HC Deb 14 January 1999 vol 323 cc438-40
12. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

What representations he has received from school governing bodies with infant and junior classes about the effect of lower class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds on future classes for eight, nine and 10-year-olds. [64047]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

Some governing bodies have sought clarification of the implications of the policy for junior classes. We have made it clear in our guidance to local education authorities that lower class sizes for infant pupils must not be achieved at the expense of junior pupils. We are providing £620 million for the pledge to be met fully and to ensure that resources are not diverted from other phases of education.

Mr. Bruce

St. John's school, Weymouth, wrote to me about a point on which I wrote to the Minister and on which she has replied to me. The school now has classes of 30 where previously it had had higher numbers. That means that the school's funding for the later years relies upon having larger classes to ensure that it gets the same funding. The school is concerned that bringing in lower class sizes will undermine its viability. It simply asks the Government to address the issue. This is important to a county such as Dorset, which is at the bottom of the standard spending assessment league table—the money that the Government say that it is allowed to spend. It already spends well above SSA in schools. The Government need to consider this important point because school governors are worried about the future of their school.

Ms Morris

I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that schools now do not have to have huge class sizes in order to get extra money, as they had to do when his party was in power. It is clear that the school to which he refers and many others in his constituency and local authority will have money to reduce infant class sizes and will receive a share not only of the extra £19 billion that will be put into education over the next three years but, I suspect, of the 20,000 extra teaching assistants that will be funded through the standards fund. I know that the hon. Gentleman omitted to say, because of lack of time, that he very much welcomed the £0.5 million extra money that his area received to reduce class sizes last September and the reduction by more than 1,000 of five, six and seven-year-olds in Dorset now in classes of over 30.

Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield)

Will my hon. Friend develop further her comment about the 20,000 extra classroom assistants and their contribution, together with lower class sizes, to improving standards in our schools? How does she expect them to contribute to making teachers even more able to do the job that they are there to do?

Ms Morris

The extra 20,000 classroom assistants are one of the most important policies in the Green Paper on the reform of the teaching profession. For too long they have been an ignored group of people. They contribute a great deal to standards in schools and among individuals. I am delighted that for the first time they can be assured of proper training and a proper place in the education of our children. I pay tribute to the good work that they have done and that they will do when there are more of them under this Government.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Does the Minister accept that a survey by another group of our friends in education, the National Association of Head Teachers—[Interruption.] They are all on our side now because they recognise the consequences of the rigid implementation of the Government's pledge on class sizes. The association shows in its survey that there are more larger classes in junior schools for eight, nine and 10-year-olds as a direct consequence of the rigid implementation of the pledge. Does the Minister not understand that schools also have more mixed-year classes and, despite what she said a moment ago, that there is still per capita funding for schools? Schools are having to turn away children whom they would have been happy to educate and they are losing funding as a result. Does the Minister not understand that that is a consequence of the rigid implementation of the pledge?

Ms Morris

I have never heard so much twaddle in my life. How on earth can the hon. Gentleman quote a figure in a survey and claim that there are more junior school children in large classes as a consequence of the infant school policy when the children educated in smaller classes cannot possibly have reached the ages to which he referred? That is absolute nonsense. The policy has not yet been enacted in full, but it will be in two years' time. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot change his mind since the general election and now claim that class size matters while he objects to every penny that we put in and every action that we take to deliver our pledge to parents and pupils. His local authority received £1 million of capital funding to reduce class sizes last September. It has gained from our policy. He and every other Member of Parliament will see five, six and seven-year-olds in classes of no more than 30 and junior school pupils benefiting from the extra resources put into education as a whole.