HC Deb 22 May 1997 vol 294 cc829-31
8 Ms Jane Griffiths

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment how much money will be available for reducing class sizes through the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. [197]

Mr. Blunkett

One hundred and eighty million pounds will be available over time as a result of the phasing out of the assisted places scheme, which is in the forward public expenditure survey predictions inherited from the previous Government, £100 million of which will be available by the year 2000 to be used to reduce class sizes and fulfil our pledge.

Ms Griffiths

Does the Secretary of State agree that his reply represents tremendously good news for schools throughout the country—[Laughter.]—not least for schools in Reading, East, the constituency that I represent? Redlands county primary school in Reading now has two reception classes where it had three, and five-year-olds are being taught in classes of 36 and 37.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and congratulate her on her question. One can see why Conservative Members are so depleted—they laugh at the prospect of £100 million being spent in the next three years on reducing class sizes which, under their regime, went up in the primary sector by a staggering 40 per cent. in terms of those taught in classes of more than 30. It is a measure of the despair of Conservative Members that they think it is funny that children are taught in large classes.

Mr. David Heath

We welcome any additional money for schools, but will the Secretary of State explain how a substantial reduction in class sizes will take place in Somerset if his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions imposes the iniquitous Conservative capping proposals on the county and 90 teachers are sacked?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my party made no promises that we could not fulfil. I have stated clearly what the situation will be for the current financial year and we intend to treat all local authorities with fairness. Each of them knew what the situation was and, regrettably, will have to plan on a budget that was not of our making and in circumstances which we hope to reverse during the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mr. Grocott

Does my right hon. Friend remember being told ad nauseam by the previous Government that, contrary to the common sense of most of the people of this country and to the views of parents everywhere, the size of classes in schools was of no importance? If any civil servants in his Department still give advice to that effect, will he send them away on a retraining course—preferably in small groups?

Mr. Blunkett

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we are strongly in favour of small groups of people concentrating their minds on the agenda of the new Government, rather than that of the old. I can also confirm. that class sizes make a difference, and that is why some people choose to spend a great deal of their own money on buying smaller class sizes in the private sector.

Mrs. Gillan

I would like a direct answer to a direct question. Some 36,000 of our brightest children will be robbed by this Government of a future assisted place scheme. What will it cost to educate those children back in the state sector?

Mr. Blunkett

I can promise the hon. Lady one thing—there will be a great deal more straight talking and straight answers from this Government than there ever was when she and her colleagues answered questions. The assisted places scheme was not geared to the brightest in the country—the brightest in the country exist in all schools and deserve a good education. There is a profound difference in values between the parties.

We do not believe that we should abandon the state education system, nor do we believe that it is inherently so poor that we have to allow—in the words of the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—children to escape from it. We believe in investing to ensure that all children have an opportunity to experience the highest standards of education from the time that they enter school, so that not 36,000 but 7 million children benefit from the education system