HC Deb 25 October 2001 vol 373 cc399-401
5. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

What assessment she has made of the relationship between class size and examination results. [6690]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms)

My Department and local education authorities have jointly commissioned the university of London's Institute of Education to research the effect of smaller class sizes. The preliminary findings suggest that smaller classes, particularly reception classes, are indeed beneficial.

Dr. Lewis

That research, if accurate, contradicts the findings of other recent research, which suggests that there is little significant correlation between class sizes and academic performance, and examination results in particular. Given that there is such a contradiction, why will not the Government take up the eminently practical suggestion, made time and again, that when league tables are published showing examination results, the class sizes should be shown alongside, so that people can assess whether there is a correlation?

Mr. Timms

The evidence is that, in reception classes in particular, smaller class sizes are very beneficial. That of course is why we have focused our work in this area on infant classes. The average infant class size is now 25 2, compared with nearly 27 in 1997. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the fall in infant class sizes has been significant, from 27.5 to 25.4. I hope that he will welcome that progress and the resulting improvements. Of course there are many other factors at play, but the evidence to which I have referred shows pretty clearly that the progress we have been able to make in reducing class sizes has made an important contribution to raising standards in those infant classes.

Junior class sizes are also falling, and secondary class sizes have fallen for the first time in 10 years. All those improvements have made an important contribution to the dramatic rise in standards that this Government have brought about.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Are the real improvements in standards in key stages 2 and 1 down to reduced class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds or to the increased number of classroom assistants being employed and the massive investment in early years education? I believe that in 2004 all three-year-olds will have access to a free nursery place.

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to those great improvements as further important factors in bringing about the dramatic improvement to which she referred. Let us acknowledge, too, the great importance of the numeracy and literacy strategies delivered so successfully by teachers over the past four years, which have also had a decisive beneficial effect.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

The Minister will be interested in the new Tory policy of larger class sizes. That is one for the House to note. Does he accept that, irrespective of class sizes, what drives up standards is good-quality teachers? Will he comment on the fact that his Department has spent £9.2 million on recruiting 111 fast-track teachers, and assure the House that every one of them will go into so-called failing schools so that they can reap the benefit? Given the Secretary of State's comments earlier, does he feel that the £83,000 per teacher given to the private sector to recruit those teachers represents good value for money for the taxpayer?

Mr. Timms

The Conservative policy is not a new one: class sizes were rising for many years under the previous Government.

It is true that the quality of teaching is vital to raising standards. The fact that teaching quality has improved is undoubtedly a major part of the explanation for the dramatic improvements in standards. Fast-track teachers will indeed spend some of their time in schools facing challenging circumstances. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the benefits of the energetic approach that we are taking to bring new and able people into the teaching profession, increasing the number of teachers, because we nee d more able teachers to be able to maintain the pace of improvement that we have achieved.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Considerable progress has been made at key stage 1 in reducing class sizes and improving standards, but does the Minister share my concerns about the large class sizes, sometimes approaching 40, not only in Nottinghamshire but throughout the country at key stage 2? Should not our priority now be to get those class sizes down?

Mr. Timms

We have of course made progress at other key stages, too. Junior class sizes have now fallen for two consecutive years, and we have allocated more than £36 million this year to schools that increased their intake to help meet the infant class size limit and ensure that infants transferring to junior classes continue to bent fit from smaller classes. That will certainly help, but it is important that we keep the matter under review and maintain the pace of progress that we have seen in recent years, so that we can continue the dramatic improvement in standards in junior classes.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

In spite of a fall in numeracy levels at age 11 this year, in a written answer the Minister confirmed the targets of 75 per cent. for next year and proposed increased targets of 85 per cent. for literacy and numeracy by 2004. He said: We are confident that these challenging targets can be achieved."— [Official Report, 16 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 1187W.] If the Government are so confident, why was the Secretary of State backsliding yesterday by telling the Education and Skills Select Committee that it will not matter if targets are missed, and why are she and her Ministers afraid to put their jobs on the line as her predecessor would?

Mr. Timms

I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, but I hope that in his future contributions to our debates he will want to celebrate the dramatic improvements in key stage 2 results in our junior schools in numeracy and literacy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reaffirmed our commitment yesterday to the targets that have been set and it is important that the hon. Gentleman and others contribute to a celebration of the great progress that has been made.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Minister agree that smaller class sizes enable teachers to give more individual attention to individual pupils? Does he also agree that if more diagnostic testing was done in the early years to identify the weaknesses that children experience and the help that they need, later results would be better?

Mr. Timms

The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. The evidence that the Institute of Education has provided supports the benefits of smaller class sizes in the early years. The work of the early years partnerships is also helping to identify problems early in a child's school life so that appropriate support can be provided. He is right to say that that is important.