HC Deb 22 May 1997 vol 294 cc823-5
3. Mr. Mitchell

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what proposals he has for providing emergency finance for education authorities to prevent any increase in class sizes in the current year. [192]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

We have no such proposals. The funding that schools receive this year has been based on decisions made by the previous Administration. However, we shall introduce a Bill later today that will lead to a reduction in class size for every five, six and seven-year-old in the country.

Mr. Mitchell

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment.

Given his visit to Grimsby during the election campaign, he will know that a Labour local authority, North East Lincolnshire, which attaches the highest priority to education, as the Government do, has been forced to cut spending on education, with the result that we will lose 100 teachers by September. We already have 196 primary classes with more than 30 pupils and that number will now increase. Such class sizes arise directly from the underfunding of the unitary authorities by the previous Administration.

Will my hon. Friend open discussions with his colleagues at the Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on what can be done about that underfunding? Will he meet a deputation from North East Lincolnshire to see what can be done to stop further cuts in education?

Mr. Byers

I can give my hon. Friend two assurances. First, I would be more than willing to meet a deputation led by him and including representatives from North East Lincolnshire. Secondly, there is no doubt that particular difficulties are being experienced by unitary authorities. We have begun a review of the education element of the standard spending assessment, to ensure that the distribution of that grant is far fairer than it was under the previous Administration. I am confident that, in the process of doing that, we will be able to offer some hope to unitary authorities such as North East Lincolnshire.

Mr. Don Foster

I welcome the Minister to his first outing at the Dispatch Box. I reiterate my congratulations to him and the rest of his team.

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the reply he has just given offers no hope to schools throughout the country? Will not class sizes continue to increase this year as teachers continue to lose their jobs? Does the Minister further acknowledge that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced clearly in the House that it is the Government's intention to stick to departmental control limits for at least the next two years, he is offering no hope to schools for the next two or three years?

Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the strange anomaly of the Government's amazing hyperactivity with regard to legislation and changes to the Bank of England, while there is a total lack of any promise to provide more resources to schools?

Mr. Byers

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial comments. He has rehearsed an argument put to the British people in the run-up to the general election on 1 May. The British people spoke on that day. We have made education our No. 1 priority—which is why, 21 days after polling day, we have announced the abolition of the nursery voucher scheme and why today we are introducing a Bill to reduce class sizes. This Government are taking positive action to benefit all our children, rather than using warm words which would no nothing to help them.

Kate Hoey

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. I thank him and his team for sending help squads into two schools in my constituency. I know that that will be welcomed by the parents, the pupils and all those involved in the schools.

I understand that class size is a problem, but in my borough an even bigger problem is the number of young people—more than 300—who are out of school, playing truant or excluded, but who do not have any opportunity to get any help. Even at this stage, the local authority is closing the Orchard centre. Do the Government have any plans to do something about providing out-of-school places for those children, who are becoming totally involved in crime and therefore contributing to the huge amount of crime in the area?

Mr. Byers

I thank my hon. Friend for her initial comments. When I meet Lambeth local education authority in the next two weeks to discuss the question of failing schools within that authority, I will also raise the issue of children who are disenchanted with the education currently offered to them.

The Government have made a commitment to offer education to all our children. No child should be excluded. In particular, we are looking at the ways in which finance from the lottery can be used to help the sort of young people to whom my hon. Friend referred.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

What contribution to a reduction in class sizes in grant-maintained schools will be made by the Minister's proposal to remove 10 per cent. of their funding?

Mr. Byers

I am afraid that the right hon. Lady is wrong about our policy. There is no commitment to reduce by 10 per cent. the delegation of funding to grant-maintained schools. When we publish our White Paper in June, she will find our proposals for that specific area very informative.

It ill becomes a former Secretary of State for Education and Employment to talk about increasing class sizes when, under her Administration, an additional 115,000 children under seven were in classes of more than 30. That is the right hon. Lady's record. She did nothing to deal with the problem. Today, after just 21 days in office, this Government are introducing a Bill to resolve that problem