HC Deb 26 June 1997 vol 296 cc965-6
1. Mr. Colvin

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment if he will make a statement on (a) the gross cost of reducing to under 30 the class sizes of five, six and seven-year-olds and (b) the date by which this will be achieved. [4088]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

Our policy is to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 or below by the end of this Parliament. The gross cost will be less than the savings made from phasing out the assisted places scheme.

Mr. Colvin

I am grateful for that reply, but the Institute of Public Finance, whose research is based on the Department's figures, showed that the net cost of reducing class sizes to under 30, even taking into account the savings from the assisted places scheme, is £225 million over five years, which means an annual deficit of £45 million. Where will that money come from? Will it make the black hole in the Government's finances even bigger? It is time that Opposition Members started referring to it as a red hole because the Government are seriously in debt and they will get deeper in debt.

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman referred to a cost of £45 million a year, according to that independent survey. For his information, by the turn of the century £100 million will have been saved from the assisted places scheme and annually thereafter the savings will be in excess of £100 million a year. That is adequate funding to honour our pledge to reduce class sizes. The hon. Gentleman is aware that, in the Hampshire local education authority which covers his constituency, there are fewer than 1,300 assisted places whereas 17,000 five, six and seven-year-olds are in classes of more than 30. The hon. Gentleman may defend the privileges of the few; the Labour party will defend the interests of the many.

Mr. Derek Foster

My hon. Friend will know that he has the enthusiastic support of all Labour Members and the whole of the education world for reducing class sizes—the quicker the better. Does he agree that the quality of teaching is equally important if we are to raise standards? He will be aware of the widespread demoralisation in the classroom because of the 18 years of continual denigration by the Conservative party. What will he do to engage the commitment of teachers in raising the quality of, and standards in, education?

Mr. Byers

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The reduction in class sizes must be coupled with high-quality teaching if we are to achieve our ambitious target to raise standards in all schools for all children. We shall shortly publish a White Paper outlining how we intend to raise standards in schools. One of the main elements of the White Paper will be some positive proposals showing how the Government value the teaching profession. We shall take steps to ensure that the profession is valued and that it encourages new entrants and offers high-quality teaching to deliver our commitment to raise standards.

Mrs. Browning

Does the Minister still assert that a minimal cost will be attached to accommodating the additional 38,000 children who would have had assisted places by insisting that their parents put them into schools with surplus capacity, many of which will be sink schools? Is that the Government's policy? Is that where those children will go?

Mr. Byers

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and congratulate her on her appointment.

The Government believe that classes of more than 30 pupils become not so much a valuable learning experience as a question of crowd control. We are no longer prepared to tolerate that situation. There is a rich irony in the question posed by Conservative Members. Today we published new figures showing that, in primary schools, one in three young people are in a class of more than 30 pupils. That is an increase of 85,000 children on last year's figures. We have signalled our intention to reduce class sizes. Phasing out the assisted places scheme will do that by providing the resources to ensure that we can deliver our manifesto pledge.

Mr. Stevenson

Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency alone, at least 3,500 five, six and seven-year-olds are being taught in classes of more than 30, and some in classes of more than 40? Is he also aware that that is a disgraceful legacy of 18 years of Conservative government? My hon. Friend's commitment to phase out the assisted places scheme and to reduce class sizes is very welcome. Can he tell us when that process will begin?

Mr. Byers

The money will start being freed up from September next year, as we phase out the assisted places scheme. As soon as possible, we will use those resources to reduce class sizes in my hon. Friend's constituency and throughout the country. That is one of the key pledges that the Labour party gave during the general election campaign, and it was one of the reasons for our overwhelming victory on 1 May. We give notice that overcrowded classes will come to an end, because we will honour the pledge that we gave to the British people.