HC Deb 18 March 1999 vol 327 cc1252-4
12. Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

If he will estimate the number of new classrooms to be provided by September 1999.[75587]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I refer my hon. Friend to my earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson). We estimate that the key stage 1 class size initiative will fund an additional 600 classrooms in the current financial year and a further 900 in 1999–2000.

Charlotte Atkins

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In Staffordshire, in January 1998, nearly 8,300 pupils were in classes of over 30; by September 1999, that figure is likely to be under 500. Does he recognise the particular problems of rural schools operating with mixed-age classes in buildings of limited size?

Mr. Clarke

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The kind of change that she has seen in Staffordshire is happening throughout the country, to the great benefit of educational standards. We are extremely conscious of the importance of the local school to rural communities, such as those in her constituency. Our policy is designed to raise standards in all schools, wherever they are situated. We have made it clear that no child should have to travel an unreasonable distance to school because of the class size limit and we are prepared to consider providing extra funding for an extra teacher when no alternative school is available within a reasonable distance.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Whatever importance is attached to lowering class sizes to below 30, surely it is even more important to reduce the number of children in classes of over 40. Will the Minister confirm the figures from his own Department stating that, in the first year of this Government, the number of children in classes of over 40 doubled? Why has that happened and when will he manage to get the number of children in classes of over 40 in primary schools back to the level that he inherited from the previous Government?

Mr. Clarke

I can confirm that our plans will reduce the number of children in infant classes of over 30 from 485,000 in January 1998 to under 200,000 in September 1999—a drop of over 285,000. By September 2000, we expect fewer than 50,000 children to be in large infant classes. I am not aware of the particular school to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but its budget for the first year of this Government was inherited from the previous Administration. Thanks to this Government, substantial extra resources are going into schools to address precisely the issue about which he is concerned, and all the other issues of educational standards.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I give credit where credit is due and say how pleased I am that we have such a huge programme for new classrooms and school building programmes, particularly in Staffordshire and in Stoke-on-Trent? I thank my hon. Friend for the £2.5 million under the new deal, which will fund 10 new classrooms at Holden Lane high school in my constituency, where work commences tomorrow.

My hon. Friend's policy is one of innovation and vision—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!]—because building new classrooms will enable us to implement our policy of lifelong learning and ties in with primary schools. Will he look at the accumulated backlog in respect of new classrooms in Staffordshire and in Stoke-on-Trent, which has resulted from 18 years of no improvements under the previous Government?

Mr. Clarke

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Such improvements are being made throughout the country. I certainly give her an assurance that I will look into the backlog to which she referred, but she was justified in using the words "innovation" and "vision". The fact is that we had 18 years of stagnation, but more resources are now going into building. Teachers' governing bodies are being creative about how those resources can be used to drive up educational standards. I travel around the country a great deal and it is truly inspirational to see what many people are doing with the resources that we have been able to let them have.

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