HC Deb 04 May 2000 vol 349 cc285-6
8. Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

What progress has been made in reducing class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. [119624]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

The Government are well on course to deliver their pledge to reduce the size of infant classes to 30 pupils by September 2001 at the latest. Statistics published recently show that the number of five, six and seven-year-olds in infant classes of more than 30 went down by half from January 1999 to January 2000. By this September, we expect as few as 3 per cent. of children to remain in infant classes of 31 or more.

Mr. Stevenson

The £2.3 million made available for staff and buildings in Stoke-on-Trent, which this year alone will mean an additional 40 primary school teachers, is extremely welcome. Does not my right hon. Friend's reply starkly illustrate the difference between the Government, who deliver on their pledges, and Conservative Members who sit back and criticise? Is not another success the increasing number of children who now find that, because of the Government's policy, they can go to their first preference school? Is not that in stark contrast to the Opposition's dire predictions when the Government announced the policy?

Ms Morris

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I congratulate Stoke-on-Trent local education authority on developing a plan that has reduced the number of children in large classes from 2,500 at the time of the general election to only 750 now. Stoke-on-Trent LEA will deliver the pledge a full year ahead of time, which is very much in the interests of children in my hon. Friend's constituency.

I further agree that the pledge has been delivered. It has been delivered early and, as my hon. Friend said, has created more places in popular schools. Of the extra places that have been created, 12,000 have been in over-subscribed schools, and that has increased parental choice. The key point is that that, together with the Government's and teachers' success in the literacy and numeracy hours and the expansion of places for early years learning, means that in three years we have delivered the better start to schooling that so many parents wanted and for which they voted at the general election.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Although I greatly welcome the reduction in class sizes in infant schools, will the Minister deal with two problems that result from that? Contrary to the experience of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), in my area the rigidity of the admission appeals criteria means that many frustrated parents cannot get their children into schools with limited accommodation. Secondly, there are knock-on effects for class sizes in the upper end of primary, middle and secondary schools. When will there be a timetable for reducing class sizes for older children?

Ms Morris

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's question stands up. The recent statistics on junior schools show that this year, for the first time, there has been a reduction in the number of classes of more than 30 children in junior schools which cater for seven to 11-year-olds. Our class size pledge has not been at the expense of older primary school children—far from it. Class sizes in infant, junior and primary schools are down. That shows the importance of what has happened over the past three years.

The hon. Gentleman is right in that the pupil-teacher ratio in secondary schools has increased from 17:1 to 17.1:1. What decision would he have made on allocating resources in the first three years of a Parliament? We made a pledge on class sizes in infant schools because that is where small classes matter.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made money available in the Budget. It will be paid directly to schools so that they can decide how to spend it. If every secondary school decided to use that money to employ teachers—they could do that if they wished—there would be 3,500 extra teachers. Rather than halting the increase in secondary school class sizes, such a decision would reverse it. We have fulfilled our pledge on infant and primary schools; the decision on secondary schools is in the hands of head teachers.