HC Deb 19 May 1999 vol 331 cc1030-8

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Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

Few things matter more to parents than their child's education. As a parent with a three-year-old child, I well understand parents' concern about the choice of primary school and about the need to get that right. It should be right for the family and right for the child. My reason for securing this debate is my concern that, in their entirely laudable desire, which I share, to reduce infant class sizes, the Government have introduced legislation that has proved to be unduly rigid in its application and that may be to the detriment of some of the very children that it aims to support.

I shall give a specific example, which prompted the debate, and I shall then consider the more general situation in South Gloucestershire council and in other local authorities. I should like to draw the House's attention to the case of Chloe, who is three and will be four next month. Her parents recently moved back to the village of Elberton in South Gloucestershire. Elberton does not have a school of its own: the children of the village walk to the school in Olveston, which is a popular village school. Parents buy houses in the village to make sure that they get their children into the school. I live in Olveston, and in due course I hope that my children will go to that school. To be honest, I do not need to declare an interest, because if my argument is successful I may prejudice my children's chances, but I shall leave that on one side.

The parents of Chloe Wilson applied to Olveston school, which is their local school. They also applied to Almondsbury school, which is another popular local school. Because Olveston school is popular, it is full: 30 children already have their names down to go there. Almondsbury is also full. The local authority wrote to the Wilsons to say that it regretted that their child could not go to their preferred school, and that she could go to St. Helen's school in Alveston.

I do not want to criticise St. Helen's school in Alveston, which is a good school. The question is whether it is the right school for Chloe Wilson. Without going into too much detail about this individual case, I have good reasons for thinking that it is not the right school and that Olveston would be the best school, partly because the children from the village all go to the same school and partly because it is within easy walking distance and the family have an older child with Down's syndrome whom they have to drive to a special school. Those reasons make the case of Olveston school.

Chloe goes to a nursery and she has for the first time begun to talk to other children. She is a chatty girl at home, but out in company she has been reclusive and has only just started to talk to children. The cohort of children who attend the nursery and will go on to state primary school will go to Olveston.

In previous years, the parents would have appealed, and the appeal panel would have made its judgment and may well have decided—we cannot be sure—that a 31st child at Olveston would be of great benefit to the individual child and would not unduly prejudice the other children already there. That is not longer possible, and an appeal is likely to be unsuccessful because of the rigidity of the new rules.

Chloe's parents have put her on a waiting list for Olveston, and every week they hope that the phone call will come and one of the 30 pupils will have been withdrawn so that Chloe can go to the school of her choice. Her friends from the village are visiting the school to see what it is like, meeting the teachers and buying the uniform, but Chloe can do none of that. Chloe and her family are torn, and the situation has created uncertainty.

I am sure that the Minister would not have wanted that to be the product of the legislation. Indeed, I have had the pleasure of discussing education in South Gloucestershire with her, and I know of her concerns. I should be grateful if she would tell me what to say to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson when I go back to my constituency later in the week. What can I say to them that will persuade them that the legislation was right? Better yet, how can I reassure them that future Chloe Wilsons will not be put in this difficult position? Is there any way in which the desirable goal of lower class sizes can be achieved with greater flexibility?

We obviously cannot overturn the whole of the Government's admissions policy for one child, but there are wider problems in South Gloucestershire. As the Minister would expect, primary and infant schools across the area are setting the standard number for admission at 30 or multiples of 30. That is already creating problems for some schools. The schools that have reduced the standard number to 30 are very popular—Crossways in Thornbury and Raysfield infant schools to name but two—and more parents have applied to send their children to those schools than the 30 that will be accepted.

The director of education in South Gloucestershire provided me with a briefing note for the debate. It says: The key impact of the infant class size reductions this year relates not to the reductions in standard numbers but to the process of appeals. He thinks that up to 20 schools could be affected by the new regime. Appeals that might otherwise have been heard and considered on their merits now face a blanket ban. Parents tell me that they have a good case for their child to go a particular school and say, "Surely they will listen to us." I have to explain to them that the authority has a prior claim, and that they may not even have a hearing.

Why do not the schools in the area build more classes? The education department has funded extra classes in South Gloucestershire to enable class sizes to be reduced to 30. However, not all the bids that the authority believed it needed to provide the extra places have been accepted. It has had to put in an extra £600,000 to ensure that it complies with the legislation.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

My hon. Friend refers to the schools in his local area, but the picture that he is painting is not unique to his local authority. Bath and North East Somerset council has similar problems. Newbridge St. John's infants school is very popular and has an intake this year of 87 pupils. Its two requests to the Department for Education and Employment for additional funds for new buildings have been turned down. As a result, the standard number will drop to 60, so that next year up to 27 parents will be denied their choice. The policy is reducing parental choice.

Mr. Webb

I learned of that case only today. I am concerned about such a dramatic swing from one year to the next, which is a direct consequence of a rigid law from central Government that is not backed up by the necessary funding to implement it.

Capital funding has been inadequate. My authority says that the figure of £85,000 per classroom is not always adequate. Some of the problems are in rural areas where there is only one village school and children cannot be shuffled around between three or four neighbouring schools. The village school may be an old Victorian building, and adding an extra classroom may not be cheap, because planning regulations have to be adhered to and it must be made with the right stone. The authority has found that the amount of money per school has been inadequate. It is not crying wolf. It has built the classrooms—brick is being laid on top of brick at the moment—so it knows that £85,000 is not enough. It has had to find the money from other parts of the education budget and from other parts of the council's budget.

Not only has capital funding been inadequate; there is also a problem with revenue funding and the rigidity of the rules. The authority dare not breach the requirement for class sizes of 30. One school is expecting 93 infants to start in May. History shows us that by September three or four of them will have dropped out—that is quite common. However, the authority is not permitted to plan on that basis, because if four do not drop out it will be in breach of the law in two years' time when those five-year-olds become seven-year-olds. In the school with 93 pupils, the authority has had to create not three but four classes. Obviously, I have no problem with four classes of 23, but that additional funding may have been better spent elsewhere in the education budget, for example to keep junior class sizes down. The rigidity of the legislation is not helping local authorities to use their scarce resources rationally.

One of the biggest problems identified by South Gloucestershire LEA is that the rigidity of the rules is forcing schools, against their will, into mixed age teaching. St. Mary's in Thornbury is a popular local school with a typical intake of about 35. It achieves superb Ofsted results, and parents want to send their children there, even though the class size is 35, because they believe that the school achieves great things. The school, however, will not be able to accommodate them, because it is going to have to move to mixed-age classes.

I am no educationist. I do not know whether it is better for a child to be taught in a single-year class of 35, perhaps with additional teacher support, or for that child to be taught in a mixed-age class of 30. I am not convinced that the answer is obvious: I am not convinced that it is obviously and automatically true that to have a class of 30 is better than avoiding mixed-age classes. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments.

It is fairly clear that the knock-on effect of the focusing of resources on children aged five, six and seven is to the detriment of those aged eight, nine, 10 and 11. The Minister has said that that should not and will not happen, but it is happening. The number of children in South Gloucestershire who are being taught in large junior classes is rising.

Mr. Don Foster

And nationally.

Mr. Webb

Yes, nationally as well. My local authority already spends substantially more than its standard spending assessment on education. It is already taking money from other areas on which the

Government think it should be spending in order to support education, yet it has had to increase junior class sizes.

The director of education wrote to me:

I do worry that, unless the Government is prepared to tackle the class size issue at KS2 also, the problems of KS2 are only going to be exacerbated". The authority receives good reports from the Office for Standards in Education for key stage 1, but is concerned about key stage 2. That may get worse, and I am not sure that such a development would do our children a service.

Having voted for the Bill that became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, I must take a share of responsibility for its consequences. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made the following prescient comment: I am genuinely concerned that there may be insufficient flexibility in the approach to class size reduction to take account of local circumstances. We shall still need to know how the Government expect a local education authority to deal with the arrival of the 31st child of a particular age group, hoping to attend a small village school. Will he"— or she— be sent a long distance to another school to meet the requirements of the class size ban, or will there be some flexibility?"—[Official Report, 22 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 701.]

My hon. Friend might have known the Wilsons, but he did not. In any event, he made his point to the Government, and—having looked at the record of the debate—I am not convinced that he received a response. I hope that, in replying to me now, the Minister will tell me what I can say to the parents of Chloe Wilson, and to other parents who say to me, "The rule is too rigid. It is denying our children a place at their local school. We support small class sizes, but must the rules be so strict? Can this rule be relaxed?"

It may not be possible for the rule to be relaxed by September, because plans have been made; but will other children have to go through what Chloe Wilson has had to go through? Can the Minister reassure us that she is aware of the problems, and intends to do something about them?

1.13 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

Wednesdays are becoming a time for regular meetings between Liberal Democrats and me—and so they should be: education is an exceptionally important issue. I feel that I am getting to know the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) quite well, as this is certainly not the first occasion on which we have exchanged views.

I know that the Liberal Democrats support our policy on reducing class sizes, and that they were as cross as we were when, under the last Government, the number of children in classes of not 30 but 40 rose and rose. A generation of primary school children have suffered because that Government were not prepared either to act or to commit money. That is, I think, a common starting point between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

On the whole, the Liberal Democrats have supported not only the extra resources that we have put into key stage 1, but the determination with which we have approached the policy. According to our own criteria, we will meet our targets early.

I acknowledge that the admissions issue is incredibly difficult. All that matters to parents is their children, and long may that continue, because if the parent does not bat for the child, the system often will not do so. The system has to provide education for all the children in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. This may sound harsh, but when he returns to his constituency at the end of the week, what he must say to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson is what I have to say to a bundle of my constituents who are currently not getting their children into first-choice schools.

By coincidence, this morning I signed three letters to constituents whose 11-year-old children had not got into their first-choice schools. As all hon. Members will know, at this time of year our postbags are heavily laden with letters from parents who have not secured their first choice. We are torn: we know that we cannot deliver to all those parents, but we know the importance to them and their children of securing the first choice. The hon. Gentleman will have to explain the situation in the same way as he has had to explain it every year since he has been a Member of Parliament.

I say that because, when we are talking about children not getting into the schools of their choice, we must not—I must not—allow class-size policy always to be the reason for that. I accept that it is the reason in this instance, but there are many other reasons why people do not secure their first preference. I do not think that we do our constituents a service by allowing them to latch on to that one reason.

Let me give the context of the progress that has been made in class size policy. It is ironic that the hon. Member for Northavon should say that there is not enough money, given that his hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), his party's education spokesman, keeps saying that we spend more than we said we would spend. They cannot have it both ways. [Interruption.] I know that the Liberal Democrats always want it both ways, but my logic tells me that that is not possible.

We have spent more than we said we would. In fact, the cheapest option is to fill up the empty schools. We have adopted the more expensive option for two reasons. One is speed: we will fulfil our pledge 18 months ahead of time. The other is our wish to guarantee parental choice.

We have provided 12,000 extra places at popular schools. The places may not be in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon, but they are real places in real schools that are currently oversubscribed. In many cases, especially in rural schools, that has meant the introduction of two classes. If the figure of 23 had been achieved, rather than 30, rural schools could probably have taken more children.

In deciding class size policy, I have sometimes made expensive decisions in order to prevent a child from having to travel what I consider to be an unreasonable distance. That is why our policy has been more expensive. In all our allocations, we have tried—within what it is reasonable for any Government to do—to accommodate particular pressures, and the wishes that parents may have.

Mr. Don Foster

The Minister will recall that, during the Committee stage of the School Standards and Framework Bill, she made a number of pledges—as did her right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), who is now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. She is right to say that a number of additional places have been made available, and that is welcome; but in some parts of the country parental choice is being reduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has given examples, as have I, and many hon. Members on both sides of the House could do so as well. I hope the Minister will agree that it is not good enough to say that overall there have been additional places, when in many parts of the country choice has been restricted and the situation is worse than it was under the last Government. That is totally contrary to the promise that was made during the passage of the Bill.

Ms Morris

I will come to that. It is an important point: indeed, it is almost the crux of the argument. There are 12,000 extra places in popular schools, but it is true that some parents who might have obtained not a 31st but a 35th or 36th place will now not obtain that place. This is about hard political decisions. We were determined to implement the policy and make it work, and, to some extent, to change the culture.

Year after year, numbers have crept up. The figure of 31 sounds fine; for Chloe to be the 31st child sounds fine; but what will the hon. Member for Northavon say when he returns to his constituency next Friday, and Mrs. Smith tells him that she wants her daughter to be the 32nd? Over time, the numbers have ratcheted up, because parents see the needs of their children. Eventually, there will come a Friday when the hon. Gentleman has to explain to 37 constituents why there are now 38 in a class, whereas when they first applied there were only 30. That is the problem: parental choice is also about the right of other parents to demand reasonable class sizes.

As well as 12,000 extra places, we have given a cast-iron guarantee to all parents—millions of people—who have an infant-aged child that their child will not be in a class of more than 30. Those are not the parents who write to us or go to advice bureaux: they are people whose children will be brought up under a Government who have said that class size matters—a Government who take the flak in Adjournment debates such as this but who have made it happen. That is what we are determined to do.

I now refer specifically to South Gloucestershire. Hon. Members will be pleased to know what our guiding aim has been. Although we have been prescriptive over the class size limit because we are accountable to the electorate for that, we have tried to allow local authorities to plan their provision as they see fit. Let me run through the figures. We have made available £1.5 million to take on 48 extra teachers and £704,000 to build nine extra classrooms.

The hon. Member for Northavon says that some places on the plan have not been funded. Since I announced the latest round of class size plans, we have gone back to local authorities where there have been complaints and talked to them. We want to make the system work, but as reasonably as possible. There of course comes a time when our money is spent, but I have been careful to ensure that we are open to reasonable argument.

South Gloucestershire, which I gather is now Liberal Democrat controlled—having gone from no overall control—will be able to say by September 1999 that, whereas in September last year, 3,391 children were in classes of over 30, this year, the number will be 326. That is cause for celebration.

Mr. Webb

The hon. Lady gave me those figures, or corresponding ones, a little while ago in a written answer, but the other half of the written answer was on junior class sizes in South Gloucestershire. Does she accept that they have gone up? Can anything be done about that?

Ms Morris

What I do know is that the teacher:pupil ratio has fallen for the first time in 10 years nationally. I cannot not give the figures on that ratio for South Gloucestershire, but, nationally, they have fallen for the first time in 10 years. As I have said before, when we have approved class size plans, we have ensured that there will be no consequences for key stage 2 class sizes and that extra money is going to local authorities to accommodate key stage 2.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked—and we could have another interesting debate about this—whether 35 with a teacher and an assistant was not better than 31. That is a point that the Tories make. Once they are in train, the 20,000 extra classroom assistants—I do not put it forward as a better alternative—will mean that there will be a better adult:pupil ratio within key stage 2.

Mr. Don Foster

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that the half-hour Adjournment debates are the property of the Member who introduces them, who is guaranteed a ministerial reply. They are not general debates. They are certainly not platforms for exchanges between those on the Front Bench.

Ms Morris

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will cheer up the hon. Member for Bath. Let me go back to the point about our willingness to listen and to try to get it right for local areas. Since we announced the first round of extra money, we have gone back to areas where there have been complaints. I have asked officials to talk, to look at builders' reports, to visit the schools, to measure classrooms and to come back; we want to get it right. As a result, we were able to give £110,000 extra to Warmley primary school.

I am delighted that, today, I have written to the hon. Member for Bath to say that I have made available £73,925 for Newbridge St. John's infants school, a Church of England school, which shows that the case that it made, following our decision not to privatise, was a good one. The reason why it did not get the support first time round had to do with something in the paper application not ringing true. Sometimes, figures do not match up, or the school has not made the case on paper sufficiently.

Where local authorities have come back and said, "You have got it wrong," over the past few weeks, I have been asking officials to talk to them. That is why there is extra aid in the South Gloucester area and in Bath and North East Somerset. At Castle primary school, £17,265 has been made available.

I hope that hon. Members will accept not only that we are determined to deliver our pledge to the electorate, but that the line of accountability is important to us. We will deliver the pledge early—by the time of the next election, but we want to do it as sensitively as possible.

Chloe is Mr. and Mrs. Wilson's second child. I know that their eldest child has special needs and that the education of that child will have been of paramount concern to them; they want to ensure that that child receives the support that is needed. I understand that it is disappointing for Chloe that other children in her village are going to the school of her choice. What is ironic is that, had the family moved in before 23 October, class size policy would not have stood in their way. Chloe lives close enough to the school and most children in the village get a place. What is happening is that people who live further away are taking those places because of late entry.

I say as gently as I can that that is a consequence of the family having moved in since admissions closed in October last year. It is a matter for local decision. The local authority has taken a decision that the school that 2.65 miles away that is offering a place is of good standard and is not so far away that it makes life impossible for Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and Chloe. If it had not been of good standard and would have made life impossible, I feel sure that the local authority would have come back to us and asked for an extra teacher at the school, even at that stage. It did not.

Locally, the solution to the problem of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and Chloe was to offer a place in a good-quality school that was 2.65 miles away. I accept that that is a disappointment, but I hope that, when she starts in September, Chloe will settle down and succeed. I hope that, in years to come, the family will look back at this time as one that was traumatic for the children, but made no difference to what I hope will be a happy and fulfilling career for Chloe.