bill demonstrates that the Government intend to place education at the centre of their programme—the No. 1 priority. Education is the building block for the future, and children must be at the heart of it.

During the election campaign, one French teacher asked me how she could teach French to children in year 7 of secondary school if, when they arrived, some had not yet mastered the basics of written and spoken English. That is a problem that the Conservatives refused to tackle. Standards are the cornerstone of our education policy. Schools are a vital part of any community and have a precious role to play in the life of the small villages that dominate my constituency.

However, schools are not islands, and must be encouraged to share their expertise, spread their best practice and learn from each other. Where a school is failing, we must look to turn it around in six months, not six years. That should be the Government's ambition. Not to do so is to condemn generations of children.

Gone are the days when the height of Government ambition was to have one good school in every town. That proposal was rejected at the election. We must ensure that every school is a good school; that every school comes up to scratch—nothing less is acceptable. Gone will be the complacency that allowed class sizes to rise steadily throughout the years of the Major Government. By 1996, more than 1.25 million children were in classes of 31 or more. Indeed, in my constituency, more than 2,000 children are in classes of more than 30 pupils.

I welcome the Government's intention to review the presentation of league tables, because, vital as they are, the many qualities that a school offers—leadership, morale and parental involvement—are all essential ingredients that add value to a child's education. Those qualities must be reflected in information made available to parents. The Bill makes a start. Those who choose to buy private education for their child are buying one thing above all else: smaller class sizes. Yet for the majority in Britain, the past five years have seen an unrelenting rise in class sizes. That rise must be brought to an end, and the Bill helps to release resources to begin that task.

The Bill will be welcomed by the electorate of Don Valley as a sign of a new Labour Government who govern for the many not for the few; a sign that Britain has turned a page in history and entered a new era. The Government deserve praise for the flying start that they have made, showing in weeks that a change of Government can lead to a change of mood and priorities. I hope that, for the duration of the Government's term of office, I serve my constituency well in this new era in British life—a period of new hope and great opportunities. As the Member of Parliament for Don Valley, and, perhaps more important, as the mother of three children in state education, I commend the Bill to the House.

5.5 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Ms Flint) on what I am sure the whole House will agree was an absolutely excellent speech. I particularly commend her comments on education and her clear and passionate commitment. I very much hope that the Secretary of State noted her comments and will ensure that she does not have to wait 37 years before she assumes a senior position and is able to do something about her commitment to education.

The hon. Member for Don Valley spent much of her speech describing why she was not going to break a number of records set by her predecessors. Judging from her confidence, humour, candour and honesty, I am sure that she will very soon be held in the same affection among her constituents as her predecessor. I am sure that we all wish her well.

There was some humour in some of the other speeches too. I agreed in particular with the former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), when she bemoaned the fact that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) was no longer present in education debates. She implied that he is not very happy in his post in the Office of Public Service. I do not know whether that is so, but I can reveal that he has a very large desk—at least he told me he has. He said that it took him three and a half minutes to circumnavigate it. I am sure that we would all have liked very much to hear his thoughts on education today.

I want to make it clear that the Liberal Democrats will support the Second Reading of the Bill. In the 17 or 18 years' operation of the assisted places scheme, we have consistently made clear our opposition to it. It logically follows that we shall support a Bill proposing its abolition, and we shall do so willingly. I shall express one or two reservations about some of its details, but we shall support abolition of the scheme.

The reasons for our opposition have been repeated on numerous occasions and are very clear. We have given the same reasons year after year every time the scheme has been debated. We dislike a scheme that, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) pointed out, is centrally administered, that takes no account of local need and that leads to enormous regional variations in the allocation of funds.

We dislike a scheme that appears to use taxpayers' money to prop up independent schools that have a high proportion of assisted places pupils when such schools might otherwise fail. We are especially concerned about allegations that some independent schools that rely heavily on assisted places may have artificially inflated their fees, knowing that the state will meet the new, higher fees.

At no time have we been convinced that the scheme offers value for money, or that it has even met the criteria laid down by the previous Administration. For example, it is often said that the scheme offers pupils a superior education. On a number of occasions the former Secretary of State and her former ministerial colleagues told us that pupils on the assisted places scheme achieved outstanding GCSE and A-level results and that those schools made sure that that happened. That was certainly true in many cases, but not in all.

Indeed, it would hardly be surprising if those results were particularly good given the intake of those schools—they admit that under 1 per cent. of their intake require any form of special education. Excellent results are not universal, however, and in 1996 a significant number of those schools did less well than their neighbouring state schools, especially at A-level. The results achieved at some supposedly excellent schools on the assisted places scheme were mediocre.

Not long ago, the former Prime Minister visited Pangbourne college and cited it as an example of how the excellent private sector provides excellent education to the children of poor families. That college was out-performed at A-level by 25 of Berkshire's comprehensive schools as well as by several grammar schools in the area. There are many other examples of independent schools on the scheme that deliver less good A-level and GCSE results than those achieved by state schools in their areas. It is by no means universally true that the additional cost to the state of the scheme ensures a better education for all the students who participate in it.

It is equally untrue that all such participants come from so-called working class backgrounds, as was originally intended. The Secretary of State rehearsed that argument in detail. I will not repeat it other than to draw attention to the frequent references made by him to a speech by the former Conservative Member of Parliament for Buckingham, Mr. George Walden, about seven months ago. On that occasion—the Secretary of State omitted to cite it—he also said: Unfortunately, in practice, many of the crumbs are intercepted by the agile hands of the middle classes … Of course some places go to deserving children, but an awful lot do not."—[Official Report, 29 October 1996; Vol. 284, c. 492] Given my remarks so far, the House will fully understand the reasons for my party's opposition to the assisted places scheme and, therefore, our reasons for supporting the Bill.

Whenever my colleagues or I have spoken about the scheme we have always made it clear that it is the scheme that we oppose, not independent schools. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), whom we are delighted to see has rejoined our Benches after a brief absence, said in 1988: It is important to stress that my party does not oppose private education".—[Official Report, 5 July 1988; Vol. 136, c. 1004.] Similar comments have been made by other right hon. and hon. Friends on numerous occasions, but we have now gone further than that by calling for the replacement of the assisted places scheme with local partnership schemes drawn up between the state and independent schools. In our 1997 election manifesto we stated: We will phase out the Assisted Places Scheme and use the money saved to enable LEAs, if they wish, to enter into local partnership schemes. These could include assisting the funding of pupils at independent schools. The House will be aware of the extensive current collaboration between the state and the independent sector. We want to build on that co-operation to open the enormous resource of the independent sector to the entire community, to their mutual benefit.

Our plans are intended to operate at local level with the local identification of educational needs. It is our intention that the independent sector should be used to help to meet those needs, especially when the state sector is either unable to meet them or can do so only at disproportionate cost.

My party's views are best summarised by the following quotation, which states: Our view is that the independent sector is not going to go away and we need to reach an accommodation which is beneficial to everyone … The idea that we could ever have abolished private education, in a world where we are part of the European Union, was never on. Facing up to that allows us to get on with the world as it is and to discuss with the private sector a sensible way forward and a workable relationship. Those words are not mine, but those of the current Secretary of State in an interview with the Independent Schools Information Service—ISIS—magazine in October 1995. I agree with every single word.

Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman went further in that interview in his apparent support for the Liberal Democrat policy on the way forward for independent schools because he said: Primarily we would have to allow local judgments, but we would need to lay down criteria, so there was a fair basis and so that children were not unfairly discriminated against. He went so far as to agree with us when he said that there would need to be a mechanism to sort out difficulties if, at a local level, there was hostility to the idea of placing a child at an independent school.

Given such agreement between my party and the Secretary of State, I hope that it will be possible for us to work together to develop that new approach to the replacement of the assisted places scheme. It is my sincere regret that the Bill makes no reference to the urgent need to develop that new form of partnership, but I know that the Secretary of State is keen on it.

Mr. Blunkett

I take the unusual step of intervening to point out to the hon. Gentleman, who has correctly quoted me, that what I described in that interview is perfectly feasible under the terms of the Education Act 1944. The House will be aware that, according to what were known as the Martin rules, children were aided in voluntary and private sector provision where there was no suitable provision available for them either because of their special needs or aptitude that could not be met by the local authority. That remains the case. We wish to establish sensible criteria to avoid those rules being misused by local authorities of a different persuasion from my own to trigger selection. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, this winter we will take steps to ensure that selection is not part of the process.

Mr. Foster

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In the interview from which I quoted, he made similar comments about the Martin rules, but he also said that a genuine review should take place to see how those rules might be used to help children so that an appropriate placement could be made according to their needs. I entirely agree with that and his subsequent intervention. He is absolutely right that we do not want to put in place a system that offers an alternative form of selection by the backdoor. It is clear that selection on academic ability or by interview has been rejected by the electorate. We will certainly commit ourselves to work with the Secretary of State to develop that new way forward.

My second concern is that we remain to be convinced that the money released by the phasing out of the assisted places scheme will be sufficient to reduce class sizes for children aged five, six and seven. We would want the Government to go still further and reduce class sizes at least to 30 for all primary school pupils; my party has placed that commitment clearly on record, with a clear explanation of how we would fund it.

We are not alone in our concern. Reference has already been made to the work done by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which clearly disagrees with the Government and believes that there will be insufficient funding. In a previous debate, I referred to concern even on the Labour Benches. For example, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), said to the Western Mail on 7 April: Some, if not all, of the money to fund this will come from the assisted places scheme". He went on to say that if there was insufficient money he would have to talk to his colleagues about where the extra resources would come from.

The previous Government certainly did not accept the present Government's figures. Last year, I tabled a parliamentary question asking for an analysis of the likely cost of meeting the pledge that has been made by the present Government. The reply said: The Department's statisticians estimate that it would have cost between £120 million and £250 million to reduce to a maximum of 30 pupils all single-teacher classes in years 1, 2 and 3 in January 1996 … The estimated costs are for extra teachers only."—[Official Report, 28 October 1996; Vol. 284, c. 37.] Clearly, that estimate does not include capital costs or the likely additional costs for teacher training.

We are prepared to suspend judgment until we see the White Paper in which the Government will explain the mechanism and, one hopes, give some details on how the money is to be used, but because of our continuing concern it is my intention to table an amendment in Committee that would at least require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament annually on the amount that has been freed as a result of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme and on how it is to be spent.

Despite those concerns, we intend to support the Bill tonight. We share the Secretary of State's vision for a new approach to education that will get rid of much of the division that has existed for far too long, created by the market forces approach of the previous Administration. Above all, we share his vision of an education system that delivers excellence, not only for the many rather than the few, but for all.

5.22 pm
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early. I have a chipped rib, and I was beginning to find it a little uncomfortable; I was not sure whether to sit or stand. No matter what side of the House I sit on, I always seem to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). He made a good speech, and I listened carefully.

I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill, and I congratulate the Government on having moved so quickly to fulfil the promise made in our election manifesto. My main reason for wanting to get rid of the assisted places scheme is that it perpetuates the class system. We know that private schools are up in arms about the Bill. They tell us that they are bothered about the working-class children who will no longer attend them, but we all know that what really bothers them is losing the huge subsidy that they have been getting from the ordinary taxpayer.

The scheme did absolutely nothing for children from poor families, who were never the private schools' concern. As I mentioned in my question to the shadow Secretary of State, the proof of the schools' concern about having a mix of children from different backgrounds will be in how much of their own cash they put in to provide free places for poor children. When I say poor children, I mean especially those whose families are on benefit.

My second reason for welcoming the Bill is that it is intended to channel cash into bringing down to under 30 class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. That will certainly make a start on raising standards in our schools, and anything that raises standards for the many rather than the few must be applauded by everyone who is concerned about our children's education.

I have two reservations about the Bill. First, will the amount that will initially be saved from scrapping the assisted places scheme enable schools to employ enough extra teachers to cut class sizes to the proposed levels or to reduce class sizes overall? I ask that question with the greatest sincerity. Reducing class sizes will help teachers to improve standards, which is of course the most important thing. I am probably worrying too much, because I trust the Government to fulfil their promises, so, if insufficient funds are released from the abolition of the scheme, the necessary cash will be found from elsewhere.

My second reservation is a little more substantial. I assume that the Bill is intended to raise standards in our schools, but all my experience tells me that reducing class sizes for five to seven-year-olds to under 30 is unlikely to have a big effect on standards. It would be a welcome start, but only a small one. Much more needs to be done, as the Secretary of State will acknowledge.

Making a determined bid to get excellent schools with high standards means getting rid of crumbling buildings; providing more books and equipment; and allowing all schools to recruit more teachers. To raise standards, we must call a halt to the constant criticism of the teaching profession. The Tories criticised for 18 years, and I hope that we can learn from their failures.

The Tories used the teachers as scapegoats for their disastrous social policies, which created poverty and destitution across the land. Millions of children live in deprived communities in which many parents have been thrown on the scrap heap of long-term or repeated unemployment. Those desperate people are abandoned by and alienated from society, and their attitudes were bound to spill over into the schools in deprived communities; it was obvious that such schools would have problems. What does the assisted places scheme do for those communities? We all know that it does very little.

It is crucial to recognise that the teachers are not to blame for those problems. Teachers are as much the victims of the cruel society created by Thatcher and 18 years of Tory misrule as are the children and their parents. The problems will be solved only when we have restored work and pride in those communities, and I recognise that that will take a long time. In the meantime, we should start putting the blame where it truly belongs and stop scapegoating teachers as the Tories did for so many years.

No one would deny that it is important to help schools that are not doing well, but it does not help to publish names and demoralise teachers even further. That was a Tory tactic, frowned upon by the Labour party, which now, unfortunately, seems to support it. I find it hard to understand why we need to do that. We should not alienate teachers; we should appreciate them and the difficult job that they do.

Mr. Don Foster

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would have been helpful if some criteria had been given to explain the justification for schools being on the list?

Mr. Steinberg

The hon. Gentleman knows my opinion: no list should have been published in the first place. That is a genuine disagreement between me and my Front-Bench colleagues, and I am sure that we will resolve it over the years. As usual, we have heard some silly statements from the previous Government. At least I am allowed to make a speech on my views; I never heard Tory Members doing that from this side of the House. They always said what they were told to say by their Whips. The Whips are not telling me what to say. I shall say exactly what I want.

The abolition of the privatised Ofsted and the sacking of the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, would be an important step to better morale and confidence among teachers and to improved standards. I have advocated it for several years, and continue to do so. This man has needlessly criticised the teaching profession, blackened the names of schools and supported Tory policies ever since he was appointed. He even fiddled the statistics for his Tory masters to try to give the Tories' criticisms some credence. That was shown clearly by the Education and Employment Select Committee in the last Parliament.

The assisted places scheme accentuated all those problems. No wonder private schools look good compared with the schools that I have described. They have plenty of resources, the children come from wealthy families and have parents who feel that they have a stake in society. Of course, many private schools do not look so good if we compare them with state schools with similar children, who have parents who can dig into their pockets to make up for some of the resources taken away by the previous Tory Government. If scrapping the scheme means that we can employ more teachers to reduce class sizes, it will be a small and welcome start to restoring justice to our education system. However, I am not totally convinced that the amounts saved will initially have much effect on reducing class sizes.

Private schools realise the importance of small class size, regardless of the age of pupils. It is crazy that it is the wrong way round in the state system: the younger the child, the bigger the class. Class sizes are irrelevant if teachers simply lecture students and cram them with information. I have seen that done in Japan to students in their late teens. Class sizes are crucial in the pre-school and primary stages of a child's development.

Mrs. Gillan


Mr. Steinberg

I have expressed some reservations about the measure, but I assure the House that I have no reservations about getting rid of the assisted places scheme. It is a state subsidy to schools that caters for people who are rich enough to pay for private education, if they are foolish enough to want to do so. We will not be able to achieve the classless society that we all talk about until we get rid of private schools altogether.

Mrs. Gillan


Mr. Steinberg

Private schools perpetuate class distinction, which the scheme intensifies by robbing state education of vital resources. For 18 years, the Tories brought gimmick after gimmick into education without ever taking constructive steps to improve standards. The assisted places scheme was one such gimmick. It was meant to con the public into believing that it would help working-class children to receive a private education.

Mrs. Gillan

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will not give way, but he has made a serious allegation against Mr. Chris Woodhead. I challenge him to produce proof of his statement and invite him to repeat it outside the Chamber. Can you advise me whether we can ask him to do that, especially as Mr. Woodhead has been employed by the incumbent Government?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

As the hon. Lady knows, that is not a matter for the Chair. It is not a point of order.

Mr. Steen

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a matter for the Chair when the hon. Gentleman's speech departs so far from the subject of the debate. He should be pulled up and restricted to the Bill's Second Reading. He is straying over the whole of education policy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is for me to decide. The hon. Gentleman has been as good as gold.

Mr. Steinberg

I apologise to the hon. Lady the shadow Under-Secretary of State, or whatever her present title is. I did not see her trying to intervene, or I should have given way. She has only to read the Select Committee report of its meeting with Mr. Woodhead in the last Parliament. I would have assumed that, as a Minister, she would have read the report. Obviously, she did not, which is very naughty of her.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Gentleman said that Mr. Woodhead fiddled the statistics. I would like him to bring proof of Mr. Woodhead's deception and I invite him to repeat his remarks outside the Chamber, where he is not covered by privilege.

Mr. Steinberg

As I have already said, if the hon. Lady would listen, that statement was made in the Select Committee, when Mr. Woodhead was personally able to answer the criticisms of him that I and others made. Read my lips: read the report. It is a pity that you did not read it when you were in government; you would not have made as many damn mistakes as you did over the past 18 years.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order. I have never been in government.

Mr. Steinberg

This is not the first time that I have spoken in the House about the assisted places scheme. On the previous occasion, I spoke against an increase in its funding, knowing full well that I was wasting my time. I am delighted that this time I can speak in support of its abolition, knowing full well that we will win the vote this evening. The old adage rings very sweet: he who laughs last, laughs loudest.

I make no apology for referring to my speech on 13 July 1993. I was shouted down that night by Tory Back Benchers, just as they have tried to do in the past few minutes. The last time that they shouted me down, they had been drinking in the bar. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has been there. I pointed out then that it was a disgrace that, when most state schools were struggling to find enough resources to pay for teachers, equipment and essential repairs and when there was a lack of nursery places, the Government continued to subsidise private education from public funds.

When the scheme was brought in by the then Education Minister, Rhodes Boyson, he said that it was intended for able children from the poorest homes. He may have been sincere in his intentions but he was proved wrong. The scheme is, and was, exploited by the middle class. A MORI poll in 1996 commissioned by ISIS, the Independent Schools Information Service, showed that only 30 per cent. of assisted places scheme pupils came from working-class backgrounds.

Only two out of five households receiving assistance had incomes below £9,874 and so received the full remission. In other words, almost 55 per cent. of children using the scheme have parents who are lawyers, civil servants, teachers, clergymen or other white-collar workers. As few as 10 per cent. of children on the scheme have fathers who are manual workers. The proportion of professional and managerial families receiving financial support has increased by 8 per cent. since 1991.

In July 1993, I gave examples of the subsidies offered to parents who wished to send their children to Durham school, the prestigious public school in my constituency. I have updated figures that show the iniquity of the scheme. In 1995–96, the average fee charged at Durham school was about £6,220 per year. A family earning £25,000 a year with one child on the assisted places scheme attending that school would have received a subsidy of £2,350; with two children, the subsidy would have been £5,670. I suspect that that subsidy would have been bigger than its tax bill for the year. If a family earning £19,000 had sent one child to the school, it would have received a subsidy of £4,330, or £9,000 if it had sent two children. All those sums come directly from the public purse.

It is a scandal that, this year, £140 million will be spent on the assisted places scheme in England. By comparison, the Tory Government intended to spend only £253 million on school building grant to the main sector. The Tories planned to spend more than half what they planned to spend on all the school buildings in England on a small number of students in the private sector. That is wrong and immoral.

As I said in July 1993, the scheme does not even offer value for money. The average cost of an assisted place in England is estimated at about £4,000. The education standing spending assessment for secondary and post-16 education in the 1996–97 financial year was equivalent to £2,800 per pupil. In other words, it costs the taxpayer over £1,000 more to educate a pupil in a private school instead of a state school and there is absolutely no evidence that the children in private schools do any better than they would have done in a state school.

After my speech in 1993, I was criticised by the then Under-Secretary of State for Schools, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for making a rather pathetic parade of class-ridden prejudice".—[Official Report, 13 July 1993; Vol. 228, c. 948.] In anticipation of similar criticism, I say to Opposition Members that, if that means that I defend and speak for the rights of the majority of ordinary people against the privileges of and state pillaging by the private sector, I am delighted to accept that analysis. I suspect that my feeling was shared by the vast majority of the electorate when they expressed their views on 1 May. The Tories arrogantly continue not to listen.

I conclude as I did in my 1993 speech, by saying: the scheme produces no better results from the pupils who participate in it".—[Official Report, 13 July 1993; Vol. 228, c. 944.] It was never spelled out to the House or to the public that the scheme would predominantly assist pupils from middle-class backgrounds, so I can only conclude that it was a device used by the Tories to meet the increase in private school fees and tackle the financial problems faced by those schools. It is a subsidy to the private sector from the state purse, it is grossly immoral, and I fully support the abolition of the scheme.

5.40 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to you for calling me to address the House for the first time during this important debate on education policy. I apologise to the House—the class of 1997 is a particularly large one and I fear that there will be several other maiden speeches made during the debate.

There can be no more important issue than education for it is vital to the future of our country and to the future of all our children. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are united in their desire to see the best education provided for our children, even though we differ passionately on how best that can be achieved.

I understand that it is customary in a maiden speech to acknowledge the service given by one's predecessor and as the first Member of Parliament for the new constituency of Altrincham and Sale, West constituency, I am privileged to be able to pay tribute to two distinguished parliamentarians. Sir Fergus Montgomery represented Altrincham and Sale in its various configurations from October 1974, during which time he was a diligent constituency Member of Parliament and a popular member of the House, which he served with distinction, most recently as Chairman of the Committee of Selection. I know that some of Fergus's fondest memories, however, were of the time that he spent as parliamentary private secretary to Lady Thatcher. I understand that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has now applied for that vacancy.

I am sure that I am not the only new Member who has been advised to prepare for his maiden speech by reading those of his predecessors. There can be few who have been so badly served by that advice as I. When I went to the Library and obtained Fergus's maiden speech, I discovered that he had spoken about Newcastle, East, for which constituency he was first elected to the House in 1959. In desperation I turned to his predecessor, Tony Barber, but he entered the House in 1951 as the hon. Member for Doncaster. I count myself fortunate indeed to begin my Parliamentary career as the Member for my home constituency of Altrincham and Sale.

The heart of my constituency is the historic market town of Altrincham, which contains the old market place where Bonny Prince Charlie stopped on his journey south. The charter establishing the market was granted 700 years ago. With so many hon. Ladies in the House, I hesitate to mention Arnold's yard, which is reputed to be the site where a woman was last sold at public auction in this country. Just two minutes' walk from my front door is the site of the old slum of Chapel street, which sent so many of its young men to fight for our country, our freedom and our democracy in the great war that George V described it as the bravest little street in England". I am proud to represent Altrincham and Sale, West, not only because of its history, but because of its present quality as an attractive place to live and work, its combination of modern businesses, fine shopping, excellent schools and efficient small farms.

From 1983 until this year, the Sale, West part of my constituency was fortunate to be served by another fine parliamentarian—Winston Churchill. Like him, I enter Parliament as the youngest Conservative Member. Unlike him, I am the first and not the fifth generation of my family to enter Parliament, and my presence here, like that of many Members of this Parliament, bears testament to the more open, meritocratic society that we have built in recent decades. I believe that the greater opportunities in today's Britain have been put in place principally by Conservative administrations and there can be no greater proof of that than in the field of education.

We are all in part the product of the environment in which we begin our lives, however privileged or impoverished that may be. Perhaps the most important function of state education should be to free us all from the social or material constraints of our birth—to free us all to achieve our full potential. Like many in this House—and like three of our last four Prime Ministers—I was fortunate enough to enjoy a grammar school education. In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have a achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools. Sadly, we are very far away from achieving such high standards in many parts of the country, especially in our inner cities. That is where the assisted places scheme plays such a vital role.

In my own city of Manchester, independent schools such as those already mentioned by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)—Manchester Grammar, William Hulme's, Withington and Manchester High—are providing a top-quality education to local children who are dependent on assisted places. These are children from Moss Side and Hulme—boys and girls from poor families who have few opportunities in life.

In an attempt to justify its attack on the scheme, the Government have claimed that assisted places are just a subsidy for middle-class parents who can afford to pay school fees themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. The 300 boys on assisted-places at Manchester Grammar are part of a 500-year-old tradition of providing top-quality education, regardless of social or economic standing. Of the 242 pupils with assisted places at William Hulme's, 160 have their full fees paid, which means that they have combined parental income of less than £10,000 a year.

The assisted places scheme is not a middle class subsidy—it is a ladder of opportunity for the poorest families. By abolishing this scheme, the Government will take opportunities from those who have little else. It is wrong to take away the assisted places scheme without putting something of value in its place. In many inner-city areas—it must be said that they often have Labour local education authorities—there are few good state schools to provide for children who lose their assisted places. Many independent schools will work hard to continue to provide places free of charge to talented children whose parents could not afford to pay fees, but the sums involved may be great and such schools often have little money in reserve.

The Government say that their objective is to raise sufficient funds through the abolition of the scheme to reduce class sizes in primary schools, but it looks increasingly unlikely that that objective can be achieved without building new classrooms to accommodate further classes. Even if smaller classes can be achieved, that will not provide better primary and secondary schools in the centre of Manchester to replace what will be taken away.

The Government's claim that they will govern for the whole nation is very fine rhetoric, but like many Labour policies, the abolition of the assisted places scheme will harm the very people it is intended to help. The wealthy will be unaffected, but the poor will lose out. The social mix in many schools will be lost and the result will be more social division, not less. Labour Governments have always pursued an education policy based on levelling down and not levelling up. They have always believed that standards can be raised for the many by removing excellence wherever they find it. They have always been wrong and their mistakes have cost our children dearly. I urge the Government to accept that they are wrong today and to abandon their assault on the assisted places scheme.

5.50 pm
Mr. Michael John Foster (Worcester)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on his maiden speech. I, too, am making a maiden speech, and I know what a daunting task it is. I must say at the outset, however, that I do not share some of the hon. Gentleman's views on education, especially those on grammar schools and assisted places.

I also have taken advice and read widely about the content of my maiden speech. I am, of course, mindful of the advice that Madam Speaker, gave following her election, to keep contributions in the Chamber as brief as possible.

It gives me immense pleasure to tell the House of the infinite variety that Worcester, as a city, offers, from its magnificent cathedral to its lively night life. The city can be enjoyed by all.

Worcester has a successful range of industry, from Royal Worcester porcelain to high-tech manufacturing companies such as Mazak of Europe. The city has also a variety of education establishments. For example, it contains four fee-paying secondary schools that benefit from the assisted places scheme. They benefited last year to the tune of over £2 million. At the same time, 1,847 five, six and seven-year-olds in Worcester were in class sizes of more than 30. Clearly that is wrong. I and thousands of other fellow parents whose children are in the state sector are overjoyed at the prospect of seeing the Bill progress through the House.

Schools in my constituency have historically been poorly funded. That is the somewhat sad inheritance of the previous Conservative-controlled county council. That administration may have been satisfied with average results achieved by poorly funded schools, but I am not. We, Labour, are in favour of good results—indeed, the highest level of results possible. I want Worcester and Worcester pupils to achieve the best.

I have a great interest in sport, and Worcester can be proud of its sporting traditions. The city boasts a very successful rugby club and an ambitious soccer club. It is home to the county that plays on unarguably the most attractive cricket ground in the country. It must be said that we were the first this summer to show that the Australians can be beaten.

Politically, Worcester contains a high proportion of Members. I pay a special tribute to my far-sighted predecessor, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). The hon. Gentleman kindly decided to contest a more rural seat than stay within the city. Had he stayed, the result would have been closer than it turned out to be—that is a credit to his work within the constituency—but the outcome would still have been the same.

I understand that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, as a constituent of mine, was not alone in taking such action. The right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) is a resident of Worcester. He showed his potential leadership qualities. Conservative Members may be interested to know that the right hon. Gentleman, as a leadership contender within the Conservative party, had the foresight to see that Loughborough, which he previously represented, would change hands in the general election. The right hon. Gentleman decided to move to Charnwood instead.

I can honestly say that the new hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire has been most kind and helpful to me since my election to this place. He has offered welcome advice and has even kept some unfinished case work for me.

The 1997 general election will be remembered in Worcester for different but remarkable things. First, there was the appearance of the Conservative party's femme fatale, a lady who held the key to its success or otherwise. I am talking about Worcester woman. It was The Sunday Times which first revealed her. Stripped down to her bare essentials, she is married to a skilled manual worker and there is a joint income of £18,000. She has children and buys computer games for them. She and her family have holidays in Florida.

I have it from a well-placed source—not to be confused with a Worcestershire sauce—that any west midlands woman would have done for Conservative central office. I understand that Worcester was its second choice. Luckily for Worcester and, I suspect, for Conservative central office, it rejected West Bromwich wench.

I said that Worcester was lucky to be chosen for such an attack because Worcester woman attracted the world's media. Attention was focused on Worcester during the general election campaign. I can boast of giving interviews about Worcester woman to a Dutch newspaper, Danish television, Canadian television, Irish radio, German television, three United States newspapers and even the Yorkshire Post.

The second important event surrounding the general election was historically significant. In 1945, Labour failed to win Worcester by only four votes. Indeed, it had never won the parliamentary seat of Worcester. However, as a result of the efforts of my local party, however, and because of the inspired leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Worcester has a Labour Member for the first time in history. To mark the event, I publicly invite my right hon. Friend to make one of his first visits in his new office to Worcester, where he can be assured of a warm welcome from this, his faithful city.

5.54 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

Last year, 1,011 children in Devon were partly funded to go to independent schools. With the passing of the Bill, I want to ask the Secretary of State where those children will go. We know that 42 per cent. of children with assisted places are from poor families. I mean not families of former Lloyd's underwriters but single-parent mums with incomes of less than £10,000 a year. Not all poor children who receive assisted places are from middle-class families, as the Secretary of State wrongly suggested.

The factor that assisted places children have in common is that they are gifted. As I am married to a child and educational psychologist, I am aware of the importance of giving gifted children special help.

If the Conservative Government had tried to introduce the Bill three months ago, a Labour Member standing on the very spot from which I am speaking would have rightly criticised them on the basis that the Bill would have been attacking the less privileged. Here is the Conservative party on the Opposition Benches—a one-nation party which does not favour the rich against the poor—a party which wants equal opportunities for everyone based on merit, and here is a Conservative Member criticising the Labour Government for attacking the less privileged. It is, indeed, an irony—a paradox.

The evidence in favour of the assisted places scheme shows that assisted places pupils outperform their peers in the state sector and those in independent schools. The Government will not improve standards and opportunities for state school pupils by denying children from less privileged backgrounds the opportunity of an independent education.

In my new constituency of Totnes, there are splendid secondary schools. In Totnes itself, the governors of KEVICS, a former grammar school, made a direct appeal to the Secretary of State in 1989 to limit the school's intake to 240 children a year. There is no more space for any more children. There are limits in Kingsbridge, Dartmouth, Brixham and Churston. All those schools are full. Indeed, they all have waiting lists.

There are additional problems. There is constant pressure in south Devon for more homes. It is one of the fastest growing areas in the west country. The structure plan for Devon requires 90,000 more homes to be built by the year 2011. Some of those homes will be allocated to the existing population, but about one third of those 90,000 houses will go to new families who will be brought in to fill jobs within the new industry that is being built.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain where the children living in the 90,000 newly built homes will go to school. Already there are no available places in my secondary schools. If we add the extra 1,011 children who will no longer be able to take up assisted places, there will be a crisis of education in south Devon, created entirely by the Labour party.

There is a direct correlation between the number of new factories and businesses, units built and the pressures on housing requirements from those who take up jobs in the area.

A few years ago, the Government gave £25 million to Nortel—the former STC factory—to develop new technology. The staff who filled the new jobs created came from all over the country with their families and children. The increasing pressure on housing demands has a spin-off on school demands, and already the schools say that they cannot accommodate the children of these new families. Therefore, extra money is needed from the Government for new buildings and for more land, because the secondary schools have no more space as they are.

The money raised by the abolition of the assisted places scheme will not go to secondary schools at all. It will go to primary schools. So perhaps the Secretary of State will explain, when he winds up, where we are to find the new money.

The abolition of the scheme will not only limit the prospects of many children from underprivileged homes—and many of my constituents who are single mothers will face the added problem of where to send their children to school—but demand a vast injection of funds from the public sector for more buildings, at primary and secondary level, and more land. The sting in the tail is that the Bill may also cause many independent schools to get into financial difficulty, since 37,600 children will be taken out of that system.

I oppose the Bill on behalf of my constituents because it is their children who will suffer badly. I represent a constituency with one of the largest number of single-parent families in this country, and they are up in arms at the first attempt of the Labour Government to prevent their children from having choice in education.

6.1 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

It is a great pleasure for me to return to the House to represent the people of Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East.

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by certain events in 1992, I profoundly believe that the real test of a Government is the educational system and ethos that they leave as their legacy to future generations. I shall expand on that theme, on the core of Labour's policy as it affects my own constituency, and on how the Bill, which I greatly welcome, will benefit my constituents and their children.

Past Education Ministers—Rab Butler and Ellen Wilkinson, as well as Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams—were keen to see that what was good for the child or the school was also good for the nation and for the future of our nation as a whole. That consensus was shattered in 1979, and nowhere was the callous wrecking of this nation's social fabric that took place during the long, dark nights of the past 18 years more ferocious than in the classrooms, schools and colleges throughout the land.

Education became a plaything of ideology and the prime reason for the introduction of the assisted places scheme. We saw the supposed freeing of choice, which did nothing more or less than allow class prejudices to determine school structures and values. We saw bureaucracy burgeon, setting local education authority against local education authority, school against school, and teacher against teacher. We saw the teaching profession vilified as the enemy within, and we saw the fatal result of that process in the educational attainment of our children. Nearly half of all 11-year-olds in our schools failed to reach expected standards in English and maths, while we still had fewer 17 and 18-year-olds in continuing full-time education than any other comparable industrialised nation in the world.

In my own area of Teesside, the story is the same. I represent a constituency in an area which, during the last 18 years, became a test bed for Thatcherite social policies: the decimation of our core industries, a high and rising level of unemployment, with the social exclusion and poverty that accompanied it, and the setting up of a quango Government. There were initiatives to keep, somehow, a state finger in this dyke of human despair: a city technology college, a Cleveland action team, an urban development corporation and the effective privatisation of further education and the careers service.

What was the result? In 1992, the percentage of local children gaining five or more GCSEs between grades A and C was 29.8 per cent., against a national average of 38.1 per cent. In 1995, attainment levels had risen; locally to 33.9 per cent., but the national figures had risen to 44.5 per cent. Our children had to compete on an escalator that was running faster and faster. As the local TEC put it: Teesside remains behind the national average in attainment of GCSE's … and … falling behind on its 1994 figures". Why? Our schools are no worse or no better in terms of teacher excellence than anywhere else in the UK. As a former member of Middlesbrough council's education committee, I know and admire the dedication of our teaching staff. They enjoy professional back-up from local education authorities and are dedicated to excellence. They work in an educational tradition that has always valued lifelong learning. They come from an educational tradition that valued the ability to thrive at an early age. The former Cleveland county council and its education department were the first in the UK to provide 100 per cent. nursery provision.

The answer is simple, short and stark. Class differences still haunt our classrooms. The social experiment of the Thatcher and Major years have not brought about social liberation and greater inter-class mobility, but have merely served to increase existing divisions and magnify them to such a degree that, like the walking wounded of the Somme, the human casualties will be with us for many years to come.

The Bill marks the start in bringing about a healing process and, for that reason alone, I believe that it should have the support of the whole House. The fact that it is being opposed by the Tories demonstrates to me starkly and clearly that they are opposed to fairness and equality. They have shown their true nature: they are the party of the few, arguing for the few.

In contrast, our Bill shows that we are the party of the many, arguing for the people of this country as a whole and not merely for the privileged few. The phasing out of the assisted places scheme, which was all but invisible on Teesside, and which was nothing more or less than a financial blood transfusion for many already wealthy independent schools, will provide us with the cash to bring down our infant class sizes to below 30, certainly for schools in my constituency, such as St. Thomas More and Marton Manor primary. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister visited Marton Manor primary school. He received a very warm welcome from all the pupils and staff, and is welcome to come again.

Reducing class sizes is an essential first step to structuring early years education so that children can see education as an enjoyable process, which binds them more closely and personally to their teachers. Primary schools and those children entering primary and infant schools at key stage one are the foundations of an effective lifelong learning experience. At that stage, children are introduced to the elements of learning that will remain with them throughout their life: the structures of mathematics, a knowledge of language and the ability to express their feelings, emotions, wants and desires, the knowledge of how to acquire, master and pass on information, the beauty of the written word and the aesthetics of logic, shape and structure.

Above all, primary schools help children to discover themselves, to identify their strengths, which will be reflected later in life in the shape of self-esteem, capability and confidence—strengths which will shape our future destiny. If those abilities are lost or badly imparted, or if the penny-pinching of the past 18 years has led to a shortage of human or capital resources, the damage will be immediate, and will impair both the individual and the society of which that individual is part, possibly for the next 60 or 70 years. The Bill is the first step towards ensuring that such impairment will not be a feature of the Britain that Labour intends to build.

As I said, many schools in my constituency will benefit from the move. A number of them, with class sizes of more than 30, are in rapidly growing areas. They are schools that were planned in the 1970s, but have been fighting to keep abreast of rising numbers of children. Other schools are in poorer areas, where larger class sizes are accompanied by an inherited lack of capital investment in buildings and equipment.

There are particular problems in one part of the borough of Redcar and Cleveland, which is covered by my constituency. Although class sizes in the borough as a whole conform to the national average, it contains eight primary schools with an average roll of 30 per class and seven with an average above that. In 1998, thanks to a Labour Government, that dismal picture will be eradicated. The future will produce effective schools, which will play a key part in the life of our community and ensure that everyone has a stake in a school, in the neighbourhood and in the success and confidence of its children.

In particular, parents will be seen not as passive onlookers, but as key partners in the process of ensuring that schools deliver a motivated curriculum and the level of attainment that parents see as proper and fit for their children.

It is now time for our local education authorities, heads and other teachers, governors and parents to take the initiative—to respond to this fresh new approach, and to build locally on the new foundations. The ball is in their court and I know that they will seize the opportunity with both hands. At the same time, however, the Government must recognise—as I believe they do—that there is a far broader perspective in the need to build a fair society. Such a society will acknowledge ability, regardless of class or background.

That must be central to the ethos of our schools. It will acknowledge that extra efforts and resources must be deployed to allow areas that are scarred by poverty and unemployment to fight back and succeed. That must be reflected in the distribution of education resources. Such a society will also recognise that, although the process will take time, the healing of social wounds must be our overriding obligation in our contract with the British people, and that that healing will take root in the classroom first.

Many of the measures on which we shall vote later will not be as effective as we want them to be. In 1942, Beveridge identified the giants that had to be conquered if we were to build a new, confident society. Fifty-five years on, there are still giants out there in the dark woods. The greatest is still inequality—and inequality in education is still the biggest scar that our society must bear.

I do not want to see children suffer in my constituency or, indeed, in any constituency. I do not want them to find at the age of five that their hopes and their destiny have been smashed because the will and the resources for them to succeed are not there. We still have a task to perform and giants to slay. I know that that will be the central task of the new Government, and that our lasting inheritance—our children—will still be invigorating and refreshing our society half a century on. It is the future that we should all have at the forefront of our minds as we go through the Lobbies tonight. The Bill demonstrates to me that education has become the key element of Government policy, and it has my warmest support.

6.14 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate.

When I was preparing my speech, I looked at some of the maiden speeches that had been made by hon. Members in the weeks before the Whitsun recess. I noted that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Ms McKenna) mentioned an incident in which a taxi driver had mistaken her for the wife of an Labour Member of Parliament. Sadly, mistaken identity is not confined to the Labour Benches.

My own confusion was great when I was in the Members Lobby and the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) rushed up to me, himself in a state of some confusion, and encouraged me to put my name on the list for the ballot for private Members' Bills. He was astounded when I looked at him and said, "Why?" Obviously, he had mistaken me for one of the ladies on the other side. [HON. MEMBERS: "Surely not."] I was told that a Member making a maiden speech was never intervened on or heckled. That clearly refers to the opposite party, but not to one's own.

Further confusion has ensued in my early days in the House. When I arrived, I had to take great pains to point out to my colleagues that I represented Maidenhead rather than Maidstone. That was particularly pertinent in the early days of this Parliament. Being a Conservative Member called Theresa adds a certain interest to my life in the House; I am thinking of acquiring a badge reading, "No, I am the other one." To cap it all, on the morning when I moved into my new office, when the telephone rang for the first time I eagerly picked up the receiver to find out who the caller could be, only to discover that the person on the other end of the line wanted to speak to Edwina Currie.

One of the pleasures of making a maiden speech—I suspect that it may be the only pleasure—is the opportunity that it gives the new Member to pay tribute to his or her predecessors. For most Members, that means referring to former Members of Parliament; but Maidenhead is a new constituency, created from two former constituencies, and I am pleased to say that both my predecessors—my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—are well and truly back in the House.

I thank them for the kindness that they have shown me, and for the help and advice that they have given and continue to give me. I particularly thank them for giving up some rather good bits of their former constituencies to form mine. In the circumstances, I am very grateful for that. I also pay tribute to their diligence as constituency Members. Despite having had other onerous and time-consuming responsibilities at various times, both worked assiduously on behalf of their constituencies and their constituents, and in that respect they have left me with a great deal to live up to.

It is a privilege to stand here as Member of Parliament for Maidenhead, especially because this is the first time that Maidenhead has had its own Member of Parliament. In view of the potential origin of the town's name in the symbol of the maiden's head, it is perhaps appropriate that it should now be represented by a maiden—although I must confess to using the term somewhat loosely.

Although the name of the constituency is Maidenhead, it covers more than just the town of Maidenhead. It also includes some lovely tracts of Berkshire countryside, including what I would describe as some of the prettiest and most delightful villages in the country. Maidenhead is a thriving, dynamic town with a thriving local economy and many local businesses, ranging from small family firms that have been in the area for many years—indeed, for generations—to the European headquarters of multinational companies.

The advantages for businesses in the area are many. Not only is it a pleasant and attractive place in which to live and work, but there is a high-quality labour force on which to draw. Maidenhead also has the advantage of proximity to the motorway network, to London and, of course, Heathrow. Those are advantages for business, although it must be said that they also create some problems for local people—night flights into Heathrow, noise from the A404(M), the need for another bridge across the River Thames, the threat of motorway service stations and the threat of development. I have been and will continue to be involved in all those issues, and I trust that they can be resolved in the interests of those living in the constituency.

Although not much has been written about Maidenhead, it is a town steeped in history. I was reminded of that yesterday morning as I watched the mayor unveil a plaque in the town centre to commemorate the site of the 13th-century chapel that was the predecessor of the current borough church of St. Andrew and St. Mary Magdalene.

Maidenhead owes its origins to the River Thames, and the river continues to play a significant role in the life of the constituency. Many people enjoy walking alongside the river in Maidenhead and watching the operation of Boulters lock. Further up the river is the delightful village of Cookham, where people can spend time looking at the works of the local artist Stanley Spencer in the Stanley Spencer gallery.

The river in the Maidenhead constituency makes it host to one of this country's major national summer sporting events, the Henley regatta. Although Henley is in Oxfordshire, the regatta meadows are firmly in Berkshire. The river adds charm to many other villages, including Sonning and Wargrave. Wargrave may be of particular interest to female Members, because in 1914 Wargrave parish church was burnt down by suffragettes. I am happy to say that getting votes for women in Wargrave these days does not require such drastic measures. I shall not name all the villages in the constituency, but it is a delightful part of the country, and I am very proud to represent it.

Maidenhead is blessed with good schools in both the state sector and the private sector. I hope that we all agree that the aim is to provide the right education for every child. For some children, that will be an education that is firmly based in learning practical and vocational skills. For others, it will be an education based on academic excellence. The assisted places scheme enables bright children from less well-off families to take advantage of an education that would otherwise not be available to them. I totally refute the concept that underpins the Bill—that, if everybody cannot have it, nobody should have it.

The advantage of the assisted places scheme is that it enables children from less privileged families to benefit from high-quality education. I want to focus on one aspect of the scheme, to which I trust the Government will pay some sympathetic attention. The assisted places scheme not only helps bright children, but is an important way of helping children from difficult family backgrounds or with particular social needs.

A number of charitable foundations provide boarding school places for children whose family circumstances are such that they require to go boarding school: they may have troubled backgrounds or there may be a social need. Those places are provided through a mixture of funding: the boarding school element is funded by the charitable foundation and the education costs are covered by the assisted places scheme. Those children are genuinely in need, and if the assisted places scheme goes, the opportunity to provide boarding school places for children from difficult backgrounds will go with it. I know that the Minister has received representations on that issue, and I trust that the Government will find a way to ensure that genuinely needy children continue to be catered for as they have been in the past.

I should also like to comment on the opposite side of the Bill, if I can call it that: I am referring to the reduction of class sizes. When I was the chairman of a local education authority, we had many interesting debates about the impact of class size on the quality of education. My concern about the Bill and the way in which it will operate is not only that it will abolish the assisted places scheme, but that the assumption behind it is that the prime determinant of the quality of education for our children is the size of class in which they are taught. It is not: the prime determinant of education quality is the quality of teaching, and that is a function of the quality of teachers and the way in which they teach.

The evidence clearly shows a direct correlation between the method of teaching children and the quality of education that they receive. There is no clear correlation between quality of education and class size or the amount of money spent on children in any particular class. I urge the Government to reconsider the issue of quality and standards of education. It is important to examine the methods used by teachers, particularly in the primary sector. I have long questioned the concept of child-centred education. That may sound wonderful, but, as the Office for Standards in Education has said, we should seek more whole-class teaching in primary schools. The method of teaching is important, and the Government should not forget that in their attempt to grab the headlines on the issue of class sizes.

The only other point that I want to make relates to parental choice. By putting an artificial cap on the size of primary school classes, the Government are reducing parental choice. When I was a chairman of education, I received a number of telephone calls from anguished parents who were concerned because their children could not get into the school of their choice. I am sure that any councillor involved in education will have received such calls.

Those parents will now find that their choice is further restricted, because in the past they were able to take their case to appeals panels—my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) raised that issue. We all know that head teachers often found one or two extra places for children whose need to be in a particular school was great. The Government are to abandon that practice. They say, "No, it doesn't matter if a school is popular, or that it is over-subscribed and parents are keen to get their children there. The parents don't know best about where their children should be educated. The Government know best, and the Government will put an artificial limit on class size." That will further reduce parental choice.

The Bill will not improve academic excellence or the quality of education in our classrooms. It will take away opportunities from a large number of children, who would benefit from a quality of education that they would not receive without the assisted places scheme. Furthermore, it will reduce parental choice. The Government are saying to parents, "You don't know best—we do."

6.26 pm
Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)

I commend the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on an excellently delivered maiden speech. I also pay a belated tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). Their speeches were indicative of the major contributions that they will make to the work of the House.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in such an important debate. I do so in the knowledge that I am the first Labour Member of Parliament for Tynemouth to make a maiden speech for more than 50 years. Indeed, it is more than 20 years since the previous Member for Tynemouth made his maiden speech. It seems that there is a tradition that the people of Tynemouth do not change their Member of Parliament very often, and I am keen to continue that tradition.

My predecessor was Neville Trotter. He served his party and his constituents well for 23 years. Almost every invitation that I receive to a constituency event ends with the words, "Mr. Trotter always supported us, and we hope you will, too." That is clear evidence that Mr. Trotter was regarded as a good constituency Member of Parliament.

Neville Trotter was influential in helping to push through legislation on solvent abuse, so many parents and young people have a lot to thank him for. However, I think that he would agree that his later years as a Member were overshadowed by the previous Government's decision to see Swan Hunter shipbuilders close. That decision came to symbolise the Conservatives' uncaring attitude towards the north-east, and the Conservative Government's standing suffered as a result.

Neville Trotter wisely decided to stand down before his party was virtually wiped out in the north-east. When the history books are written, they may well show that the Conservative Government let down not only the Swan Hunter workers, but Neville Trotter.

The Tynemouth people want to look to the future, not to the past. Tynemouth is a predominantly coastal constituency made up of the townships of Whitley Bay and North Shields, the villages of Monkseaton and Cullercoats, and Tynemouth itself.

I was delighted to hear that tourism is once again booming in Whitley Bay. I can thoroughly recommend it to hon. Members as a holiday destination or for a weekend break. Opposition Members may benefit by getting away from it all and walking along Tynemouth's golden beaches. That will enable them to escape from the Tea Room and the heat and trauma of the forthcoming Conservative leadership election.

It has been said that Britain is an island surrounded by fish and built on coal. If that is true, Tynemouth is quintessentially British. Unfortunately, the coal has gone and there are fewer fish and fewer North Shields fishing boats. Fishing and coal mining may have been the country's most dangerous jobs, but as they declined, Tynemouth and Tyneside faced hard times. I am pleased to say that Tyneside—where, it has been claimed, the first industrial revolution began—is on the verge of a new industrial revolution.

The decision by Siemens to locate its £1 billion microchip plant in Tynemouth will bring thousands of much needed jobs. The decision was a massive vote of confidence in local people, and I am pleased to see that 70 per cent. of the work force were recruited locally. The decision by Siemens was an acknowledgement of Britain's key role in Europe. We meddle with that at our peril. The plant was officially opened 10 days ago. It is clear that if we are to be at the cutting edge of new technology, we must equip our work force with the skills they need. Technology and markets may change, but people are a constant factor and education is the best economic investment that we can make.

Raising standards is the key to a successful future. Earlier Governments may have accepted 42nd place in the international education league and may have allowed half our 11-year-olds to fail to reach acceptable standards of literacy. This Government must not, and perhaps the best start that we can make is to bring down class sizes. I agree with the hon. Member for Maidenhead that raising standards is about the quality of teaching. However, it is also about giving our teachers time to work with individual pupils. That is why we must reduce class sizes.

I should like to declare an interest. As the parent of two children under the age of five, I am not prepared to tolerate classes of more than 30, yet one in three of our primary school children nationally are in classes of more than 30. The figure is the same in Tynemouth. If I am not prepared to see my children in over-sized classes, I cannot sit back and allow it to happen to other people's children. I can understand why some parents look to the assisted places scheme as a way out of big classes, but we cannot justify a system that subsidises a privileged few while the many are denied a proper start. That is why I welcome an early start to the process of reducing class sizes. I also welcome the end of the nursery voucher scheme and moves towards fairer funding. All those measures will help children in Tynemouth.

I have another personal reason for wanting to see the Government move quickly to honour their pledges. In his maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) spoke movingly about a young man who was unable to read and write, but who had the courage to ask for help on 1 May to fill in his ballot paper. I have another example of election day courage in my constituency. An elderly man in Rake Lane hospital in North Shields was so seriously ill that his doctors refused to let him out to vote. On the evening of 1 May, he took a taxi to the polling station. He said that he had voted Labour all his life and did not intend to miss this time. That typifies the determination to see new Labour elected, not just to govern but to make the changes for the better that we have promised. By supporting the Bill, that is exactly what we shall do.

6.34 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate. I rise with some trepidation to make my maiden speech, and I shall make it with due humility in view of the breadth of experience in all parts of the House.

Perhaps I may share with hon. Members a bright idea that came to nothing. I intended to speak on the Bill because I have a particular interest in education. In preparing my speech, I decided to go to the Library to dig out the maiden speeches of two of the most notable Secretaries of State for Education since the war—Rab Butler and Lady Thatcher. I thought that I could quote selectively from those speeches and punctuate my contribution with their words of wisdom. As Mr. R. A. Butler spoke mainly about agriculture and particularly about grain prices, and Mrs. Thatcher—who was the architect of, or at least the inspiration behind, the Education Act 1988—spoke about public access to local authority meetings, I gained almost nothing relevant to today's debate from an examination of their maiden speeches. My bright idea came to nothing.

I am also humbled by my great privilege to be the Member for South Holland and The Deepings. As such, I continue a long tradition of Conservative representation in south Lincolnshire. As my constituency is a new one, like my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) I enjoy the privilege of sharing the Opposition Benches with my two predecessors, my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) and for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). They each typify the pursuit of political conviction before political convenience, strength of argument above personal advancement, and I hope that during my time in the House I can continue in this vein.

I am proud to represent the constituency with the most charming name, if not the most charming Member. For those who are not familiar with south Lincolnshire, I should like to offer some insight into my glorious constituency. It is traditional, rural Britain with all the characteristics which one might therefore expect. It has a hard-working, law-abiding, patriotic population—people who respect the soil and its products, who depend upon the elements and who are close to God. They are suspicious of pomposity, pretension and political correctness and of all other ephemeral and fashionable ideas. Those are the traditional, decent folk of south Lincolnshire and I am honoured that they chose me to be their representative.

It is just such humble, hard-working folk that the Bill is designed to injure. It will not damage the privileged and the wealthy; nor will it hurt people like the Prime Minister's parents who many years ago could afford to send their son to private school. It will not hurt people like the parents of the Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women or those of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), those of the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), or those of other Labour Members with that kind of background.

The Bill is an attack on poor people. As has been said, 42 per cent. of those who enjoy the opportunities provided by assisted places have incomes below £10,000 per year. It is iniquitous to introduce a Bill which seeks to limit and stifle the chances of those people. I have no vested interest in saying that: I have no connection with private education. I am proud to have been a grammar school boy, and as such I have no links with private education.

The opportunity for working-class children to go to grammar school and to climb the ladder of educational advancement is not available to many of our fellow citizens. In many parts of the country there is no such chance. The assisted places scheme gave an opportunity to people in areas where the alternative was the dull egalitarian mediocrity which is all that so many local education authorities offer.

Although I do not claim to be an expert, I speak with some authority on this, having been a member of such a local education authority for more than a dozen years. That dull, egalitarian mediocrity is what faces millions of children. The assisted places scheme provided a glimmer of light, an opportunity. They were not compelled to join the scheme: it was an option and a choice. No one was obliged to take up a place; it was something that one had to apply for. But why take that opportunity from those 37,000 people? To take away that extra option, that extra choice, is both negative and pernicious.

Fortunately, Lincolnshire has retained selective education, so there is still some choice for my constituents, but the message that must ring out loud and clear in the Chamber today is that there can be no choice without diversity. It is extraordinary that, earlier in the debate, Labour Members displayed hostility to diversity, which is the lifeblood of educational advancement. We shall achieve educational progress, advancement and evolution only by having various types of school and various ideas percolating in schools.

I wish to draw attention to three particular objections to the Bill, some of which have been mentioned in the debate. However, I feel that they require further amplification. First, the figures on the absorption back into mainstream education of children currently benefiting from assisted places are at best dubious. Allowing for the doubling of the scheme, we would gain about £268 million from the abolition of the assisted places scheme.

Yet the Department for Education and Employment calculates that, taking a typical average cost per child of about £2,700, it would cost about £208 million to return those children to state education, and a further £210 million to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds—bringing the total to £418 million. There is a massive shortfall in those figures and, frankly, there must be some error in the calculations. I put it politely because I understand that the conventions of the House forbid my saying anything more. At the very least, those figures are questionable, and on that basis they are not worthy of our support.

The second reason why I oppose the Bill is that the choice among existing schools would undoubtedly be reduced. If we reduce class sizes and thus limit the ability of popular schools to admit children, we shall by definition reduce choice. I hope that all those hon. Members who support the Bill will be frank and honest with people and admit that it will reduce and restrict opportunity and choice not just in relation to assisted places but in choosing a popular local primary school. To restrict class sizes, we shall have to impose limits on the number of children that those schools can take in.

That was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead when she described her experience as chairman of an education committee. I have similar experience as a member—just a member, I hasten to add—of such a committee; in opposition, always in opposition. However, the ability of appeals panels on occasion to overrule initial judgments has enabled children to take school places that their parents wanted and from which the children have benefited. That will inevitably be curtailed by the Bill.

My third objection is that the misleading assertion that a reduction in class sizes will deliver an automatic benefit—a gain in terms of teaching and learning—is frankly not an accurate description of the facts. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment said in his opening remarks that class sizes matter, and of course they do. Class sizes are clearly one of the factors which affect a child's performance at school and the delivery of a good education, but they are not the only thing that matters in delivering good education.

Many other factors affect a child's progress at school and it can be sensibly argued that some of them are at least as important as—and possibly more important than—class size. I invite hon. Members to consider factors such as the home-school relationship, the physical quality of the teaching environment, the quality of teaching and learning itself, the leadership offered by the head teacher, and pre-school experience. To argue that none of those factors has as much impact as class size—that reducing class sizes alone will negate the impact of all those things—is to mislead the population. People have been encouraged to believe that there would be such a dramatic benefit—that suddenly their child's educational performance and teaching and learning experience would be transformed.

There is a correlation, but there is no direct correlation, as the Office for Standards in Education has accepted. In 1995, Chris Woodhead, who is now a popular figure on both sides of the Chamber, drew attention to the matter and made it clear that there was no such direct correlation. Most intelligent and sensible observers would share that view.

The Labour party must therefore bear some responsibility—I say this more in sorrow than in anger—for trivialising the debate on education, particularly over the past couple of years. By concentrating solely or virtually solely on class sizes, they have simplified and parodied the discussion and created expectations which now cannot be met—and they will regret that in the fulness of time.

It is also a sad indictment of the Labour party that its first piece of education legislation is entirely negative. The Bill axes an existing scheme: it destroys rather than creates. In the fulness of time, Labour Members may wish that their first measure had been more imaginative, more positive—perhaps building on an existing scheme and policy, developing and changing it, rather than simply axing and destroying it.

I am a grateful for the traditional indulgence that the House has shown me as a newcomer in making this speech. I shall not expect it in the future, and no doubt I shall not get it as I give notice that I intend to fight tooth and nail every Labour measure of this type which I believe restricts opportunity, reduces choice and thwarts initiative.

6.47 pm
Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

I congratulate the hon. Member for the new constituency of South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) on his maiden speech. I have absolutely no doubt that, in the fulness of time, we shall engage in considerable debate on some of his views and I look forward to those debates. I also note that, in deepest England, the name of his constituency has a European tang to it and wonder whether that reflects his views. I offer him many congratulations and wish him well during his time in the House.

The Bill represents an important first step in meeting the key challenge that the Government have set themselves: to raise standards of education for all children in all schools. This Bill to phase out the assisted places scheme and instead to use the resources to cut class sizes for the youngest primary school pupils will not, as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, be sufficient in itself to achieve our aims. However, it is momentous because it clearly encapsulates the difference in approach between new Labour and the Conservatives.

In the past 18 years, the Conservatives have shown that they have no faith in the public sector: "Private good—public bad" has been their mantra. That is why they focused on privatising rather than improving public services. That held as true for education as it did for the utilities, for transport, for housing and for health. It was reflected in the fact that most Conservative Ministers sent their own children to private schools. It was therefore logical for the Conservative Government to use public money to pay for places in the private sector.

Lady Olga Maitland, who formerly represented Sutton and Cheam and who lost her seat in the general election—to her surprise and, perhaps, our relief—revealed the Conservative Government's true attitude when, in the Standing Committee discussions on extending the assisted places scheme, she implied that the best education was not available in the maintained sector. Several speeches today have reinforced that view.

Last year's expansion of the assisted places scheme was an admission of defeat by a tired Administration who had run out of ideas to improve education standards for Britain's children. The Tories' answer to the nation's problem was to pay private schools to take a handful of children and to neglect the rest. New Labour will not ignore the rest. For us, the challenge is to raise the standards of all schools in the maintained sector so that all our children can enjoy the opportunities and privileges that the Conservatives reserved for the few. Our task is to ensure that parents and children experience standards in the maintained sector as good as the best in the private sector.

Of course parents want and should have choice—about that there should be no dispute—but choice will become a reality for parents only when they can choose between a large number of good schools. A choice between schools that do not offer high standards is no choice at all, and choice is certainly not created by a scheme which uses precious and limited public money to help a few children in a few schools. The way to create genuine choice is to use our resources to raise standards in all our schools.

The changes proposed in the Bill will lead to higher standards for about 500,000 young children, compared with only about 30,000 who are helped each year through the assisted places scheme. One of the scheme's principal attractions for parents is the lower class sizes that it offers their children. If class size really makes no difference, as Conservative Members have argued in the past, why do private schools advertise their smaller class sizes as a marketing point in their brochures?

Despite the former Secretary of State's rhetoric, parents, teachers and inspectors all agree that lower class sizes make a difference, especially in the crucial early years of a child's education. In fact, the chief inspector—who, we can all agree, has been effective in stirring the debate on education standards in the past few years—is himself on record as supporting that view. In an interview on the "Today" programme last October, he said: Our class size report of 11 months ago looked at whether there was any connection that we could trace between the number of children in the class and the quality of those children's education. With the early years, that's from five to seven, we agree there was a connection. And we think that if this or any subsequent Government is going to find more money it ought to invest that money in early years education.

Mrs. Gillan

If class sizes are so important to every parent, can the hon. Lady explain why the Prime Minister sends his children to a school where class sizes are larger than the average in Islington, which I believe used to be in his own back garden?

Ms Hodge

The hon. Lady is referring to secondary education; I was referring to primary education. The issue of class sizes—as she should know, since she was an Education Minister—is especially pertinent at the early stages in a child's education. She might argue, and I might even agree with her, that there should be a redistribution of resources to achieve even smaller class sizes in the early years rather than the small classes that exist in some schools in the later years.

I agree that small classes alone are not enough, and no Labour Member is arguing that they are. The demand is for qualities such as leadership—to which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred—a high standard of teaching and good discipline. Those are all factors that the new Government have pledged to improve. In contrast with the previous Government, the Labour Government have made dramatic announcements within the first month of taking office. Since the general election, the Government have announced that there will be mandatory head teacher qualifications—something that the previous Government did not pursue—measures to tackle failing schools, measures to improve literacy and numeracy, and moves to extend parent representation in schools and on local education authorities.

Those measures show that the new Labour Government have a real sense of purpose and a coherent programme that will improve education opportunities for all our children. It is a programme which aims to meet the needs of Britain's schools and children in a common-sense manner. There is no place for the tired dogma of the assisted places scheme or the bureaucratic nursery vouchers scheme.

No doubt there are those who view the Bill as an act of spite by the Labour Government against private schools, but nothing could be further from the truth. The assisted places scheme is inefficient as well as inequitable, and on those grounds alone it deserves to be abolished. It is also open to abuse. One headmaster is on record as saying that there are self-employed people with good accountants who do very well from the scheme.

Mrs. Gillan

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. In Committee on the last education Bill, she made similar accusations against the assisted places scheme and I asked her—or, indeed, any Labour Member—to report to my office any cases of abuse. She did not bring even one. Nor did any of her colleagues write to the Department with examples of abuse of the scheme.

Ms Hodge

The hon. Lady's memory is a little awry. She asked me to bring to her office cases of abuse relating to supply teachers who had not been registered. Had she continued as a Minister, I should without fail have brought such cases to her attention. The proposals before us today, however, will make such representations unnecessary.

Not only has the assisted places scheme been open to abuse; it has not made the best use of limited money. It has contributed little to the central aim, which should be shared throughout the House, of raising educational standards. Indeed, one of the challenges facing the new Government is to find new ways of working with the private sector to help in this vital task. That, too, is something that the previous Government failed to do.

Partnership and co-operation—not competition and the market—must inform our approach, and I hope that the Government will come forward with radical but practical ideas to enable such partnerships to develop. It is not just about using private schools with particular specialisms to educate children with particular needs or talents: it is about recognising the self-interest of individual institutions, but marrying that with the wider interest of the whole community.

The challenge is to think creatively about the resources available in the private sector and to use them for the benefit of the entire community. For instance, there could be greater sharing of swimming pools and playing fields, which are especially important in inner-city areas where so many children are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy sports at school. We could also use the experience of the private sector in preparing young people for specific exams—such as the Oxbridge entrance exams—so that opportunity can be extended to a wider range of pupils.

We could use teachers from the private sector to alleviate the skill shortages in the maintained sector and to ensure that a full curriculum is on offer to all our children. We could also introduce joint teaching, perhaps at sixth form level, so that the skills in both sectors can be deployed to the benefit of all children.

Those are just a few positive ideas for the future which could start to break down the traditional divide which has been so destructive between the public and the private sectors. Such ideas could offer enhanced opportunities for thousands of children. The Bill is not a traditional old Labour knee-jerk reaction to private schools—it is a sensible measure to improve our use of public money in education; but it must be only the first step.

The early years in a child's education are crucial to later performance. Fifty per cent. of a child's intellectual development occurs before the age of five. Yet according to the most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures that I have seen, we spend only 2 per cent. of our education budget on children in their early years, whereas the Swedes spend 17 per cent. on that crucial phase, the French 12 per cent. and the Italians 8 per cent. Also in stark contrast with other OECD countries, we do not have either national recommended minimum space allocations or a maximum statutory class size for primary pupils.

We must invest in early years education if we are serious about raising education standards, which will mean some tough decisions for the Government on redirecting resources from other sectors. During the tenure of the previous Government, I said that this country had education policy wrong. Currently our expenditure per annum per student in higher education is more than $15,000, whereas the Americans and the Japanese spend just under $12,000 per student per annum and the Germans and the French spend just over $6,000 per student per annum. I therefore believe that we must re-order our priorities.

We must, however, also hold to our pledge that within the lifetime of the Government, as we move people from welfare to work, we shall increase the proportion of public expenditure that is spent on education. More resources invested wisely makes sense. Money will not solve all the problems of the legacy that we have inherited, but some investment—especially in the early years—is vital, and the Bill is a start.

The Bill will allow us to take the first substantial action to raise standards in our schools. It will replace elitism with opportunity for all, and it will enable us to fulfil one of the five key pledges that won the overwhelming support of the electorate. It also shows Labour's commitment to excellence for everyone. Parents have voted for smaller classes, and it is now up to the House to deliver them.

7.3 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I am pleased to have an opportunity to say a few words on an important subject that is of great interest to many of my constituents. First, however, I should like to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), and the Minister for School Standards on their appointments. I have already congratulated the Secretary of State on his appointment. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment has a deep, professional and long-standing interest in education, and Opposition Members will certainly examine constructively and with interest the Government's proposals to improve standards in schools.

Conservative Members will, of course, part company with the Minister on the Bill. It will undoubtedly give her pleasure, because she has long been opposed to the assisted places scheme, and its introduction today must be why she and the Minister for School Standards have looked so happy. There is, however, another side to the Bill's introduction, and it must cause some concern and disappointment to those two Ministers, because I know, from my experience of serving in Committee with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, that she is a great supporter of consultation, parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

The Minister undoubtedly will remember that the Minister for School Standards, she and I served on the Committee stage of the Education Act 1993, and she will also remember the length of that Committee's sittings. She will remember how that Bill was introduced six months after the election of the previous Government, and after publication of a White Paper and a two-month consultation period. She will also remember just how anguished she and the Minister for School Standards were over a sittings motion on that Committee's sittings.

Today, however, we are debating the first measure introduced by Education Ministers, and it will be rushed through the House in less than a week. If the Minister for School Standards were a Back Bencher and free to think and speak about the matter, what would he think? I remember his eloquent words in a debate on the passage of the Education Act 1993. After the previous Government had published a White Paper, conducted two months of consultation and scheduled many hours of Committee work on the Bill, he said: The haste now being shown in the sittings motion points to a Government who are scared of debate and will not argue the issues, and who seek instead to rush the proposals through. That cannot be in the interests of the country or our children."—[Official Report, 17 November 1992; Vol. 214, c. 14.] I know that such a stern and unbending devotee of parliamentary scrutiny as the Minister for School Standards must secretly and privately be feeling some anguish at the way in which the Bill is being rushed through the House.

I should like to take issue with the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who was being rather generous and gracious when she tried to suggest that the Bill is a new Labour proposal. It is very much old Labour, and old Labour has been very much in evidence in today's debate. In 1980, the former hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook was the Labour education spokesman. At that time, he could have been considered as mild new Labour; now, however, he is decidedly old Labour. In 1980, he said: all the assistance schemes basically help children who would have gone there anyway but who nevertheless, because of the schemes, receive added assistance from the State."—[Official Report, 16 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 237.] In 1980, there was no question but that Labour was old Labour.

If any further proof is necessary that the Bill is an expression of old Labour's instinct against the assisted places scheme, the Liberal Democrats' opposition to the previous Government's policy over the past 18 years provides it. The Bill is an old Labour measure, and today some of the familiar old Labour arguments vilifying the assisted places scheme have again been trotted out.

We have heard from the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) and from other Labour Members that the scheme favours the privileged few over the many. We have also heard various sociological analyses of whether assisted students are middle class or working class, and questions have been asked about their parents' marital status. The fact is that the common denominator of people whose children are in the assisted places scheme is that they all belong to low-income families. Without some help, families at the top end of the income scale—those receiving a combined income of £25,000—would struggle to put a child through an independent school, and those at the bottom of the scale—those with a combined income of less than £10,000; and 40 per cent. of children on the assisted places scheme come from such families—would struggle even more.

The common denominator of those families is that they have a low income, and no Labour Member should be under any illusions about it. We have heard all their sociological analyses and all the talk from the Secretary of State about working-class and middle-class families, but the families benefiting from the scheme are on low incomes, and their opportunities will be taken away. The Government must accept that fact.

It is also not true that the assisted places scheme is somehow a subsidy to private education. Some time ago, the Minister for School Standards produced an analysis of the situation at 10 schools—one of which, Haberdashers' Aske's school, is in my constituency—which, he said, showed that those schools were receiving a huge subsidy from the taxpayer. Had he done a little more research, he would have found it a strange form of subsidy because, in the case of Haberdashers' Aske's, the places occupied by children on the assisted places scheme could be filled many times over by the children of parents wealthy enough to pay the full fees.

The fact is that schools such as Haberdashers' Aske's and schools under the old direct grant system like taking children on the assisted places scheme because they welcome the social mix that it creates within their schools and feel that it enables them to adhere to their historic ethos.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I have a different view of what constitutes a low income, but will he confirm that 1,000 pupils on the assisted places scheme come from families with an income in excess of £24,000 and, indeed, that a third of the pupils on the scheme have always been in the private sector—in other words, their parents were able to pay for them in the private sector before they took up an assisted places scheme? How does the hon. Gentleman square that with his notion that all the children involved come from families with low incomes who could not afford private school places?

Mr. Clappison

Neither the hon. Lady nor I know how the circumstances of those families might have changed. The fact is that all are subject to a means test. It would be very difficult for them, even those with incomes of £24,000 or £25,000, to put their children through the scheme. Such incomes may seem large to some people, but the scale of fees in the independent sector is such that it would still be difficult for children of such families to take up an assisted place without some help.

The hon. Lady will know that families make a substantial contribution. No one could describe a family with a combined income of less than £10,000 as well off, no matter what part of the country that family lives in. Certainly in my constituency, an income of less than £10,000 is considered small.

A link has now been made between class sizes and the ending of the assisted places scheme. We should not be under any illusion—it has always been the aim of Labour to do away with the scheme, but that link has now been made. It is perhaps a happy marriage of old Labour prejudices and new Labour aspirations.

There are some interesting questions to be asked about class sizes. Whatever the hon. Member for Barking says about other measures to improve standards, which we would welcome if they were constructive, the Labour party has isolated the issue of class sizes and exalted it above everything else. It has presented it as an article of faith—[Interruption.] Labour Members should read their party's manifesto, which makes it clear that one of Labour's key commitments is to reduce class sizes.

I do not want to get too involved in the controversy of whether class sizes are the key ingredient, but I note with interest that Mr. Woodhead, who has now been appointed as joint head of the Government's task force on standards, examined the issue and that an analysis by Ofsted concluded that there was no clear link between the size of a class and the quality of teaching and learning within it"— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Barking might pooh-pooh that. I do not know whether she was one of the many Labour Members who called for Mr. Woodhead's resignation, but I remind her that he is now head of the Government's task force.

Ms Hodge

If the hon. Gentleman is going to quote Mr. Woodhead, he should do so accurately. I, too, quoted Mr. Woodhead. He said that class size did not make a great deal of difference for older pupils but that it did make a difference in the early years.

While I have the hon. Gentleman's attention, I must ask him where he has been for the past three or four weeks, because there has been almost an announcement a day from the Department for Education and Employment on initiatives other than class sizes which are intended to raise educational standards. Such initiatives were sadly lacking in the tired last days of the Conservative Government.

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Lady is being a little ungenerous. We will work constructively with Labour Members, but she should realise that many of the proposals made by the Secretary of State and his colleagues are building on foundations that are already in place, such as the national curriculum, testing and inspection. Indeed, Ofsted itself was created by the previous Government, and Mr. Woodhead was defended through thick and thin. I welcome his promotion and also the interesting promotion of Professor Brigstock—[Interruption.]—Brighouse. He will bring his own insights to the matter. I shall say nothing more about Professor Brighouse—I know that his intellectual robustness cannot be questioned. He will bring special insights into failing schools, having responsibility for education in a local authority that comes near the bottom of the performance tables and which performs much less well than the neighbouring authorities of Coventry and Wolverhampton.

The hon. Member for Barking might want to take into account the interesting fact that a number of authorities in London, such as Islington, Southwark and Hackney, have a relatively low proportion of the sort of children whom she was talking about in classes of more than 30 but they still languish near the bottom of the performance tables. However, I do not want to go too far into that issue.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we have heard a great deal of claptrap from Labour Members about raising standards, as if that was what the measure was all about? In fact, the Bill has nothing to do with raising standards. It is a petty, vindictive little measure that Labour has wanted to introduce for years.

Mr. Clappison

As I said, the Bill is a happy marriage of new Labour aspirations and old Labour prejudices, which is what we have heard today. The question is whether it will accomplish what it sets out to accomplish.

The Labour party has claimed throughout—it did so in its manifesto—that the savings made from the abolition of the assisted places scheme would be sufficient to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to under 30. That was Labour's pledge, and I notice that in the press release accompanying the Bill, Labour made the same claim. The press release states: A detailed note on the Bill's contents is attached. The explanatory memorandum to the Bill explains that the finance released as a result of the phasing out of the Assisted Places Scheme will reduce class sizes for five, six and seven year olds to 30 or less by the end of this Parliament. However, the explanatory memorandum to the Bill says no such thing; it says only that there will be savings and that they will be used to reduce class sizes. It does not say that the savings will be sufficient to reduce class sizes to under 30, and it is wise not to do so. I do not think that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment could make that claim. The Government say that they know what the savings will be—they estimate them to be £100 million by the year 2000, and I see the hon. Lady nodding at that—but they cannot say whether they will be sufficient.

In a parliamentary written answer to me, the hon. Lady said that the Government had no idea what the cost would be of reducing classes for all five, six and seven-year-olds to below 30. They say that they know what the savings will be, but they have no idea of the cost.

The Government's claim is based on the interesting assumption, made somewhat cavalierly by the Government, that there will be no extra costs involved in educating in the maintained sector those children who would have been on the assisted places scheme. The Government have not mentioned a penny of additional cost because that would have to come off their estimated savings. Independent analysts who have examined the claim have found a massive black hole of about £250 million in the Government's plans over seven years. If the Government are not able to say that the savings will be sufficient, we are entitled to ask how they will meet the additional costs. We may have had some interesting pointers from the hon. Member for Barking.

The Government may have been cavalier with their financial estimates but they have been more than cavalier in their treatment of very young children on the assisted places scheme. It is possible for children in receipt of preparatory school education to receive an assisted place up to the age of 13. The head teachers of preparatory schools were naturally concerned before the election about whether those receiving assisted places at preparatory schools would be able to continue to do so up to the age of 13. They therefore pressed the then education spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), about that. He went to the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools conference. In correspondence with the head of the IAPS, he said: I said at the IAPS Conference that we would not take a place away from any child who was awarded one, but that we would not offer any more places. The hon. Gentleman was pressed further on that by Mr. Davies Jones, head of the IAPS. One month before the election, in a letter to Mr. Davies Jones written in his capacity as Labour party spokesman on education policy, he said: Much will obviously depend on the school to which a child has been admitted. If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13. There is not much room for doubt there. That was a cast iron guarantee from the Labour party before the election that assisted places would run through to 13.

This is a serious subject r head teachers in the IAPS and for parents whose children are on such places. They want assurances because their children's education is at stake. A child's education is important. Whatever claims were made before the election about the financial implications of the measure, it is important that the education of those on the scheme should be respected, should be taken into account and, dare I say, should be paramount.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend think that the fact that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) was not appointed to the Department for Education and Employment has any significance? Does he think that that fact reduces the strength of the commitment that he made when he was a Front-Bench spokesman on education—a commitment reneged on by the Government after the election?

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure that he agrees that Governments should keep their promises on such sensitive and important issues. Labour Members may laugh, but it is no laughing matter to children in at least one school in my constituency. Their education is at stake. Before Labour Members dismiss the issue out of hand, I remind them of the words of the Secretary of State, who was asked during the debate on the Queen's Speech about the fate of children who are already on assisted places.

I drew consolation at the time from his words, as, I suppose, did parents and teachers who are interested in the issue. He said: During the general election campaign, I said that children who have been allocated places will be permitted to take them up. We shall legislate within weeks to ensure that schools do not abuse the licence that was given to them to look after the interests of children by agreeing to places for 1998 or 1999 onwards. The hallmark of this Government will be to put children before dogma. It will be to ensure that the interests of our children come first on every occasion."—[Official Report, 15 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 183.] I took that as a recognition from the Secretary of State that this was an important and sensitive subject. Imagine my surprise to find that the Bill and the accompanying literature make it crystal clear that the places that I am referring to will not end at age 13, as the Labour party had promised, but will instead end at age 11.

I asked the Secretary of State about that today. There can be little room for doubt that the Labour party is breaking the promise it made to the head of the IAPS. No other construction can be put on the words. To give him credit, the Secretary of State did not try to suggest that the Labour party was not breaking its promise. He produced a slightly bureaucratic justification, but made no acknowledgement of the importance of the promise that has been broken.

This is a serious matter for children on the scheme—very young children from low-income families—and for their parents. After all the fine rhetoric about morality and all the expectations that have been raised—in some cases deliberately so—and after all the things that have been said and the postures struck by the Government about how they would do business, I am surprised that in the Bill, which is not just their first Education Bill but will be their first Act passed after taking office, they are breaking a promise made to the parents of young children on low incomes about how long they will be able to stay at school.

Conservatives will oppose this measure, which embodies old Labour prejudice and hostility. It takes away opportunities for low-income families, and there are considerable doubts that it will accomplish what it sets out to achieve. The Labour party adopted a cavalier attitude towards the representations that were made on the subject to gain election. Most seriously, the Bill involves a shabby breach of a promise that will affect children in my constituency and up and down the country. I am surprised that the Government want to set out on their legislative programme on this note.

7.25 pm
Ms Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this Chamber as the newly elected Member for Reading, East—the first Labour Member for Reading, East for 27 years and the first woman Member for the constituency. This is a moment of great pride for me.

Reading has been a settlement for almost 2,000 years, as far as anyone can tell, because it is a place where two rivers meet—the Thames and the Kennet. Not many people think of Reading as being on the banks of the Thames, but so it is. The town has not always sung its own praises as perhaps it should have done, but it has been immortalised by some of our greatest writers. Thomas Hardy referred to it as Aldbrickham in "Jude the Obscure".

One of the most famous inhabitants of Reading was not there by choice. He spent almost two years in Reading gaol and was released 100 years ago this month. I refer, of course, to the beautiful genius, Oscar Wilde. Reading will now make amends to Oscar. He did not choose to be with us, and society should say that we are sorry.

It is customary to pay tribute to one's predecessor on these occasions. I am pleased to pay tribute to Sir Gerard Vaughan, who had a long and at times distinguished career in the House. I have never been able to establish the truth of the persistent tale that, as a doctor, he was called into service when various hon. Members over-indulged in various ways and found themselves unwell. I am sure that he would have given what service he could.

As Sir Gerard retired before the election and was not defeated, I would like to pay a small tribute to the Conservative who sought, unsuccessfully, to be his successor—a man who is probably well known to most in the House; the former transport Minister, John Watts. I do so because, throughout a bruising election campaign, he displayed great dignity and the qualities of a gentleman, which we do not always experience from the Conservative party.

We are here to talk about education and the assisted places scheme. We must focus resources on education in the early years. If we do not do that, what we do for later years is wasted. Education is a lifelong process. That idea is especially close to my heart, as both my daughter and my mother are university students at the moment. I am finding it a little hard to concentrate, because my mother is awaiting her degree finals result and I hope to find it out soon. My daughter has another year to go. When we debate education under this new Labour Government, we must remember that we are talking about all people of all ages, of all income levels, from all classes and from all walks of life.

My mother had a lifelong dream that, one day, she would be able to go to university. In her late sixties, she has managed to do that. She says that she wishes she had been able to go to university sooner. She feels that she was disadvantaged by having had not very good and not very well-organised schooling during the war years; there were various reasons for that.

Let us remember that, if we fail our five, six and seven-year-olds, we fail those children not just at that age, but for the whole of their lives, because they will achieve less well. Their children are likely to achieve less well as a result, and so it goes on. When we get into confrontation and debate on the abolition of the assisted places scheme, we must remember what is really important—the future. We have a new Labour Government who are looking to the future. Let us remember what really matters.

7.31 pm
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

I fear that I have no Oscar or gaol to claim in my speech, but I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Reading, East (Ms Griffiths).

I am grateful and relieved to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, during a positive plethora of maiden speeches in the opening days of the new Parliament. I am only too aware that some debates in the House resemble a veritable Baedeker's travelogue round the British isles which may well be of only passing interest to hon. Members who are yet to finalise their holiday arrangements. I will therefore keep my introductory comments brief in a tradition initiated by a former Member for the old Arundel and Shoreham constituency.

Captain Henry Kerby, who represented the constituency between 1954 and 1971, made the opening remark: The making of a maiden speech must be one of the very few occasions when a Member of this House appreciates to the full the grim truth of that old adage, 'It is good to speak, but far better to remain silent.'"—[Official Report, 22 March 1954; Vol. 525, c. 915–16.] Not unusually, the subsequent speech by the hon. and gallant Member on the subject of the pre-revolutionary Russian railway infrastructure lasted only a few minutes. Indeed, it is one of the few recorded examples of any speech by him in the House before his untimely death 17 years later in 1971. He is certainly recorded, however, as being a man of outspoken and strong views in his constituency.

It is a great honour to have been elected as the first Member of Parliament for the new constituency of East Worthing and Shoreham. It is formed out of parts of the previous seats of Shoreham and Worthing, which has grown to become the largest town in West Sussex. I pay tribute to two of my most distinguished predecessors. Worthing only ever had two Members of Parliament.

I hope that the House will remember with affection my immediate predecessor there, Sir Terence Higgins, who served Parliament and the constituency loyally and tirelessly for 33 years. His career, spanning Olympic runner, Financial Secretary to the Treasury and numerous House Committees, will be a hard act to follow—particularly the Olympic running. He also carried on the tradition of all Members of Parliament for Worthing of receiving a knighthood. I am a great believer in tradition.

Former Members of Parliament for Shoreham include Inigo Jones in the 1620s. Although his parliamentary career may not have matched the distinction of Sir Terence's, it may be topical to mention that he came to Westminster following the expulsion of the former Member, Sir John Leedes, for failing to take the oath. Madam Speaker may be interested in the precedent created in Shoreham in the 1620s.

As a son of Sussex, born, bred and educated in the county—no true Sussexonian recognises the iniquitous local government boundary review of 1973 which wrenched east from west—it is a particular pleasure to be able to return to my roots and represent my fellow countymen in Parliament. It cannot be deemed controversial, but surely a statement of fact that Sussex is by far one of the most beautiful counties in the country.

The East Worthing, and Shoreham constituency combines all that county's virtues, with dramatic, downland landscape, once fashionable seaside resorts, light industry and a sizeable retirement population. We take in world-beating companies at the leading edge in vacuum pump and simulator equipment production, pharmaceuticals and motor cars, and the nearest working channel port to London. In Lancing, we have the largest village in the country, in Shoreham, the oldest commercial airport in the country and in Worthing, the oldest population in the country.

Worthing has twice the national average of over-65-year-olds and three times the national average of over-80-year-olds. I am told that, by the year 2030, the average life expectancy of a Worthing woman will be 105—a sobering thought. I am, however, delighted to say that I have many who have achieved that ripe old age already. I have recently accepted an invitation to the 106th birthday party of one delightful constituent whom I met during the recent general election campaign and who, of course, being still bright as a button at the age of 105, informed me with gusto that she had already made her postal vote for the Conservatives.

It is not just because of that vested interest that I will pay close attention to the actions of this new Government in overhauling the way in which the pension system works, so that my 105-year-old and millions like her will receive a full and meaningful pension well into the next millennium, without the pension pot running prematurely dry, as threatens to happen in the many continental countries that lack comprehensive private pension provision. On that score, I believe that the previous Government's proposals for basic pension plus provided a bold and practical way forward in tackling the problem. I hope that the new Secretary of State will revisit those proposals with an objective and open mind, and without the near-hysterical soundbite antagonism of the general election campaign.

The preponderance of elderly residents in East Worthing and Shoreham brings with it particular and increasing pressures on the NHS locally. That is not a matter for debate now, but one of my main priorities will be to fight for a fairer share of the health funding cake in my part of Sussex. As I see time and again, many of my pensioners are finding the going tough. I am particularly aware of the problems experienced by those caught in the elderly poverty trap who do not quite qualify for additional benefits, but who have to live on little more than the basic pension. A review of pension arrangements must look at that as a matter of urgency.

Many elderly people, despite their own problems, express great concern about the next generation and especially about the educational and job prospects for their grandchildren. Here I turn to the specific matter in hand—the new Government's education proposals.

In the general election, all three parties majored on the priority of improving our education system. The new Prime Minister spoke of "Education, education, education". The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) positively eulogised about the all-embracing miracle cure of a penny on income tax—possibly the most overspent penny in the history of spending a penny. I agree, however. I believe—this may alarm my hon. Friends temporarily—that much of what we have heard from the new Government on education, including this Bill, is both good and original. The trouble is, as I think Dr. Johnson said, what is good is not original and what is original is certainly not good. Indeed, that adage might well be applied to an awful lot of what has emanated from the Government in recent weeks.

In education, we are hearing much about what is to be dismantled, disbanded or discarded, but precious little about what improvements will take their place.

I have never experienced a public school education, but as the Member of Parliament for a constituency that can boast many fine private-sector schools, some of which offer assisted places, I can see the opportunities that public schools can provide to families who are in a position to take advantage of them. The greatest growth in those taking up assisted places has been among children from low-income families. There has been a particular rise in the proportion of ethnic minorities taking up assisted places. They all appreciate the outstanding academic success of assisted-places schools, which, for example, achieve near double the national average of GCSE passes, as my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment said.

It is paradoxical that Government Members have claimed superior academic performance by many LEA-funded schools over assisted places schools. If that were exclusively so, parents would surely not want to opt for assisted places and the scheme would wither and die by natural market forces. That is obviously not so. It should be argued that the assisted places scheme is not necessary because all schools have come up to the standard of schools offering assisted places, and not the other way round, as we have heard so often from the Government Benches.

I was interested to hear the letter read out by the Secretary of State, which he received in correspondence with St. Andrew's school in Eastbourne—not least because both my brother and my sister attended that school. The letter is another example of the unseemly rush to dismantle the scheme—despite the mayhem that will be left behind. The Government seem rather oblivious to the needs of children currently in assisted places, who will be left in the lurch. It seems extraordinary to deny success to families simply because they cannot afford it. Instead, we should be looking to extend such opportunity for excellence to as many children as possible.

I am greatly worried about the similar apparent stifling of parental choice represented by proposals to abolish the nursery voucher scheme just weeks after it came into operation nationwide. In West Sussex we have long enjoyed one of the best records of achievement among LEA schools. That is in no small part attributable to a varied and successful tradition of independent nursery school provision offering quality early years learning, as has been said. The beauty of the nursery voucher scheme was that it acknowledged that the people best suited to decide on the most appropriate education facilities for their children were the parents of those children. When allowed to work on a level playing field, the nursery voucher system allowed access to independent, Church or LEA nursery provision depending on parents' choices, regardless of their means.

The nursery voucher scheme will be sorely missed in west Sussex, all the more so because the many nursery schools that I have visited in my constituency over the past year have worked hard to prepare for it and to pass the rigorous Ofsted inspections designed to maintain uniform standards across the country. It will be even more missed because parents who have recently taken advantage of the voucher scheme face its abolition from the beginning of next term with little idea of what will replace it or where their children will be attending school. That mush and muddle is serious for many parents who just last month enthusiastically took up nursery vouchers.

On 1 May, the Conservatives regained control of West Sussex county council after a short interregnum. I am proud to note that the first act of the new administration was to release £1.5 million from central LEA bureaucracy to flow straight to our schools. That must be right. It has been a hallmark of my party's education policies to give the greatest degree of financial independence to schools themselves, backed by a national benchmark of standards and curriculum requirements. That gave the experts—teachers, parents and governors—the responsibility to determine how best to concentrate resources on their pupils.

I speak as one who for many years served as a governor in particularly difficult inner city schools at primary and secondary level. I also speak as one who had the genuine privilege to stand against the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) at the 1992 election. Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's obvious commitment to Sheffield, the parlous state of schools that I witnessed in that city under the life-long control of Sheffield city council could not provide a greater contrast with West Sussex. Quite simply, maximising funding earmarked for education in schools themselves came well down Sheffield city council's list of priorities.

It is my fear that the education proposals before us mark the return of the nanny-state approach—that LEAs and all the bureaucracy that goes with them are best. I sincerely hope that, as the Government progress their education programme, that will not prove to be so.

I am grateful for the patience of the House. I however fear that Captain Kerby may judge me to have detained hon. Members for rather too long.

7.44 pm
Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) said in his fine speech, this is the season of maiden speeches. June is traditionally the season of strawberries, sweet and red. One always says that one cannot have enough of them. Perhaps that is true of maiden speeches.

Like other new hon. Members, I sought advice on my speech and was told not to be controversial. I must, however, start by taking issue with my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) and for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who claimed that their constituencies were the most beautiful. That claim is erroneous. The most beautiful constituency is in fact the Forest of Dean. I say that because I assume that my hon. Friends have not seen for themselves the splendour of the oak and fern-covered limestone hills about which Dennis Potter wrote.

The Forest of Dean lies between and is isolated by the magnificent Wye valley and the mighty River Severn. The ancient forest mentioned in the Domesday book has provided charcoal for iron smelting since Roman times, great masts for Tudor and Stuart navies and now provides commercial timber and a wonderful wilderness where locals and visitors alike can roam and relax.

Although the Forest of Dean is a rural environment, it has a long history of industrialisation due to its mineral wealth. Iron has been worked from early times and it gives the area the materials for its steel working and engineering. Until 30 years ago, deep coal mines were the mainstay of the local economy. In recent years, however, there has been much change, with lighter engineering, building, food processing and the tourist trade becoming the major contributors to the area's economy.

Although the community is made up of small towns and little villages scattered throughout the forest, it is closely linked, and through its remoteness has developed a different dialect to the rest of Gloucestershire. It has a strong sense of its own identity and distinct traditions, one of which allows sheep to roam freely—even to wander in and out of Woolworth's on Cinderford high street. There is pride in being born within the St. Briavel Hundred, which allows males, once over 21 years old, to be freeminers. I am proud to have the honour to represent the beautiful area, where, due to its geographical location and industrial history, people have developed an individual and independent personality.

My immediate predecessor worked hard for the constituency. I hope one day also to have that reputation. He knew and admired the local traditions. Indeed, he took up and fought steely for the cause of the freeminers. He enjoyed the job and life here in Westminster, and was in the House for 18 years. I believe that he found losing such a life hard.

Another of my predecessors was Charlie Loughlin, an outspoken Yorkshireman—I should like to be like him too—who represented the Forest of Dean from 1959 to 1970. That was a difficult time for the Dean. The mines were being closed one by one. The last one, Northern United, was closed on the very cruel date of Christmas eve 1965. Village after village felt the shadow of unemployment and economic decline. There is still huge respect for Charlie for the work that he did in helping miners find alternative work.

The Forest has never known great prosperity and many of its settlements are still in the shadow of decline. In the past 20 years in particular, it has suffered from a lack of investment and regeneration. It is vital to ensuring the successful regeneration of the whole local economy that its young people are well educated, well trained and skilled. Educational success is the key to economic success.

I was a teacher for 18 years, when I principally taught secondary aged children with learning difficulties or those who required remedial help. In 1996, 43 per cent. of our 11-year-olds failed to reach the expected levels for their age in English and mathematics. It seems that more and more children are entering secondary schools without succeeding at the basics. They have already failed.

I can testify that remedial work with those children is long, time-consuming and expensive. In most schools such groups have a pupil-teacher ratio of 1:12, 1:8 or even smaller. That happens because teachers are most effective in smaller groups. Such a teaching ratio in remedial groups is a heavy cost on a school's budget, but it is one that must be borne given the present number of pupils that need that support.

In my 18 years of experience the majority of those children experiencing failure at mathematics or literacy had suffered from a poor early start, particularly at the critical ages of five, six and seven. The most common factor among those children was that they had suffered from being in large classes. I believe that first-time good practice in smaller classes, when the foundations of literacy and numeracy are laid, is better for the individual child and would be a lot less expensive for the secondary school system in the long run. Prevention is always better than the cure.

In addition, young teenagers who feel that they have failed educationally have low self-esteem. They are twice as likely to be truants, and to be disruptive at school, and they are more likely to be involved in crime outside school. There is a cost to society at large if we fail to invest in smaller classes when children are learning the basics.

Of course the independent sector has smaller classes. Conservative Members know that because they send their children to schools in that sector. In 1996, just 176 children in Gloucestershire, where the Forest of Dean is located, participated in the assisted places scheme, compared with 81,000 educated by the state in the county. Labour's values are designed to provide good-quality education for the majority and not to defend a few privileged people.

The parents of children in the primary schools of the Forest of Dean want smaller classes. That is especially true of those whose children attend Mitcheldean, where there are classes of 35 for year 2, or those who attend Tutshill, Coalway, the Church of England primary school in Lydney or St. Whites in Cinderford. The list goes on and on. The five, six and seven-year-olds in all those schools are in classes of well over 30 pupils.

The parents of those children fund, through their taxes, the education for a privileged few in the assisted places scheme. Those parents fund independent education, which, per child, costs the state two or three times more than that which is spent on their children. Is that right? Is that socially just? Surely not.

Nationally, the number of primary school classes of more than 30 has risen from 24 per cent. in 1992 to 31 per cent. in 1997. That is a shameful record. Class sizes make a difference. In the 1995 Ofsted report, Christopher Woodhead made it quite clear that smaller class sizes were beneficial for primary school children aged five, six and seven. Academics know that smaller class sizes make a difference; teachers know that, as do parents and even the children in those classes. It seems that only the previous Government would not acknowledge their importance.

The Labour Government know that smaller class sizes matter. The Bill will take action to reverse the rise in class sizes. That change must be the mere first step because it is not the only thing that needs to be done. I will be pressing to ensure that we bring in a legal maximum class size of 30 for primary school children of all ages, and possibly of 25 for those of reception age.

The £100 million that will be made available in the next three years by abolishing the assisted places scheme will be used, together with other measures, to reduce class sizes for those important primary school years. That is educationally right, economically right, socially right and morally right.

The constituents of the Forest of Dean want smaller class sizes for their children, for their schools, for the future of their economy and for the simple social justice that it will deliver. They gave a mandate to the Government to be concerned for the many and not the few. They gave the Government a mandate to deliver social justice and to make education a priority. I am pleased to be able in my maiden speech to pledge my support for the Bill that will do that.

7.54 pm
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I am delighted to make my maiden speech. I am especially delighted and honoured to follow that given by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ), because we have met on a number of occasions in the past few years during our general election campaigns. She delivered a robust and entertaining speech, which will no doubt be supported by the foresters.

I know the Forest of Dean well, and I must tell the hon. Lady that the most beautiful part of it is Symonds Yat. She will concede that that falls about 100 yd inside Herefordshire in my constituency. Nevertheless, I agree that the Forest of Dean is a most beautiful part of the country.

I am also delighted to note that the new hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) has reappeared in the Chamber. I listened earlier to his maiden speech. The cities of Hereford and Worcester have a tradition of rivalry that goes back over many centuries. Hereford is the older of the two cities, although I accept that Worcestershire has the slightly better cricket team.

I am also delighted to make my maiden speech during this important debate on education. For all Liberal Democrats, education is at the centre of our political thinking. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for once again explaining our position to the House.

There are a number of private schools in my constituency, and, although I support our opposition to the assisted places scheme, my party and I are in no way opposed to those private schools. I look forward to working with many such schools in my constituency and I congratulate them on the high-quality education that they provide.

Among my first words in the House must be my thanks to the constituents of Hereford who elected me. They made a wise choice and, as my first promise, I pledge that my total commitment will be to them. For all hon. Members, it is a privilege to represent our constituencies, but for those who, like me, were born within our constituencies, it is perhaps a special honour.

I should like to say something about my predecessor, Sir Colin Shepherd. Many hon. Members, particularly those on the Conservative Benches, will remember him. He was an active member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and I am delighted to say that I have followed his tradition of membership of that important organisation.

More recently,Sir Colin was chairman of the House of Commons Catering Committee. I am sure that all new Members would like to join me in paying tribute to him for the excellent bars and restaurants within the precincts of Parliament—they are largely due to him. I am not sure whether it had anything to do with Sir Colin, but, on my first visit to the Strangers Bar, I was extremely amused to see that the beer on sale was called Shepherd's Delight.

Let me tell those hon. Members who do not know much about the Hereford constituency a little bit about it. It is made up of the southern half of the ancient county of Herefordshire. At the southern part, near Ross-on-Wye, is the Wye Valley, which was so eloquently described by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. To the west are the foothills of the Black mountains, which border the Welsh seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey).

Half the electors of my constituency, however, live within the city of Hereford. Those constituents, in common with many in Herefordshire, were delighted by the first meeting of the new unitary Herefordshire authority three weeks ago. After so many years of being attached—I must say that it was against our will—to the people of Worcestershire, Herefordshire has at last regained its independence.

The picture of local government throughout Herefordshire is not quite complete, because, although the market towns of Ross-on-Wye, Leominster and Bromyard will retain their town councils, the city of Hereford, one of the three oldest cities in the country, will lose its district council when the unitary authority takes over from it next April. Unless arrangements are made either for the parishing of the city or for the appointment of charter trustees, the 616th mayor of the city, who was installed three weeks ago, could well be the last. I give notice that I will exert pressure on the relevant Ministers on the Treasury Bench to ensure that such an anomaly is not allowed to occur. Indeed, it would be a total betrayal of more than 800 years of history that started when the city gained its royal charter in 1189.

There are possibly two symbols of Herefordshire that are best known throughout the world—Hereford cattle and Hereford cider. Hereford cattle, like all British beef, suffered badly under the previous Government. Even the pure-bred herds of Hereford, fed solely on grass and with no history of BSE, have been subject to the export ban. My hon. Friends and I will support any measures that the Government introduce to get the ban lifted soon.

Hereford cider, perhaps the second largest private employer in Herefordshire, also suffered under the previous Government, who twice increased the duty on cider, while the duty levied on beer and lager remained constant. That policy cost hundreds of jobs throughout Herefordshire, and I intend to press the new Government not to continue down that misguided road.

Shepherd's Delight may be on sale as a draught beer in the bars in the House, but I am sorry to say that it is not possible to purchase draught Herefordshire cider here. Hon. Members of all parties may rest assured that I shall do everything I can to pressure the new Chairman of the Catering Select Committee to rectify that omission as soon as possible.

I made a manifesto pledge to establish an all-party cider group—we already have beer groups and whisky groups—but, after the Liberal Democrats' great success in Taunton, North Devon and North Cornwall, among other places, it will be hard to find a cider-producing area that is not represented by us.

I referred to my immediate predecessor, Sir Colin Shepherd, and I want to say a few words about another predecessor of mine, Frank Owen, who was elected in 1929 as the last Liberal Member of Parliament for Hereford at the tender age of 23—young even by comparison with many current Labour Members. He was also the last Herefordian to represent the seat. He was defeated in 1931, after two short years in Parliament.

After leaving Parliament, Frank Owen had a glittering career in journalism, and became editor of both the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. After a period as a television journalist, he returned to fight the Hereford seat in 1955, and again in a by-election in 1956 that was bitterly contested even by today's standards. He failed on both occasions and handed his position as Liberal candidate to an up-and-coming young television journalist of the day, Mr. Robin Day, who went on to achieve better things.

Frank Owen went on to achieve even more greatness in journalism. He was once asked whether it were true that he had been a very young Member of Parliament. "Yes," he said, "I was elected by the highly intelligent, far-sighted people of the constituency of Hereford in 1929—and thrown out by the same besotted mob two years later." He said it with a smile on his face, and I would certainly never wish to echo those views about my constituents. I am honoured and privileged to represent his old seat.

I thank the House for its indulgence in listening to my speech, and I look forward to making a contribution in the future.

8.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

I begin by thanking you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House for doing me the honour of listening to me this evening.

I am proud to inform the House that I represent two parties:the Labour party and the Co-operative party. In the general election, I stood as a Labour and Co-operative candidate. The Co-operative party is the political party representing the wider co-operative movement and is dedicated, as I am, to promoting co-operative principles. For that reason, I am proud to be referred to as the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Loughborough.

It is my first and pleasant duty to refer to my predecessor in the Loughborough constituency, who is now the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell). Unlike many hon. Members who have said goodbye to their predecessors in their maiden speeches, I look forward to the opportunity of saying hello to mine on the Opposition Front Bench. I shall watch the Conservative leadership election with a certain amount of local interest.

I was sorry that, in the Queen's Speech, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did not introduce legislation on nuisance neighbours. The Loughborough constituency is placed directly between Charnwood and Rushcliffe. I know that it is improper to mention people's names in case work, so let us refer to my nuisance neighbours as Ken and Stephen.

The right hon. Member for Charnwood represented Loughborough for 18 years, having entered the House at the tender age of 26. He was then the youngest Member. I suppose that, at the grand old age of 32, he would have felt quite ancient, as I do, looking at some of the younger Members that we have now.

The right hon. Gentleman rose steadily through the Government ranks, despite being regarded as rather wet in the Thatcher years. No party could overlook his obvious talents. His ministerial duties placed a heavy burden on him in the past few years, but he had a formidable record for hard work in the constituency, and I hope to emulate him in that.

Over the past two years, I have had the honour to serve as the right hon. Gentleman's local councillor. In the troubled times that he may have in the coming few weeks, he will be more than welcome at my surgeries, of which I will give him the dates and times—especially after the Conservative leadership election result is announced.

Like the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), I am proud to represent people with whom I was educated and with whom I have worked and shopped. It is a great honour to be in the House and to be a member of that community. I do not claim that Loughborough itself is as great as Hereford or the Forest of Dean, but we have the Charnwood forest and the great areas of Leicestershire that I am proud to represent.

Loughborough is a combination of urban and rural areas within the triangle of the three major cities of the east midlands:Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. That is a great economic strength and we hope that we can promote the location, which is only two hours' drive or railway journey from about 60 to 70 per cent. of the English market. It is a great place for relocation, if any company should be so minded.

My constituency also contains some smaller villages; I have lived in and represented one of those—Sileby—for the past five years. It is the home of the previous Quorn hunt and offers beautiful locations in the Wolds villages. It has a richly diverse population. There is a thriving ethnic minority population in Loughborough, and we enjoy excellent race relations. I have taken great pleasure in the past few years in visiting and meeting people in the Shree Ram Krishna centre, the Gudwara, the Gheeta Bwhan and the mosque. I have always been given the warmest of welcomes, and I hope to develop our excellent relationships.

People in the villages are extremely proud. The villages—particularly Shepshed and Sileby—were developed and built around the textile industry at the turn of the century. Sadly, those industries have been in decline for the past 10 to 15 years; but there is still great strength of feeling in the communities.

I want to spend my time in the House reviving the textile and small engineering sectors, to ensure that the villages and small towns can survive. As soon as the factories and smaller workshops start to move away from those places, the high streets start to die and community spirit tends to go with them. I hope that some of the measures that we have proposed can start to make a difference.

In places such as Sileby, it is especially important to ensure that one is part of the community. I have been there for only five years, and I understand that it is difficult to be accepted as a real resident of Sileby. While out canvassing, I came across somebody who had moved there when she was three; she was now 76, but she said that she was still referred to locally as "Ethel from Leicester". Obviously, I have a long way to go before finally being accepted as a genuine Sileby resident.

The town of Loughborough is dominated by the university:out of 60,000 residents, about 11,000 are students; there are 6,000 people in the Asian community; and we have many skilled research and development staff involved with the university, with British Gas research or with large pharmaceutical research and development companies such as Astra and 3M.

The economy of Loughborough has changed significantly since the right hon. Member for Charnwood made his maiden speech 18 years ago. There has been a major decline in the textiles sector and, especially, in manufacturing. The saddest loss for us all has been the great decline of the Brush factory. Many hon. Members will have travelled in trains pulled by Brush. In the early 1980s, the work force was about 6,500 strong; it is now about 2,400. Everybody knew somebody who worked at Brush in Loughborough. I hope that we can start to revive that company and the fortunes of engineering.

The complexion of the local economy is changing. I do not want to concentrate only on the engineering sector and the manufacturing base:Loughborough offers excellent opportunities for the high-tech, high-skill, high-wage economy that we want to establish.

Only two weeks ago, we were able to open a fibre-optic training centre, the first of its kind in the country, at Loughborough college. The university has demonstrated exactly the sort of partnerships that we want between higher education and industry. The Prime Minister opened the British Aerospace laboratory at Loughborough university 18 months ago.

The university is also well known for its second skill, sport. One thing that we in Leicestershire can claim is sporting excellence over the past 12 months. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) mentioned Worcestershire. Worcester may have the most beautiful cricket ground in the country, but Leicestershire's team won the county championship last year.

Leicester also has a football team that, despite my original fears, did not get relegated from the Premiership and went on to win the Coca-Cola cup. Fortunately, that was the only time that the blues beat the reds this year, and I welcomed that victory. To me, as a member of the Leicester Tigers rugby union club, the greatest honour was winning the Pilkington cup this year. The home of the British academy of sport will soon be decided. I am sure that the Sports Minister will look favourably on Loughborough, with its fine reputation for athletics and for sport in general and with its central location.

Two weeks before the general election was called, I knew that we were on for a landslide. I still play rugby for Birstall, which is just outside my constituency. For the first time, playing at fly-half, I managed to score four tries in a 98-nil win—a good omen for the landslide that we got a few weeks later.

I wanted to speak in this debate because education plays such a key role in the life of my constituency. The university and the college are both important, but this debate is especially important because we know that it is the early years that make the difference in enabling people to succeed in later years.

I am a governor of Sileby Highgate school, where class sizes range between 34 and 39 for the seven classes. It is abysmal that children and staff work in such conditions. That is why this debate is important. The people to whom I talked on doorsteps and outside schools knew that class sizes matter. They were desperate to make a real change. That is why I welcome these proposals.

Right across Loughborough, hundreds of parents are writing to me to ask when we can get this measure through and whether it will affect their children when they go back to school in the autumn. They desperately want the change to go through. That is why I am pleased to be able to play a small role in ensuring that we can push through this legislation to ensure that the vast majority of people in my constituency benefit from the changes that we are going to make.

8.12 pm
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I compliment the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) on an excellent speech and wish him all the best. Making one's maiden speech at the tail end of a debate such as this is a matter of stamina as much as anything else. It tests all one's faculties, but one advantage is that it enables one to observe and listen to a wide variety of Members, old and new, and to learn about the Chamber and the subject under discussion.

Like other new Members, I am delighted to be here to represent my constituency. I am only the second Member for Mid-Norfolk, which was created in 1983. Its first Member was Richard Ryder, who has been transferred to another place. He had a distinguished political career in the House. Before 1983, he worked as political secretary to Margaret Thatcher. He was then selected for the new constituency of Mid-Norfolk, and straight away made an impact as a good constituency Member and achieved the ultimate height of public service by serving as a Minister.

As a constituency Member, he pushed through the House the Bill that established the Broads Authority, which had a big impact not only on the eastern margins of my constituency but throughout Norfolk. He also began the long task of dualling the main east-west road through Norfolk, the A47. That task has not yet been completed, but I and Members for neighbouring constituencies will want to emphasise it strongly.

It was as Chief Whip from 1990 to 1995 that, in a quiet way, Richard Ryder made his mark. He was Chief Whip at a time, to quote Harold Macmillan slightly out of context, of a little local difficulty for the Conservative party. As Chief Whip, he demonstrated his self-effacing manner and what Matthew Parris called his "state-of-the-art circumspection" to a T. In 1992, he received the Spectator award as Whip of the year. It is said that, when asked why he wore his watch face down, he replied that the time of the day was not public information and that he would give it on a need-to-know basis. That tradition is followed by all Chief Whips.

It was that great Conservative party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who judged that the office of Chief Whip required consummate knowledge of human nature, the most amiable flexibility and complete self-control". Richard Ryder was that man and politician. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish him well.

In his maiden speech in 1983, Richard Ryder remarked that the constituency of Mid-Norfolk resembled a large banana balancing on top of Norwich to the west, north and east. It is a large constituency, 60 miles wide and 20 miles deep at its greatest extent. I love my constituency dearly, not least because I am a Norfolk boy by birth, but it is one of those constituencies about which people ask, "Where exactly is it?" Invariably, one has to go into a great deal of description. As a footnote, I think that many hon. Members relish, and want to keep, the idea of being Members located in a territorial constituency. I for one would reject any changes to the electoral system that meant that Members of Parliament were merely allocated from a list to a region. I hope that we would all reject that.

In my constituency, three market towns, East Dereham, Aylsham and Acle, form focal points in the west, north and east. The fourth and smallest market town—and because I now live there, I must also say that it is the most beautiful—is Reepham, which is approximately in the centre. There is no natural political, economic or social centre to my constituency. That has both weaknesses and strengths. One could argue that the Member of Parliament is, to all intents and purposes, the focal point.

The weakness concerns identity and unity of structure. The strength is that we in Mid-Norfolk look beyond the narrow constituency boundary to the county boundaries and beyond. We all love our constituencies, but most hon. Members recognise that many of our problems and challenges go beyond our narrow constituency interest. In the best possible sense, we need to co-operate. That does not, of course, preclude the most severe debates and political tiffs on matters on which we fundamentally disagree.

Traditionally, the county of Norfolk has a sense of isolation and a strong, potentially exclusive, local identity. Horatio Nelson would now be regarded as politically incorrect. He rose to high rank in the Royal Navy, disobeyed orders and was a man of extreme temperament. He publicly flaunted his mistress to all and sundry. The chief of naval staff would probably not promote him today. Nelson was a Norfolk man by birth. In the 18th century, he wrote of "going into" and "coming out of Norfolk as though it was a physical entity separate from the rest of the United Kingdom.

More recently, the great writer and novelist Malcolm Bradbury, formerly of the university of East Anglia, our local university, commented that Norfolk was cut off on four sides: on three sides by the sea and on the fourth side by British Rail. I am happy to say that, thanks to the last Government's policy of privatisation, Anglia Rail is making certain that we are no longer cut off on the fourth side.

At its worst, Mid-Norfolk can be very parochial. We cannot claim a wit and a scholar like Oscar Wilde, although I suspect that some of my constituents might say, "Thank goodness for that." However, we did have Parson James Woodforde, who from 1774–1803 was rector of the small village of Weston Longeville, which is only a few miles from my constituency office. As many hon. Members will know, he kept a diary during that

Particularly vivid are his descriptions of the gargantuan meals he enjoyed with friends—something that many of us have not enjoyed in the past five hours—his impressions of the Norfolk countryside and his enthusiasm for what is now regarded, at least by many Labour Members, as the politically incorrect pastime of country sports and for something now forbidden by the Labour party, political gossip. Although Woodforde lived in momentous times, his diary accords no more space to the fall of the Bastille in 1789 than to an account of how he bought an extra-large crab from a travelling fisherman—indeed, the crab is mentioned before the fall of the Bastille.

Hon. Members will note, however, that, at its best, my constituency looks beyond its parochial borders to the rest of the United Kingdom, to Europe and to the wider world. I would also argue that Mid-Norfolk adapts to change. It is a mixture of old and new, with one replacing the other sometimes, but—more frequently—the new acting as a complement or counterpoint to the old.

My constituency, like those of many other hon. Members, has seen massive population growth in the past 10 years, with families attracted to the beautiful environment of the county, business to new opportunities and pensioners because it is a good place to retire to. Many of my constituents drive to work outside the constituency. All that means that there is massive pressure on all the facilities and public services that we require.

My constituency was traditionally dominated by agriculture. That is less true today, but agriculture is still very important and supports a wide range of businesses and light industries. Today's farmers in Mid-Norfolk recognise that, above all else, farming is a business. Nevertheless, the majority of my good farmers believe that farming is linked to the environment and the wider community.

If hon. Members can spare the time—I hope that my Whip will permit me to spare the time—that attitude will be seen when the Royal Norfolk show takes place later this month and when many people from my constituency and other constituencies will attend "The Countryside Rally" here in London on 10 July. I hope that that rally will prove to many hon. Members and to the citizens of the metropolis how much variety exists in the countryside, and how important jobs and a way of life are to tens of thousands of men, women and children.

Like many hon. Members, as part of museum week, I visited one of my local museums—the Gressenhall Norfolk Rural Life Museum and Union Farm. It is a marvellous museum, which educates people, especially children, about the change in the countryside and agriculture—education at its best, whereby the past is brought to life and compared with the present, and the future is looked to as well.

Tourism is also adapting to change in my constituency. Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Norfolk—the coast, the Broads, the countryside and our towns and villages. Mid-Norfolk gets its share, and the welcome aspect of that is, of course, money and employment. However, other hon. Members who represent constituencies in which tourism is an important industry will recognise the downside of tourism—pollution, noise, traffic and crime. Mid-Norfolk is more than a theme park.

Defence is rarely mentioned in the House these days, perhaps because of the end of the cold war. From 1941 to the late 1980s, East Anglia was one enormous airfield. During the second world war and throughout the cold war, we had strong links, not only with the Royal Air Force, but with the United States Air Force. Many USAF personnel still live in the region, although not in my constituency. I might be regarded as churlish in my maiden speech, but I have to say that many Labour Members were wrong in their assessment of the threat we faced in the 1970s and 1980s, and were slow to adapt to changing circumstances.

We in Mid-Norfolk have had to adapt. It was with great regret that we saw the RAF leave its old base at Swanton Morley, but, thanks to the hard work of my predecessor, Richard Ryder, we now have the 9th/12th Royal Lancers, an armoured reconnaissance regiment. Once again, I hope that hon. Members will take this comment in good part, but I have to say that in constituencies where many jobs depend on the presence of the military, Labour's strategic defence review—it seems that the Labour Government consists of a series of reviews, like Brian Rix come to Westminster—casts a deep pall over local communities. I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State will recognise the impact that the review may have on such communities.

Looking ahead to a future agenda, I turn briefly to the subject under discussion—education. Many hon. Members have commented on the different aspects of the assisted places scheme and whether its abolition will have an immediate impact on children and local communities. Only a few people in my constituency will be affected—perhaps a dozen; no more—but it will affect all of them as individuals, as my hon. Friends have said.

I have been greatly depressed by some of the arguments advanced by Labour Members. I felt as though I had been rewound 30 years to the sort of debates I remember having at university in the late 1960s—indeed, when I see the Home Secretary sitting on the Front Bench, I realise that I have actually returned to the late 1960s when, in a different guise, he was chairman of the National Union of Students. This first education Bill of the new Government misses the point. It is a mean, selfish little Bill, which provides a fig leaf for the fact that the Labour Government have failed to come up with the moneys to meet the challenge to achieve lower class sizes that they laid down in their manifesto.

Many Conservative Members are concerned that, for the past 10 years—in my own county, for the past two years—local education in their areas has been run either by the Labour party or by the Liberals. We find it a bit rich to be lectured about standards of education, class sizes and the way to fund education in the future when so many Labour and Liberal local education authorities have failed to come up with the goods. I know that we shall continue this debate in future.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to participate tonight. I welcome and relish the fact that I am here as Conservative Member of Parliament for Mid-Norfolk.

8.28 pm
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

As one new boy to another, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on a fine and entertaining maiden speech. I disagreed with much of the political content, but I recognise that he will be a fine asset on the Opposition Benches. For my part, I learned something about Norfolk other than Mr. Matthews's famous turkeys.

It is an honour to address the House as the first Labour Member for the Birmingham constituency of Hall Green. I follow some distinguished Conservatives, such as Aubrey Jones, who went on to chair the Prices and Incomes Board, Sir Reginald Eyre, who I am happy to say is still working on behalf of Birmingham as chairman of the Heartlands development corporation, and my immediate predecessor, Mr. Andrew Hargreaves, whose initial contribution in the Chamber was on a housing Bill. Andrew Hargreaves is probably better remembered for his knowledgeable and valuable contributions on defence matters and his work to control illegal trade in anabolic steroids.

I can tell those who are not familiar with Hall Green that it is a truly lovely and largely residential area in the south-east of Birmingham. It lives up to its green title by being able to boast public parks, quality open space and numerous tree-lined streets. One famous landmark is Sarehole mill, where J. R. Tolkien spent his boyhood and which provided the inspiration for his books entitled "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings".

I understand that, just like Tolkien's character Frodo Baggins, many famous people make occasional pilgrimages to Hall Green in search of inspiration. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) visited a school in my constituency in the early days of the general election campaign. Alas, as we all know, his visit to Druids Heath failed to provide him with the magic that he was seeking.

I extend a warm welcome to all those who wish to visit Hall Green. My constituents will look after everyone who wishes to do so. Rest assured that it is no journey to the land of Mordor.

Tonight, I wish especially to talk about education opportunities for the children of Hall Green. The constituency has its fair share of five, six and seven-year-olds taught in classes in which there are more than 30 pupils. There are many good schools that enjoy good standard assessment task results and good Ofsted reports—for example, Colmore and Hall Green infants, Woodthorpe and Grendon junior and infant schools, and Robin Hood junior and infants school, which is particularly strong in information technology, to name only a few.

The fact remains that young children are being taught in classes that are too large. As a parent whose daughter is due to start school in September, I am only too conscious of the pressure we place on children and staff if class sizes are too large.

Assisted places are, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, little more than a subsidy to those who need it least. They are supported by a party that puts more emphasis on vouchers and subsidies than on opportunities in the early years.

Assisted places and nursery vouchers go hand in hand. Birmingham city council has a good record in providing early-years places. The policy is to provide at least part-time places for all three-year-olds, for parents who wish to take them up. Much has been achieved, but there are still parts of Hall Green where there is a need to achieve more. Nursery vouchers will not help. Birmingham's experience is that they are costly and bureaucratic. They divert staff time from work with children, so that staff are acting as little more than ticket collectors, chasing vouchers for children already in school. Vouchers have not created one additional nursery place.

Birmingham is not averse to public-private education projects. The "Wrap around" project is pioneering such work. "Wrap around" seeks to develop a model for early-years service provision by using junior and infant schools, in conjunction with private nurseries, to focus on a complete range of early-years and parent-oriented services. I do not rule out the possibility of greater co-operation between the local authority and the private education sector in pursuit of raising standards and increasing opportunities, but I object to the expensive promotion of worthless ideological tokens or subsidies that help only a few children at the expense of the many.

The parents I meet want above all a decent education for their children. They need to know that their children will get a fair chance, no matter which school they attend. That is why I support the drive to raise standards, and why I am delighted at the news of Professor Tim Brighouse's appointment to the new standards task force, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned earlier in the debate. I have seen at first hand exactly what Professor Brighouse has achieved in a relatively short time in Birmingham.

I enthusiastically welcome the measures that are proposed by the Government. I welcome the proposals to reduce class sizes, by using the money saved through ending the assisted places scheme. I look forward to an age when education is at the top of our agenda, and is a passport to opportunity for all children, irrespective of their background. I look forward also to teachers and educators once again receiving the respect that professional people deserve, and support and encouragement from the Government and parents, which is a prerequisite for success.

We need to give a clear message that the Government are committed to raising standards and finding solutions, and that the bad old days of creating division and finding scapegoats are gone for ever. Our children are far too important to be offered anything less.

8.37 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on his maiden speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on his maiden speech. My hon. Friend has the ability to make me laugh, and I shall look forward to hearing him over the next five years. There will be occasions when a sense of humour will be useful.

I have the proud honour of representing the Poole constituency in Parliament. Poole has a long and proud history. It was a county borough, and next year will mark the 750th anniversary of the borough. Poole was very disappointed to lose some powers, such as education, in the early 1970s. It is pleased that it has now achieved unitary status and that since April it has had full control over facilities within the borough.

With the great honour of representing Poole, I pay tribute to my predecessors. It is a large and growing borough. Indeed, it is nearly the same size as Bournemouth. Whenever a boundary review takes place, substantial changes ensue. The key point is that there are essentially two Members for the borough, 62 per cent. of which I represent. In 1983, when the previous boundary review took place, the borough was spread between Bournemouth, West and Poole.

That being so, I pay tribute to two predecessors. One is my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), whose talents hon. Members will no doubt continue to appreciate. My hon. Friend skilfully looked after one eighth of my constituency from 1983, that being the Bourne Valley ward.

The other Member, John Ward, has now retired. John is of a generation that we have almost lost from the House, for he saw service in the second world war as a navigator with Bomber Command. Together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who is still a Member, John Ward was one of the few Members of this place in the previous Session who had seen war service.

It is perhaps a tribute to the post-war settlement that we probably have fewer Members who have seen military service, either voluntarily or involuntarily, in this Parliament than at any time this century. John was elected late, at the age of 54. He served 18 distinguished years in the House and had the honour of being the former Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary at the end of the previous Parliament.

I have had the great honour over the past few weeks of going to many charities and organisations within the borough of Poole and seeing John Ward celebrated and congratulated by his constituents on the work that he has done. His work was appreciated by the people of Poole. When I went around during the election campaign, everybody had a good word to say about John as a conscientious and diligent Member of Parliament. I am sure that all hon. Members wish John—and, indeed, Jean—Ward a long and prosperous retirement.

Poole is a beautiful place. If hon. Members do not believe that, they have only to drive around the borough to see that that is the sign on the back of almost every car there, because it is the slogan of the borough council. The fact is that it is true. It is a very beautiful place. Many hon. Members have visited for sailing, water sports or a holiday.

Beyond its major attributes as a holiday place, it has the second largest natural harbour in the world. It is a busy port. It has major links with Cherbourg and, indeed, the Channel Islands, although, to develop and grow, we need a new bridge over Holes bay, off the A350, into Hamworthy, to give the port the opportunity to expand to meet the challenges of the future. That is now in the national roads programme, and it will be one of my priorities to ensure that the new Government maintain that programme and build the bridge for the benefit of the people of Poole.

Poole has the honour of being the headquarters of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and it has a wide range of activities, such as financial services. It produces racing cars, power boats, slimming products, chemicals and periodicals. Anybody who has bought a packet of Ryvita or a copy of Exchange and Mart will have received a product from my constituency. It has many successful small businesses.

The key to that success are the good and enterprising people of Poole, but it is also the fact that there is a strong commitment locally to education, and that commitment is shown by the fact that local people have fought consistently over decades to maintain the grammar schools in the borough, which have a fine tradition of producing well-adjusted children who can get on in life.

The assisted places scheme has allowed nearly 40,000 children from less well-off families to get a better education in independent schools and to get on. As a nation, we rightly spend a lot of resources on those with learning difficulties. We do not always give the resources to those who have special talents and who can excel. The assisted places scheme was a small attempt to give greater support to those who are able and more talented. The Government's commitment to get rid of the scheme is misplaced and dogmatic. For example, the top 10 local education authorities at key stage 2 have larger class sizes than the bottom 10. The key point is that standards of teaching and the ability of teachers to communicate are sometimes far more important than purely class size.

Finally, I should like to thank all the Officers of the House for the courtesy with which they have greeted me as a new Member of Parliament. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have helped me whenever I have had questions about what is going on in the Palace. It certainly is not easy to come into the House and pick up what is going on in the first few weeks.

8.43 pm
Barbara Follett (Stevenage)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on his speech and on his stamina. Like me, he has been in his place for the past five hours and 15 minutes. I can assure hon. Members that I am conscious of the fact that mine is the 18th maiden speech of the day and, despite anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) may say, one can have too much of a good thing, particularly at a quarter to 9 in the evening, even if it is a June evening. I shall therefore be brief.

First, I thank the people of Stevenage for electing me as their Member of Parliament. I am honoured to represent them, and promise to do my best to serve them in the future. Coincidentally, my predecessor, Tim Wood, also made his maiden speech during an education debate. Although I disagreed with most of what he said, I know that he was a hard-working and popular Member of the House, despite the fact that, for many years, he was a Whip. He fought the general election campaign honestly and fairly, concentrating on the issues and avoiding personalities. I salute him for that and wish him well.

Education also played a large part in the life of another of my predecessors, Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby, and in another place. However, she is still fondly referred to as "our Shirl" or "Shirl the girl" by many of her former constituents. I am glad that Stevenage is once more represented by a woman, even though as a grandmother I can hardly be called a girl any more.

I am even more glad that the election doubled the number of women in the House. That would have given Constance Lytton, an earlier resident of my constituency, a great deal of pleasure. She was a prominent suffragette and spent most of her life in the village of Knebworth, where, I am glad to say, she did not set fire to the local church. One of the first hunger strikers, she was force-fed in prison, which almost certainly led to her untimely death. Her family has given its name to one of Stevenage's main roads, but I believe that she deserves a more personal commemoration of her courage and commitment.

The constituency of Stevenage, which Shirley Williams described 33 years ago in her maiden speech as a microcosm of the new Britain"—[Official Report, 10 November 1964; Vol. 701, c. 880.], covers the town of the same name, as well as the villages of Aston, Benington, Codicote, Knebworth and Walkern. The town of Stevenage grew out of a small Anglo-Saxon settlement known as Stithenaece, which means strong oak, and over the centuries it has proved an apt name for a place that has constantly had to adapt to change.

One of the greatest changes came in 1946, when the new Labour Government—like this one—fresh from their landslide victory, decided to tackle the chronic housing shortage in the overcrowded and bomb-damaged east end of London by building 11 new towns. Stevenage, with its population of 6,000, was the first. There was resistance, of course—most notably from a local novelist, named E. M. Forster, who had lived in Stevenage as a child and whose most famous work, "Howard's End", was based on Rook's Nest farm, in the old town.

Modern Stevenage has a population of more than 76,000. People came to the town to escape from the poverty and slums of the past. They found secure jobs, decent homes and a clean environment in which to raise their children. That was 50 years ago. Now that dream, like the town centre, is threadbare and worn. Hope has been replaced by insecurity, and the valiant efforts of local councillors have proved ineffectual in the face of economic recession and central Government neglect.

Nowhere is that neglect more obvious than in our schools. All the hard work in the world cannot hide tatty buildings and tired teachers. Nothing can hide demoralised children. Some of the older children in Stevenage, most especially the older boys, seem to have given up. That is scarcely surprising in a town that has suffered the equivalent of five pit closures-worth of job losses in the past 11 years, with the downsizing of its largest employer, British Aerospace. It is even less surprising in a constituency that has the highest number of unemployed young men in the county.

There are jobs available, but, as local employers such as Glaxo Wellcome constantly tell me, most of our young men are simply not equipped to fill them. That is why this debate is so important, because it is about raising education standards. If we want to raise education standards, we have to start early in our children's lives.

Many of the young men and boys in my constituency started their school lives in large classes. Nineteen out of the 30 primary and infant schools in my constituency have classes of more than 30 for their five, six and seven-year-old pupils. Research in Britain and overseas overwhelmingly demonstrates the value of smaller class sizes to that group of children. If we are to fit our children for the jobs of the 21st century, we must give them a good start. Class sizes alone will not do that. Our children need high-quality nursery education, guaranteed literacy and numeracy standards, after-school clubs, holiday catch-up teams and, of course, good teachers.

That is the programme for which the people of this country voted overwhelmingly last month. It is the programme that we propose to deliver. The people of Stevenage know that, if it is delivered, their children will have a good chance of reading to their actual age or above by the time that they are 11. They also know that, if it is not delivered, their children will find it very hard, if not impossible, to catch up when they enter secondary school; indeed, many of them never will.

Assisted places do deliver excellence, but they deliver excellence for the few, not the many. One of the reasons why they deliver excellence is that—as so many of my hon. Friends have said time after time today—children in private schools are taught in smaller classes. Assisted places deliver excellence, at a price. In 1995–96, the taxpayers of Hertfordshire spent £2,403,000 on assisted places. Most of my constituents would have preferred that money to be spent on employing more teachers—120 teachers, in fact.

On 1 May, the people of Stevenage voted for a change. This time there will be no resistance to that change, not even from the novelist whom I know who lives in Stevenage old town. That is because, this time, the change will be a change for the better. I welcome it.

8.51 pm
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech on an issue that is so fraught for the area where I live that I fear that I may feel bound to strain a recent convention of the House relating to such occasions. As the 11th generation of my family to be elected, I hope that you will forgive me if, at any point in my speech, I allow myself to be bound by family tradition and put the needs of my constituents before the niceties of Parliament.

First, however, it gives me great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Stevenage (Ms Follett) on her maiden speech. I listened to it with great interest, although it may prove something of a contrast with my own. Indeed, the town that the hon. Lady represents, being one of the newest in the country, is also something of a contrast with the one that I represent-an ancient town on the banks of the Wey.

Guildford, whose name derives from "the golden crossing", today presents a golden opportunity for trade, business and the arts, but above all for education. Guildford's state schools—grant-maintained and LEA-controlled—are a match for any in Britain. If the Government were right in saying that the best in state education would in time eliminate the need for private schools, that would surely be true in Guildford today. Yet in my constituency, more than almost anywhere else, parents—in some cases, nearly one in five—choose to pay to send their children to independent schools. Assisted places widen that choice for those who could not otherwise afford it.

As some hon. Members may know better than I, Guildford also boasts a first-rate college of law. On the Guildford campus, a thriving Surrey university has, over the past 15 years, built one of the most successful science parks in Europe. That is a testament to Tory enterprise economics, but also to the breadth and quality of Guildford's education system and the employees produced by that system.

One measure of the breadth of Guildford's business community is the generous sponsorship that has now been started for our famous Yvonne Arnaud theatre. Just as the theatre in Guildford has sponsored its share of west end stars, so the constituency seat has spawned its share of Westminster stars. Unlike our dear Speaker, none has starred in both the west end and Westminster, although my predecessor David Howell is remembered in the House for his starring role in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and in Guildford for his sterling work as a constituency Member.

Just after David Howell's retirement was announced, having been Guildford's Member of Parliament for a good 30 years, he received a letter from a constituent. It began, "Dear Mr. Howell, I understand that you have taken over from Dick Nugent as my local Member of Parliament." It is typical of David Howell that, when telling me about the letter, he added, "I am sure that you will make yourself known rather sooner than I did."

In fact, nothing could be harder. In Guildford, Cranleigh, Bramley or any of the other Surrey villages that make my constituency such a pleasant place in which to live—as hon. Members on both sides of the House know only too well—I could not canvass anywhere without hearing of an example of my predecessor's attention and achievement on behalf of his constituents. He will surely make a rich contribution in another place.

David Howell himself started life with an assisted place—at Eton, although in the case of that college the funding of the assisted places was put on a more permanent basis during the government of Henry VI. That goes to show that the idea of assisted places is not some 1980s Thatcherite construct, but an age-old knowledge viaduct. The stream of talent pulled by the current of assisted places has, over time, benefited the country beyond measure. The kingly endowment that had funded Eton's assisted places for 500-odd years was recently valued at more than £100 million; yet if all that capital were liquidated at once it would not pay for the running of our state schools for one single day. Likewise, liquidating the new Conservative endowment of national assisted places may, according to Ministers, save £100 million by the year 2000, but the opportunities and the learning focus denied to some of our brightest children—which is the real cost of this measure—cannot be quantified.

What will the promised £100 million saving achieve? In my constituency, approximately 400 children have assisted places. The effect of the Bill in Guildford will be that all 400 places will disappear during this Parliament. It will be as though the new Government had sent their task force to our town to close one of our best state schools. Thanks to the long-standing emphasis placed on class sizes by Conservatives on Surrey county council, four out of five of our primary school classes already have fewer than 30 children. I have studied the Bill, and it contains no mechanism to give more money to help the other one in five classes.

Instead, to keep every primary class below 30, more children will be forced to accept their second or third choice of school. Some of the brighter children will be pushed into a higher year, and other children into a lower year. Forcing this narrow party promise through will have a negative effect, because class sizes in Guildford schools will increase.

Since 1509, Guildford has had its own Royal school. Our grammar school often achieves the best A-level rankings of any school in the country. Until 1977, the Royal grammar was a state school. Labour forced it to close its doors to state pupils, but the assisted places scheme has pushed that door ajar again. Today, more than one in 10 of its pupils benefit from that new endowment. One child in 10 benefit at Guildford High School for Girls, at St. Catherine's in Bramley and at many other excellent schools.

In a town that prides itself on its non-selective system for state schools, the flexibility that the assisted places scheme provides is valuable. For some children it is essential. One bright girl lives in the catchment area of a secondary school that teaches almost no A-levels. I met her parents. What could they do? This year, the answer could be an assisted place to give her the education that she needs to put her on her way to university: her primary school teachers maintain that she is fully capable of achieving that. But that will not be the answer next year if the Bill is passed. Whatever the Labour Government may think they are doing, they are slamming the door shut just as the previous Labour Government did.

We have heard from Ministers in the new Government that they want to raise standards in all schools to the very highest in the land, and we all want to do that. That is levelling up, but in a town where, I freely admit, standards are already up, this will be a levelling down. The lesson to be learned from the Bill is that, 20 years on, they may call Labour new, but it is the same old brew. They can rebottle classic Labour as Labour light, but if we have too much of it, the spirit level—in this Bill, I am afraid that it is the mean spirit level—is pushed over the limit.

This is my maiden speech, and however much the Bill will penalise gifted children in my constituency, when I wrote to Madam Speaker asking to take part in the debate I promised that I would be constructive, and I wish to end on a constructive note. I shall go even further and end on a most friendly note. I invite Ministers to visit me in Surrey to see how a Conservative education authority manages to achieve the primary school standards that the Government want within the constraints of the current budget. When they have seen that, perhaps they will scrap this misguided measure, which will deny talented children their best opportunity to serve not only themselves but our whole society.

9.5 pm

Ms Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) on his maiden speech but, as the House would expect, I do not agree with him. I disagree especially with his suggestion that bright kids are only at private schools. The thread of thought in the Opposition seems to be that bright kids do not go to state schools or do not do well in them. That is totally wrong. I went to many schools in this country because my father was in the forces. I attended a secondary modern and I was lucky enough to get O and A-levels and to go to university. Children do well in the state system.

I am pleased to make my maiden speech in a debate on education because the phasing out of the assisted places scheme and the investing of the millions of pounds in primary schools to reduce class sizes will be of enormous benefit to the children and families of the new constituency of Cleethorpes which I have the pleasure to represent.

The name Cleethorpes has a music-hall ring to it. It is a traditional British seaside resort with sun, fun, fish and chip shops, the pier and theme parks, but it is also much more. For example, we have Grimsby Town football club. The name of the constituency is misleading, because it centres on three towns on the banks of the Humber. Cleethorpes is basically part of the same urban area as Grimsby. Immingham is to the north of Grimsby and Barton-upon-Humber is at the southern end of the Humber bridge.

Immingham, with its booming port, oil refineries, power stations, chemical works and factories, is a growing, modern industrial area. Immage 2000 in Immingham is a multi-media, state-of-the-art studio—the first in the country. Marvellous educational work is being carried out there on community cable television.

Barton-upon-Humber is a splendid old market town with ancient buildings, many conservation areas and one of the oldest church towers in Britain. Surrounding those towns is the large rural hinterland of the Lincolnshire Wolds with rolling hills, peaceful villages, farms and windmills.

It would be difficult to find a constituency with such stark contrasts, but the people are the one unifying feature. They are canny and friendly and, as befits a constituency with a seaside resort, they love a good night out.

The area has been represented by some colourful characters. I cannot refer to the area as a constituency, because the towns within it have been in and out of a variety of constituencies. When Cleethorpes was part of Louth, it was represented by Jeffrey Archer—as he then was—and the constituency of Brigg and Cleethorpes was represented by my predecessor, Michael Brown, who was certainly an outspoken and interesting opponent.

Although we disagreed politically, in person Michael was always affable and we were united in a love of Cleethorpes, Immingham and Barton-upon-Humber. He also stood up for gay rights, for which I admire him, and refused to condemn me for being selected from a women-only shortlist. He said in many public debates that the Tory party had to consider something similar to redress the balance. On election night, he took defeat with great dignity, praised me for the campaign and wished me well in Parliament. I wish him well in his future, too.

When we consider class sizes in the area, we can see how the Bill will improve things a great deal. Cleethorpes, Immingham and Barton-upon-Humber used to be part of Humberside county council, but that was scrapped at great cost to the taxpayer. Even before the scrapping of the council, however, class sizes were giving great cause for concern. The figures that I have from the Library show that 680 classes in the Humberside county council area had 31 to 35 pupils and 117 classes had 36 to 40 pupils.

After the scrapping of Humberside, new unitary authorities were set up—again at great cost to the taxpayer. Now Cleethorpes is covered largely by North East Lincolnshire council and partly by North Lincolnshire council. Dwindling budgets, thanks to the former Government's cuts, and little or no reserves in the councils' bank have made protecting education a challenge. Despite their best efforts, class sizes are still growing and teachers are losing their jobs. Out of just over 100 unitary authorities, North East Lincolnshire is almost bottom of the league table in terms of pupil-teacher ratios.

Two stories will illustrate the crisis in education in the constituency and how diverting money from the assisted places scheme into primary schools will greatly benefit children. Queen Mary infants school in Cleethorpes has a dedicated staff. I visited the school during the election campaign. As the head teacher Jan Wharton explained, there are 13 children to one teacher in a nursery class, but after the Easter holiday those children go to a reception class with 37 children to one teacher. That is just not on.

At Barton county primary school in Barton-upon-Humber, head teacher Mike Simpson decided to sack himself to save the jobs of three teachers because of the financial crisis. Parents were devastated to lose such a teacher. Those are just two examples of the crisis faced by schools in my area: Surrey it is not.

All the parents to whom I spoke outside schools during the campaign, and for two years before that, were worried that because of increasing class sizes their children were not getting the attention that they deserved. Add to the equation crumbling school buildings and we can understand why those mums and dads are angry and disgusted that millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been going into subsidising private schools through the assisted places scheme.

Our area is one of low wages and part-time work, where one in four non-pensioner households survive on benefits. People there are canny with their money and they want their taxes to benefit the majority of schools—not private schools. I welcome the Bill because I know, and the parents of the children there know, that to use taxpayers' money for the benefit of the majority of children rather than a select few makes common sense and is the only way to invest in our children's future and to raise standards. Phasing out assisted places and investing the money to reduce class sizes for all five, six and seven-year-olds was Labour's key election pledge:the people gave it their support, and we shall deliver it.

9.13 pm
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

It is a great pleasure to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Ms McIsaac). She paid generous tribute to her predecessor, which I know will be appreciated throughout the House, and made an intelligent and thoughtful contribution to the debate, which augurs well. She will be listened to with great attention in the House.

Many hon. Members have made maiden speeches. I will refer to just one. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said that it seemed to him as though 30 years had passed and that he was seeing the Home Secretary 30 years on. It seems to me as though 20 years have passed. Here we are, debating legislation at the start of a new Parliament, with a Labour Government who profess to be new—yet what do we find? They are revisiting devolution proposals that contributed to the collapse of the last Labour Government. As other hon. Members have said, the so-called new Labour Government are also revisiting exactly the sort of negative approach that they exhibited in the 1970s with the abolition of direct-grant schools.

I, like the Home Secretary, am a product of a direct grant school—in fact, the same direct grant school. However, I would be happy for the ladder of opportunity to be left for those who follow after, whereas Labour Members are willing for the ladder to be pulled up after them.

Labour Members talk a great deal about the many and the few. My first reaction when I heard that mantra, which is Labour's soundbite this evening, was to say, "But do the few not matter? Is this a tyranny of the majority?" Then, when I thought about it, I realised that Labour Members were missing the point. In fact, the assisted places scheme is designed for the many. It is designed to give opportunity to the many, so that parents who are not necessarily part of what Labour would call the privileged few, with the resources to participate in independent education if that is their choice, are able to have choice through the medium of the assisted places scheme.

I want to make a couple of points about how that choice exhibits itself. [Interruption.] In South Cambridgeshire, there are a substantial number of assisted places in four schools. In St. Mary's, many parents—in fact, a higher percentage than the 40 per cent. Quoted—benefiting from assisted places have an income of under £10,000 a year—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Conversations should not be taking place in the Chamber while the hon. Gentleman is speaking.

Mr. Lansley

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Many parents on low incomes make the choice to send their children to St. Mary's because it is a single-sex girl's school with a Catholic orientation. I visited the school during my election campaign and asked the girls where they would go to school if their parents were not to have the choice available to them through the assisted places scheme. The answer was not their local community school, but—based upon their parents' choice—the Herts and Essex high school. That is a very fine school; indeed, my wife was a pupil there. But it does not mean that those children could go to school in their locality. That is an interesting reflection on rural areas, which brings me to an important second point.

In rural areas, where there is no access to the assisted places scheme and the extension of choice that that provides, because of the admission arrangements of schools there is often no choice at all. For some parents, such as those whom I mentioned, there are important examples of where it is necessary for them to be able to make that choice. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to children from difficult homes whose parents take advantage of the assisted places scheme to help with boarding places.

There are serious flaws in the Bill—the black hole in finance and the difficulty of being able to relate the Government's rhetoric outside the House about how the Bill will reduce class sizes to the actual mechanics and minutiae of what savings will be delivered. The large gap is evident when we take account of assisted places pupils coming back into the maintained sector and the potential costs of capital provision to cater for them. Labour Members compare the revenue cost of children in the state sector with the total cost of fees payable in the independent sector, but they are not directly comparable.

There are difficulties with the Bill, not only in principle but in practice. In South Cambridgeshire, many children in assisted places attend preparatory schools that are linked with secondary schools and, therefore, teach students up to the age of 18. Unlike their preparatory school classmates, however, children in assisted places will not be offered an opportunity to complete their education, at 18, in essentially the same school and with the same children they knew in preparatory school. Similarly, the Bill's passage will mean that siblings will not be able to follow older brothers or sisters to the same school or receive the same education. Those are two very damaging practical consequences of the Bill's passage.

We are debating a poor Bill that is meant to achieve a bad purpose. It mentions choice, but, by denying diversity, it reduces or eliminates choice. Diversity and choice are two parts of the same coin. If one reduces diversity, one nullifies choice. Labour Members and the Government speak the language of choice and opportunity, but they would deny opportunity and reduce choice. On those grounds, I urge Opposition Members to oppose the Bill.

9.20 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I welcome the Minister for School Standards to the Treasury Bench. I hope that he will use his power as a Minister wisely, and more wisely than he has shown in his first attempt at government-the Education (Schools) Bill. He will receive Opposition support for measures to improve standards, but he will receive no comfort from Opposition Members if he continues in the same vein as that demonstrated by the Bill. As the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment said earlier in this debate, for Conservative Members the joy of being in opposition is that we no longer have to answer the questions. The Government must answer the questions, and, in his reply, I hope that the Minister will answer the many questions that have been asked in today's debate.

I should also like to congratulate all the hon. Members who spoke in the debate, especially those who have taken the plunge and delivered their maiden speech. We counted up the number of those making their maiden speeches today, and determined that the House has heard no fewer than 18 such speeches, including one from a retread, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar).

We heard some good speeches from Labour Members, including those from the hon. Members for Don Valley (Ms Flint), for Worcester (Mr. Foster), for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), for Stevenage (Ms Follett), for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), for Reading, East (Ms Griffiths), for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ), and for Cleethorpes (Ms McIsaac). We also heard from the Liberal Democrats, in a speech by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). I may not agree with everything that those hon. Members said, but I acknowledge the variety of their backgrounds and the valuable contribution that they will undoubtedly make to the House.

We have also heard some first-class speeches from Conservative Members. Some of the speeches had us laughing; some made us despair, because of the Bill's effects; and some made us want to pack our bags to visit the delightful parts of the United Kingdom that were so eloquently described.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) made an excellent speech. He is a home-grown boy, having attended Altrincham grammar school, and the constituents of Altrincham and Sale, West—whom I know well, and hold in great affection—are lucky to have such an able hon. Member representing them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke fluently and without notes. She spoke of being confused with other hon. Members, although I do not think that that mistake will easily be made again after such a distinctive speech. The benefit of her experience will enhance the quality of our debate on many future occasions.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said that he represents the constituency with the most beautiful name, if not the most beautiful Member. He did himself a great injustice, and he made a beautiful speech. He said that he felt that he was always in opposition. I can only say to him: one day, one day.

I was so glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) in the Chamber. I am sure that the Secretary of State—who stood against him at a previous general election—feels the same way. My hon. Friend now rightly takes his place as an hon. Member. He has many assisted places in his constituency; perhaps the Secretary of State should visit and face the schools and parents let down by the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) is also a home-grown boy, and he regaled us with the joys of his patch. He said that his constituency adapted well to change; I think that he has adapted very well to change and to his new role in this place, as was evident from the calibre of his maiden speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) seems very comfortable here. Indeed, he seems very familiar. When I first met him at the start of this term, I just said, "Hello," because I imagined that he had been here before. His speech proved that he will make a valuable contribution to the Chamber.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) told us that he is the 11th generation of his family to be elected to the House. I presume that that is something of a record. Perhaps Labour should note that the hereditary principle works well in this House. He painted a very vivid picture of the door of opportunity being slammed shut by this sad Bill.

Apart from 18 maiden speeches, we heard some seasoned and measured contributions from some old-timers. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who shares a local education authority with me, made an excellent speech detailing the implications of the Bill for the schools themselves.

I must now mention the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), who I do not think is in his place. He still appears to be obsessed with class distinction. I was only too pleased to note that he still disagrees with his party but, in the light of his profanity in the Chamber, I am glad that he is in this place and not still educating some of our children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) spoke passionately about the shortage of school places in his area in the maintained sector. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that point when he winds up the debate and explain where children who will no longer receive an assisted place will go to school in South Hams. Perhaps the Minister will also deal with the issue of the undisguised attack on single mothers, as it is the single mothers in South Hams who will be most affected by the abolition of assisted places. I hesitate to say that the speech made by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was well seasoned, but it was a speech that I had heard several times before. He has that in common with the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). Indeed, both their speeches should probably be preserved in aspic.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) rightly attacked Labour's broken pledge and the letter sent by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). I trust that the Minister will deal directly with those issues.

The final speech that I shall mention is that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). It was not quite so seasoned but his second contribution in the new Parliament. He pointed out eloquently the iniquity of the Bill.

Conservative Members made powerful speeches, and we heard some predictable dogmatic speeches from Labour Members. This is the era of the soundbite and many were repeated several times. The one that I did not hear tonight was "education, education, education"—I believe that I have got the soundbite right. Education was to be the No. 1 priority for the new, shiny Government who would have us believe that they are going to create a brave new world in which every child will develop in an educational utopia, but what is their first move?

Did the Prime Minister choose education for the subject of his first keynote speech today? No. Are the Government giving more money to education? No. Are the Government employing more teachers? No. Their first move is to introduce a cheap, paltry little seven-clause Bill that is certainly not a new proposal but the culmination of an old vendetta against what they view as a privileged education.

The Bill introducing the assisted places scheme had its Second Reading on 5 November 1979, when it was opposed by the old Labour Member for Bedwelty—I think that some hon. Members know him as Neil. He made a promise then. It is a shame that he is not here today to see that promise honoured. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere rightly said that this was an old Labour measure. It certainly is. The hon. Member for Bedwelty said: it is our resolute proposal to terminate the assisted places scheme at the end of the academic year in which the next Labour Government are elected.

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, and we have done it.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Gentleman went on to add: I hope that that is a fair warning."—[Official Report, 5 November 1979; Vol. 973, c. 59.] It was a fair warning indeed. The Secretary of State is right. It has taken only 18 years, but the promise has been kept. It is not a new promise, but proof that old Labour is alive and kicking and legislating today in a predictably vicious manner—new Labour, same old plot. This is a truly socialist measure, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said.

If that promise can be kept after 18 years, what of the other promise made in 1979? In the same speech, that hon. Gentleman went on to give a solemn pledge to use all his influence to secure a policy position that would bring about the abolition of the public school and other forms of private education. We have heard many speeches today attacking public schools. The Bill is not only an obvious attack on some of our most able pupils, but a thinly disguised assault on public schools. It could well be a foretaste of things to come.

The Government cannot claim that it is just old Labour that hates public schools: new Labour certainly does, too. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), made clear her hostility to public schools in Committee on the most recent Education Bill. At one point she said that, in her personal opinion, private education damages the state system. Will she be the Minister to preside over the fulfilment of the promise of the former hon. Member for Bedwelty?

Mr. Blunkett

She certainly will.

Mrs. Gillan

I take that as a firm pledge to abolish independent schools and private education. If Labour's promises can be so rapidly brought to the top of the agenda, how long before the rest of that pledge is fulfilled?

Quoting the Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bath said that the independent sector will not go away, but it could be destroyed. The political will was obvious in the speeches by Labour Members today and in what the Secretary of State murmured from a sedentary position.

Mr. Blunkett

Will the hon. Lady confirm that the former Member for Buckingham, George Walden, has described the division in our education system as apartheid? Accepting and acknowledging that one thing damages another is not the same as threatening its demise, and the hon. Lady knows that. A little common sense might not be a bad thing in this debate. Some intelligence in the Chamber would edify the general debate about standards in education.

Mrs. Gillan

I shall come back to the word "apartheid". The Secretary of State has risen to the bait. He muttered from a sedentary position that he would let the hon. Member for Yardley supervise the destruction of independent schools.

Ms Estelle Morris

I had no intention of intervening on the hon. Lady, but she has gone too far. She was in Committee when I made the comments that she has quoted and she knows that before those remarks I said that we had no intention of abolishing the independent sector. We believe that the actions of some schools have an effect on other schools in the communities that they seek to serve. My comments that she has referred to in the House today were that and nothing more. She should not make suppositions beyond that in the Chamber or anywhere else. There has never been a threat from me or from anyone else on the Government Benches to abolish the independent sector. She should address the Bill, which is about giving opportunity to children, not about abolishing the independent sector.

Mrs. Gillan

The hon. Lady had better consult the record; I said that it was her personal opinion. I did not put words into the Secretary of State's mouth; he spoke from a sedentary position.

The indecent haste with which the Bill has entered the parliamentary timetable is deplorable. The Bill adds nothing to the education of children; instead, it takes something valuable away. The Government have trumpeted their belief in educational standards although they have a record of opposing everything we did to improve the performance of our state education system, whether it was testing, publishing results or the national curriculum.

Have the Government stopped for a second to draw breath and to look at the results achieved by assisted places pupils? No. They have not considered the results achieved by those pupils as worth a second glance. To the Government, those results are not considered valuable or worth while. The number of pupils in the state system who achieved five GCSEs at grades A to C stands at 41.7 per cent. The results from assisted places pupils are twice that, standing at 91.6 per cent., and the A-level results exceeded 95 per cent. Those results, however, have been unceremoniously ignored.

Surely a Government so genuinely concerned about standards would have waited a while before pulling the rug from under a future generation of bright children. Surely they would have allowed children to continue in what is self-evidently a system that is achieving good results for them. After all, the Government are conducting reviews, conducting consultations and producing White Papers right, left and centre. Why not here? Why do they not take a breath—take a step backwards—and examine the wealth in the assisted places scheme? If the Government had real confidence in their policies to improve school standards, the assisted places scheme would wither on the vine because parents would no longer want to send their children to private schools, but would send them to the local school because it could offer the same education.

But no, the Government are in a hurry. After 18 long years of brooding, they would rather take precipitate and vindictive action and abolish the scheme long before any further improvements can be made in the state sector—indeed, arguably before they can be made at all. This, their flagship education policy, is one of dogma and it contains a very dangerous principle. The principle is that it ensures that freedom of choice will be capable of being bought only by the wealthy and can never be aspired to by the less well-off. In one fell swoop, the Government are creating educational apartheid. There will be private schools for the wealthy who have the luxury of being able to buy choice and state schools or charity for everyone else. At a time when others are ending apartheid, the Labour Government are starting it in education and they should be ashamed.

There are almost 38,000 pupils in the scheme in Great Britain and almost 11,000 will enter the scheme in 1997 before it is snatched away by this legislation. Indeed, before the election, the Secretary of State callously agreed to my extending the scheme for one year for prep schools just to get more money into the scheme so that, when he abolished it, he would have more savings to make. Even so, the children involved are only 1 per cent. of the secondary school population and less than 20 per cent. of those attending private schools.

Those children, however, are receiving a first-class education that is best suited to their abilities and attributes. Labour needs to realise that not all children are the same; one style of education does not fit all pupils. The bottom line of the Bill is to remove one more choice of education style not from the wealthy, but often from the poorest in our society.

The Government produced two further soundbites as the reason for this mean little Bill. They said that they would use the savings to reduce class sizes and that they would govern for the many, not for the few. Surely by now they have found out that those soundbites carry little truth or accuracy and are merely gestures without substance.

Most of us would agree that, other things being equal, smaller class sizes could be advantageous, although the more discerning, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, pointed out that the quality of the teacher is far more significant. We are deceived on two counts: first, on the financial outcome of abolition and, secondly, on the number of children involved. The savings from abolishing the scheme amount, so the Minister for School Standards said in a written answer, to £100 million, but the cost of educating 38,000 pupils in the state sector at an average of £2,800 a year each conies to £106 million alone. The Institute of Public Finance Ltd. estimates that the maximum accumulative savings by 2000 will come to only £34 million.

The Minister will argue that some parents will still pay for their children, but I doubt that, since 80 per cent. of pupils who take up assisted places come from homes with an income below the national average and many would be hard pressed to make the sacrifice of paying for their children's education.

The Government have pledged that they will bring down class sizes. That is only a half-truth. The truth is that smaller class sizes may be achievable in the next few years, not, as the Government would have us believe through their efforts or the abolition of assisted places, but because the birth rate is falling. The truth is that the birth rate has fallen since the start of the 1990s, and that is reflected in the number of children under 10 years old projected for 2001. Other than spite and an old grudge that the Labour party is bringing to fruition, there is even less reason to introduce the measure.

What do we see in the financial effects of the Bill? We see repeated the dubious promise to create savings to reduce class sizes. There is no guarantee of any significant savings, no mention of how savings will be identified, no estimate of how much they will amount to and no mention of how they will be ring-fenced to ensure that they are put to the stated use. Even worse, there is no recognition of the cost involved in educating the children affected in the state sector. The Bill is effectively uncosted.

The Bill will reduce choice in education, affect the poorest in our society, damage the variety of education available to our children, ensure that only the wealthy can buy private education, and create an educational apartheid. It is a penny-pinching proposal that does no justice to the children of the future. It is founded on class hatred from the 1970s and has no place in the House in the 1990s. I ask the House to reject it.

9.41 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) for her initial comments. I am sure that all Government Front Benchers would welcome her warm words.

A record number of maiden speeches have been made in this debate. As I understand it, about 18 have been made. At one time, it was rather like a Cook's tour—although given the present Foreign Secretary, that is perhaps not an appropriate term to use.

The hon. Members for Poole (Mr. Syms), for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) all spoke with a passion to defend and represent their constituents' interests—misguided perhaps, but clearly believing in the views that they expressed. It was delightful to hear an old timer, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) make a thoughtful contribution to the debate.

Among those who spoke from the Liberal Benches, it was interesting to note that the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) is intending to set up an all-party cider club. I am sure that many hon. Members will be interested in joining it. I welcome the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster)—who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on education—and his broad support for the Bill.

A number of my hon. Friends made highly significant maiden speeches. They are fully aware of the fact that one of the key pledges on which the Labour party stood for office and—I believe—one of the reasons for our overwhelming victory on 1 May was to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds with the money that we will receive from phasing out the assisted places scheme. My hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East (Ms Griffiths), for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), for Worcester (Mr. Foster), for Stevenage (Ms Follett) and for Cleethorpes (Ms McIsaac) all articulated the view that that was one of the main reasons why we received such a vote on 1 May.

I was delighted to hear the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) because I was his twinned Member of Parliament during the election campaign and for a few months before hand. My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who represents a neighbouring constituency to mine, also made his maiden speech. We share the same local education authority of North Tyneside, and I know that we will ensure that that LEA continues to deliver its current high quality education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Ms Flint) spoke for many when she referred to the sterling work of Martin Redmond in representing the interests of his Don Valley constituents in the House. A small fact of which my hon. Friend may not be aware is that it was in Don Valley that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State nearly drowned while learning to sail at Hadfield marina. I hope that that did not occur on a boat built by Swan Hunter in my former constituency. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend survived.

We also had a speech from one of what we call the retreads, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar). I am delighted to welcome him back to the House. When Middlesbrough became a unitary authority I was invited to speak at the first meeting of the education committee. I know that it shares the Government's commitment to raising standards.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) spoke with his usual strength about the inequalities of educational opportunities in his inner-city constituency, which are made worse as a result of the assisted places scheme.

Perhaps above everything else the debate has highlighted the clear differences that exist between the major parties in the House—between a one-nation Government who are prepared to act decisively in the interests of all our children, and an Opposition defeated but still clinging to the belief that it is acceptable that a few should prosper at the expense of the many.

The Bill reflects a reordering of priorities—something that any Government must do. In so doing, we make no apology for putting the interests of 440,000 five, six and seven-year-olds, currently in classes of more than 30, before those of the 40,000 or so who would be in receipt of an assisted place at some future date.

Mrs. Gillan

If, as the hon. Gentleman has said, Labour intend to govern for the many and not the few, can he tell the House what will happen to the music and ballet scheme? Every year, £7 million is spent on that scheme for a small number of children. The average expenditure per child is £12,750 a year. Do the Government plan to abolish that scheme because it is a form of assisted place that benefits the few and not the many?

Mr. Byers

I am delighted to be able to demonstrate in the clearest possible way that the Government will not be dominated by dogma but will adopt a practical, reasoned approach to such matters. We have always made it clear that specialist provision will not be under threat as a result of our policy. In fact, the ministerial team decided about two weeks ago that there would be no change to the music and ballet scheme. That is a clear demonstration of our commitment.

Three main issues were raised in the debate to which I wish to respond. The first was the question of choice. That was raised most persuasively by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). She said that parental choice would be denied as a result of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. She seems to have forgotten the document published in 1996 by her Government when she was in office. It was a guide to parents who were considering applying for an assisted place for their children. The guide is very clear. It says: schools select pupils according to their own rules. For most schools, children will need to take an entrance examination and go to an interview. In the previous Government's own words, it is a question not of parental choice but of schools selecting. That is the reality behind the former Government's rhetoric about parental choice.

The second issue was that of class size. We were asked whether we could meet our commitment to reducing class size and about the educational benefit of such a policy. Class sizes rose substantially during the previous Government's tenure in office. In 1996 there were more than 300,000 more primary pupils than in 1992 in classes of more than 30.

We will make reductions progressively as we receive the money from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. The clear difference between us and the Conservatives is that our priority will be investment in state education at the critical infant stage. Our respective positions reflect a profound difference of values.

We want to and will tackle the frustration and under-achievement caused by overcrowded classes. We will give priority to the 440,000 young children in England alone in classes of more than 30; but Conservative Members dwell on the 43,000 or so places under the assisted places scheme. We are certain that the money spent on the scheme would be put to better use in the state sector. The Bill ensures that we can make the earliest possible start on fulfilling our class size pledge.

The previous Government's plans provided for expenditure on the scheme for the current year of £140 million in England, £14 million in Scotland and £4.5 million in Wales. They had embarked on a substantial programme of expansion. They wanted to spend more than £200 million by the turn of the century on the assisted places scheme. We believe that we will be able to free up £100 million by 2000 to be used to reduce class size.

Some argue that class size does not matter—that it makes no difference to the quality of education. Try telling that to the parents who buy reduced class size by sending their children to a private school.

Mr. Forth

How then would the hon. Gentleman interpret the motivation of parents who strive to get their children into an already successful, over-subscribed school with relatively large classes? Why, even in the state sector, do parents opt for a good school, providing good education with large classes, and ignore the half-empty school down the road with small classes that performs very badly?

Mr. Byers

Labour Members recognise that there is a combination of factors that will raise standards. The main two are smaller class size and teacher performance. In government, the right hon. Gentleman's party did nothing to improve teacher performance and was prepared to accept under-achievement in our schools.

Mr. Hayes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way? Mr. Byers: I am sorry, but time does not allow it.

The chief inspector of schools said that, as far as he and Ofsted were concerned, a reduction of class size in the early years would make a real improvement in the quality of education.

The third, and perhaps the most important, issue that has been touched on is the view held by Conservative Members that bright children need the assisted places scheme to ensure that they receive a good education. In the words of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), they need an escape route from the state system. I prefer the analysis of a practitioner rather than a politician and agree with the view expressed by John Rae when, as headmaster of Westminster School, he said: the scheme is based on a false premise that an independent school is automatically a better place to educate a bright child. The reality, which Conservative Members are not prepared to acknowledge, is that the assisted places scheme was the ultimate opt-out by an opt-out Government. It provided a subsidy to leave the system rather than taking positive action to tackle the underlying problems in our education system.

In that context, the assisted places scheme was simply a diversion and a distraction. It provided an excuse not to address the real issues facing our schools. It was one of the grounds for complacency under the previous Administration—a Government of drift who were not prepared to tackle the issues of underachievement and failure in our schools. This evening I give a commitment that the new Government will tackle under-achievement and failure with urgency and commitment—an approach that we did not see from the previous Conservative Government.

Nearly half our 11-year-olds do not reach the appropriate standard in English. What did the previous Government do to remedy that problem? Did they invest in support for literacy? No, they scrapped the reading recovery programme. Did they cut class sizes? No, they allowed 300,000 more primary pupils to be in classes of more than 30 in 1996 than in 1992. What the previous Government did was to announce plans to double the number of assisted places, a proposal that would have affected less than 1 per cent. of the school population. However, in many respects that reflected the priorities of the previous Administration—an approach that took from the many to benefit the few.

That must, and will, change. It must change because education is vital to Britain's future. High standards and skills for life are the key to individual achievement, to social cohesion and to economic prosperity for our country. To achieve that, we must provide high-quality education for all our children.

The previous Government lacked ambition for our country and for our people. As a result, policies for a few were promoted at the expense of the many. Labour makes no apology for rejecting a system of education based on the philosophy that only a few can be winners and that as a result, the majority have to be losers. We believe that high-quality education can be made available to all our children. That is why the Bill is so important. It moves away from the Conservatives' fixation with the educational needs of a small elite. It reflects this Government's commitment to raise standards for all our children in all our schools, children who have been woefully neglected over the past 18 years by a Government that failed to address the real issues.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

What about Labour local authorities?

Mr. Byers

Much good practice has been promoted by Labour local education authorities. We will build on that in the years ahead.

The assisted places scheme was born out of dogma but tonight reason will triumph, as we give notice that its days are numbered. The reduction of class sizes through the phasing out of the assisted places scheme was one of our key pledges to the electorate. Now, just over a month after winning the general election and forming a Government, we shall deliver on that promise. By giving the Bill its Second Reading, we will take art important step towards honouring our commitment to reduce class size—a commitment that we gave to the electorate. We will only promise what we can deliver and, tonight, we will deliver in government. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be read a Second time:—

The House divided:Ayes 413, Noes 153.

Division No. 6] [9.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Ainger, Nick Begg, Miss Anne (Aberd'n S)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Beith, Rt Hon A J
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Anderson, Janet (Ros'dale) Bennett, Andrew F
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Benton, Joe
Ashton, Joe Bermingham, Gerald
Atherton, Ms Candy Berry, Roger
Atkins, Ms Charlotte Best, Harold
Austin, John Betts, Clive
Baker, Norman Blackman, Mrs Liz
Ballard, Mrs Jackie Blears, Ms Hazel
Barnes, Harry Blizzard, Robert
Barron, Kevin Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Bayley, Hugh Boateng, Paul
Beard, Nigel Borrow, David
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Dismore, Andrew
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Dobbin, Jim
Bradshaw, Ben Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Brand, Dr Peter Donohoe, Brian H
Breed, Colin Doran, Frank
Brinton, Mrs Helen Dowd, Jim
Brown, Rt Hon Nick Drew, David
(Newcastle E & Wallsend) Drown, Ms Julia
Browne, Desmond (Kilmarnock) Eagle, Ms Maria (L'pool Garston)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Edwards, Huw
Buck, Ms Karen Efford, Clive
Burden, Richard Ellman, Ms Louise
Burgon, Colin Ennis, Jeff
Burstow, Paul Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Byers, Stephen Fatchett, Derek
Cable, Dr Vincent Fearn, Ronnie
Caborn, Richard Field, Rt Hon Frank
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Fisher, Mark
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Fitzsimons, Ms Lorna
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Flint, Ms Caroline
Campbell-Savours, Dale Flynn, Paul
Canavan, Dennis Follett, Ms Barbara
Cann, Jamie Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Caplin, Ivor Foster, Don (Bath)
Casale, Roger Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Caton, Martin Foster, Michael John (Worcester)
Cawsey, Ian Galbraith, Sam
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Galloway, George
Chaytor, David Gapes, Mike
Chidgey, David Gardiner, Barry
Chisholm, Malcolm George, Andrew (St Ives)
Church, Ms Judith George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Clapham, Michael Gerrard, Neil
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Gibson, Dr Ian
Clark, Dr Lynda Gilroy, Mrs Linda
(Edinburgh Pentlands) Godman, Dr Norman A
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Goggins, Paul
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Golding, Mrs Llin
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Gorrie, Donald
Clelland, David Graham, Thomas
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Grant, Bernie
Coaker, Vernon Griffiths, Ms Jane (Reading E)
Coffey, Ms Ann Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Cohen, Harry Grocott, Bruce
Coleman, Iain Grogan, John
(Hammersmith & Fulham) Gunnell, John
Colman, Anthony (Putney) Hain, Peter
Connarty, Michael Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Cooper, Ms Yvette Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Corbett, Robin Hancock, Mike
Corbyn, Jeremy Hanson, David
Corston, Ms Jean Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Cousins, Jim Harris, Dr Evan
Cranston, Ross Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Crausby, David Healey, John
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Heath, David (Somerton)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Cummings, John Hepburn, Stephen
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Heppell, John
Curtis-Thomas, Ms Clare Hesford, Stephen
Dafis, Cynog Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Hill, Keith
Darvill, Keith Hinchliffe, David
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Hodge, Ms Margaret
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Hoey, Kate
Davidson, Ian Home Robertson, John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Hood, Jimmy
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Hoon, Geoffrey
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly) Hope, Philip
Dawson, Hilton Hopkins, Kelvin
Dean, Ms Janet Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Denham, John Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Dewar, Rt Hon Donald Howells, Dr Kim
Hoyle, Lindsay Mallaber, Ms Judy
Hughes, Ms Beverley Mallon, Seamus
(Stretford & Urmston) Mandelson, Peter
Humble, Mrs Joan Marek, Dr John
Hurst, Alan Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hutton, John Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Iddon, Brian Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Illsley, Eric Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Ingram, Adam Martlew, Eric
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampst'd) Maxton, John
Jackson, Mrs Helen (Hillsborough) Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Jamieson, David Meale, Alan
Jenkins, Brian (Tamworth) Merron, Ms Gillian
Johnson, Alan (Hull W) Michael, Alun
Johnson, Ms Melanie Milburn, Alan
(Welwyn Hatfield) Miller, Andrew
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Mitchell, Austin
Jones, Ms Fiona (Newark) Moffatt, Laura
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Moore, Michael
Jones, Ms Jenny Moran, Ms Margaret
(Wolverh'ton SW) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Mortey, Elliot
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jowell, Ms Tessa Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Mountford, Ms Kali
Keeble, Ms Sally Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Keen, Alan (Feltham) Mudie, George
Keen, Mrs Ann (Brentford) Murphy, Dennis (Wansbeck)
Keetch, Paul Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Kemp, Fraser Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Khabra, Piara S Norris, Dan
Kidney, David Oaten, Mark
Kilfoyle, Peter O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
King, Andy (Rugby) O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Kingham, Tessa Olner, Bill
Kirkwood, Archy O'Neill, Martin
Kumar, Dr Ashok Opik, Lembit
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Organ, Mrs Diana
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Osborne, Mrs Sandra
Laxton, Bob Pendry, Tom
Leslie, Christopher Perham, Ms Linda
Levitt, Tom Pickthall, Colin
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Pike, Peter L
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Plaskitt, James
Liddell, Mrs Helen Pond, Chris
Linton, Martin Pope, Greg
Livsey, Richard Pound, Stephen
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Powell, Sir Raymond
Llwyd, Elfyn Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Lock, David Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Love, Andy Prescott, Rt Hon John
McAllion, John Primarolo, Dawn
McAvoy, Thomas Prosser, Gwyn
McCabe, Stephen Purchase, Ken
McCafferty, Ms Chris Quin, Ms Joyce
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield) Quinn, Lawrie
McDonagh, Ms Siobhain Radice, Giles
Macdonald, Calum Rammell, Bill
McDonnell, John Rapson, Syd
McFall, John Raynsford, Nick
McGrady, Eddie Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
McGuire, Mrs Anne Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)
McIsaac, Ms Shona Rendel, David
McKenna, Ms Rosemary Roche, Mrs Barbara
Mackinlay, Andrew Rogers, Allan
McLeish, Henry Rooker, Jeff
McMaster, Gordon Rooney, Terry
McNulty, Tony Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
MacShane, Denis Rowlands, Ted
Mactaggart, Fiona Roy, Frank
McWalter, Tony Ruane, Chris
McWilliam, John Ruddock, Ms Joan
Mahon, Mrs Alice Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Ryan, Ms Joan Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Salter, Martin Timms, Stephen
Sanders, Adrian Tipping, Paddy
Savidge, Malcolm Todd, Mark
Sawford, Phil Tonge, Dr Jenny
Sedgemore, Brian Touhig, Don
Shaw, Jonathan Truswell, Paul
Sheerman, Barry Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Shipley, Ms Debra Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Singh, Marsha Tyler, Paul
Skinner, Dennis Vaz, Keith
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Vis, Dr Rudi
Smith, Ms Angela (Basildon) Wallace, James
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Walley, Ms Joan
Smith, Miss Geraldine Ward, Ms Claire
(Morecambe & Lunesdale) Wareing, Robert N
Smith, Ms Jacqui (Redditch) Watts, David
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Webb, Steven
Snape, Peter Welsh, Andrew
Soley, Clive White, Brian
Southworth, Ms Helen Whitehead, Alan
Spellar, John Wicks, Malcolm
Squire, Ms Rachel Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Starkey, Dr Phyllis (Swansea W)
Steinberg, Gerry Williams, Dr Alan W
Stevenson, George (E Carmarthen)
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Willis, Phil
Stinchcombe, Paul Wills, Michael
Stoate, Dr Howard Wilson, Brian
Stott, Roger Winnick, David
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Wise, Audrey
Stringer, Graham Wood, Mike
Stuart, Mrs Gisela (Edgbaston) Worthington, Tony
Stunell, Andrew Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Sutcliffe, Gerry Wright, Tony (Gt Yarmouth)
Swinney, John Wyatt, Derek
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
(Dewsbury) Tellers for the Ayes:
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) Mr. Kevin Hughes and
Taylor, David (NW Leics) Mr. Graham Allen.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Cran, James
Amess, David Curry, Rt Hon David
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Arbuthnot, James Davies, Quentin
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) (Grantham & Stamford)
Baldry, Tony Day, Stephen
Bercow, John Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Beresford, Sir Paul Duncan, Alan
Blunt, Crispin Duncan Smith, Iain
Body, Sir Richard Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Boswell, Tim Evans, Nigel
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Faber, David
Brady, Graham Fabricant, Michael
Brazier, Julian Fallon, Michael
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Forsythe, Clifford
Browning, Mrs Angela Forth, Eric
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Burns, Simon Fox, Dr Liam
Butterfill, John Fraser, Christopher
Cash, William Gale, Roger
Chope, Christopher Garnier, Edward
Clappison, James Gibb, Nick
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Gill, Christopher
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
(Rushcliffe) Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Gray, James
Collins, Tim Green, Damian
Cormack, Sir Patrick Greenway, John
Grieve, Dominic Page, Richard
Gummer, Rt Hon John Paice, James
Hague, Rt Hon William Paterson, Owen
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Pickles, Eric
Hammond, Philip Prior, David
Hawkins, Nick Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hayes, John Robathan, Andrew
Heald, Oliver Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
(Old Bexley & Sidcup) Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Ruffley, David
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael St Aubyn, Nick
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Sayeed, Jonathan
Horam, John Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Hunter, Andrew Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Soames, Nicholas
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Jenkin, Bernard (N Essex) Spicer, Sir Michael
Key, Robert Spring, Richard
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Steen, Anthony
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Streeter, Gary
Lansley, Andrew Swayne, Desmond
Leigh, Edward Syms, Robert
Letwin, Oliver Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Lidington, David Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Loughton, Tim Temple-Morris, Peter
Luff, Peter Trend, Michael
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Tyrie, Andrew
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Viggers, Peter
McIntosh, Miss Anne Walter, Robert
MacKay, Andrew Wardle, Charles
Maclean, Rt Hon David Whitney, Sir Raymond
McLoughlin, Patrick Whittingdale, John
Madel, Sir David Wilkinson, John
Major, Rt Hon John Willetts, David
Malins, Humfrey Wilshire, David
Maples, John Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Mates, Michael Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Woodward, Shaun
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian Yeo, Tim
May, Mrs Theresa Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Merchant, Piers
Moss, Malcolm Tellers for the Noes:
Nicholls, Patrick Mr. Richard Ottaway and Mr. Bowen Wells.
Norman, Archie

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Motion made and put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.61 (Committal of Bills),

That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Byers.]

Question agreed to.

Committee tomorrow.