HC Deb 18 March 1999 vol 327 cc1245-7
4. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

How many primary schools will be acquiring new classrooms in the current academic year. [75578]

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

That information is not collected centrally, but we expect that the key stage l class size initiative will fund additional classrooms at 600 schools in the current financial year and at a further 909 schools in 1999–2000. Funding continues to be available to meet agreed local priorities for school premises including new classrooms through the annual capital guidelines, the new deal for schools and local education authorities' own funds.

Helen Jackson

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know about, and not be surprised by, the huge welcome in Sheffield for the Government's funding for the reduction in class sizes to 30 in primary schools, which is beginning to be put into practice. He will also be aware that the money is scheduled to fund 45 extra teachers—which is most welcome—and three capital allocations for extra classrooms, one of which, at Marlcliffe, has been particularly welcomed in my constituency. However, consultations with primary school head teachers in my constituency have revealed that many want to reduce class sizes to 30, but will experience huge difficulties because of the shortage of rooms to accommodate children. The class size pledge has a knock-on effect on classrooms, not only on the staff who teach the classes.

Mr. Clarke

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know what a welcome our programme has received in Sheffield and elsewhere in the country. I am particularly aware, as any Minister in my Department must be, of the vital contributions being made in Sheffield. I want to highlight the number of extra teachers who have been employed as a result of the initiative to reduce class sizes. On top of the extra 1,500 teachers in 1998–99, there will be an extra 2,500 teachers from next September to help to reduce class sizes. That is a long-term programme. I hope that my answer addresses the points that my hon. Friend made about the need to keep striving to reduce class sizes and raise educational standards.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Does the Minister recall that before the last general election, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), now the Secretary of State, was told that the cost of meeting the class size pledge would be £60 million? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the budget now stands at £627 million and rising, which is 10 times more than the original estimated cost?

Following the question of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), is the hon. Gentleman further aware that local authorities, not only in Sheffield, but throughout the land, now estimate that for the next two years, they need not 1,500, but 2,300 additional teachers and classrooms, at a cost of £159 million more than the Government are allocating? Does that not demonstrate that the Government have got their sums wrong yet again?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman must have misheard what I said. I said that we have spent enough money on the initiative to employ an extra 1,500 teachers in 1998–99 and an additional 2,500 in 1999–2000 from September, which more than meets his point. We have allocated resources; we have fulfilled our pledges. I should be a little disturbed if the Liberal Democrats joined the Conservatives in taking the view that class size had no impact on educational performance.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

One of the schools in my constituency that will be receiving a new nursery classroom is Ridge Meadow county primary. The building of the new classroom has been delayed because the school is in special measures. However, I am delighted to say that the hard work of Sue Robertson, the governors and all the teachers has meant that the school is now out of special measures. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, as soon as the inspectors' report hits his desk, he will quickly give Medway education authority and the school the green light to build the new classroom, to celebrate everyone's hard work in raising standards and the fact that the school has come out of special measures?

Mr. Clarke

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating everybody associated with the school—the head teacher and the governors—on driving forward to take the school out of special measures. I am glad to say that that is characteristic of a number of schools which have found themselves in special measures. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he requests. I shall consider very carefully the specific proposals for new capital spending at the school, and recognise its achievement in reaching this point.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

In addition to the provision of classrooms to reduce class sizes in primary schools, how many extra primary school classrooms have been brought into use to accommodate four-year-olds as a result of the Government's policy on early-years education? Will the Minister take this opportunity to accept the figures of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which show that 1,500 pre-schools have already closed as a result of Government policy, and that more will close because primary schools are being encouraged to take four-year-olds and because extra costs are being imposed on pre-schools owing to the Government's policies on the minimum wage, holiday pay and national insurance?

Mr. Clarke

As a matter of fact, I do not accept the figures of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. In fact, I discussed them in great detail at an event that the alliance organised just a couple of weeks ago. The figures that the hon. Lady has cited are not reliable. I recall that, in my county of Norfolk, the voucher scheme which her Government introduced created exactly the drama and worry about which she is concerned. We are looking—and continue to look—at demand for class size at all ages. We shall continue to review the matter and make statements as appropriate.