HC Deb 11 June 1998 vol 313 cc1178-80
3. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

If he will make a statement on primary school class sizes in Leicestershire. [43753]

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

In January this year, the average primary class size in Leicestershire was 26. Last year, it was 26.7. Currently, 21.7 per cent. of children are in classes of more than 30. Last year, the figure was 23.4 per cent.

Mr. Robathan

My figures show that the average primary class size has gone down by 0.06 of a pupil in one year. Even the Secretary of State would have to admit that it will take some time for that to work its way through to reduced class sizes. The children of most parents will have left primary school before there is any effect. What does the Secretary of State say to the 30 parents from Thistley Meadow school in Blaby who have written to me, some of whom voted Labour in the general election because they believed in Labour's pledge? When is a pledge an early pledge and when is it a late one? Was not the little card that I have with me, Labour's general election pledge card, a fraud perpetrated by new Labour on the parents of Leicestershire and the people of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Blunkett

Many more might have voted Labour if they had known that there would be a reduction of 0.7 per cent. in just one year [HON. MEMBERS: "0.06"] I am using the official figures. Leicestershire has received £291,000 and Leicester city £584,000 so that 4,100 children will be in smaller class sizes from September, with an extra 65 teachers.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend remembers visiting Sileby Highgate school in Leicestershire, at which I am a governor, in 1996. He will recall that all its class sizes were well over 30. That was under the previous Administration, so we do not need to take any lectures. Will he confirm what he told me in a written answer last July—that in Leicestershire the cost of the assisted places scheme for the 447 pupils who were benefiting from it was £1.49 million? Does he agree that that money is much better spent on reducing class sizes in Leicestershire schools, particularly Sileby Highgate?

Mr. Blunkett

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why those who buy private education put tremendous emphasis on class sizes. It ill becomes Conservative Members to proclaim that they are in favour of smaller classes for the children of those who buy private education but to be against it for the children whom they should represent.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Does the Secretary of State realise that, to implement his Government's literacy scheme, teachers are required to create a maximum of five groups of six pupils? That is 30 for every class.

Madam Speaker

Order. The question relates specifically to Leicestershire.

Mr. Foster

I assure you, Madam Speaker, that this is very much about Leicestershire. I hope that the Secretary of State is aware that his literacy scheme requires five groups of six pupils. Given that he has no plans to reduce key stage 2 classes—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman is not accepting my guidance. I am moving on. This is about Leicestershire.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I hope it is, Madam Speaker, as I represent a Leicestershire seat. May I confirm what my right hon. Friend said about infant class sizes in the city of Leicester—that, because of the extra money that the city has received this year, there will be no infant class in excess of 30 from September this year? Does he accept that 10 per cent. of junior classes will be in excess of 30, however, and that one reason for that is that local heads and governors make the decisions on the distribution of class sizes? Will he signal his intention to offer guidance to heads and governors about the need to have smaller class sizes across the whole age group?

Mr. Blunkett

A prerequisite of the plans that will have to be submitted this autumn will be that reductions in class sizes will not have a knock-on effect for primary schooling as a whole. Leicester and Leicestershire will benefit from the £62 million that we have allocated for this year and from the 1,500 extra teachers. Some 100,000 children will gain from the investment that we are making nationally.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

I am sure that the Secretary of State is familiar with the report of the Local Government Association, representing Leicestershire—and other parts of the country—on the devastating practical implications of the Government's class size pledge. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure parents in Leicestershire—and throughout the country—that there will be no reduction in parental choice and no increase in mixed-year teaching as a result of the Government's pledge?

Mr. Blunkett

We have made it absolutely clear that parental preference is a critical part of enabling people to make the right choice in sending their children to the nearest high-quality school. We have made no bones about the fact that, where there are mixed-age classes, the guidance of Ofsted and the standards unit should be followed in making them work. I find it difficult to answer the question coming from an hon. Member who has written and spoken condemning the argument about class size, suggesting, there is little evidence of any correlation between class size and educational achievements". No wonder he wrote it in a book called "Why Vote Conservative?" He knows he has the answer in the words he used.