HL Deb 05 May 1998 vol 589 cc574-606

9.2 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

[Amendments Nos. 8 to 10 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch

moved Amendment No. 11: Page 2, line 4, at end insert— ("() Regulations under this section shall be laid in draft before both Houses of Parliament and shall he subject to approval by resolution of each House."). The noble Baroness said: This is a second opportunity that the Government will have to respond positively to the report of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. It refers now to the procedure which will be used for placing the regulations on the statute book. It is my view that this is a very important recommendation and that, given the Government's attitude to the first recommendation, they will accept it.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness how important it has been to have the draft regulations for these measures before the House as we discuss these items tonight. We have had not only the draft regulations but also the guidance. We have been able to pick over the small print of what the Government intend. It would be very nice if that could be replicated in other parts of the Bill, particularly as regards the areas I referred to in my letter to the noble Baroness on 9th April.

Nevertheless, even with the draft regulations one or two questions arise. In the debate that we had before dinner not only the noble Baroness, but her colleagues, in answer to questions, referred to the 31st child being a child with special educational needs. I referred to one without those needs who may come in during the course of the year and outside the admissions arrangement. The reference both in the guidance and in the draft regulations suggests that such a child will be accepted as an exception. The noble Baroness answered the question as though it would not be accepted as an exception. That referred to SEN children, but not to those without such needs. I want confirmation that that is the case and that such children will be deemed as an exception. The only reason they are exceptions is the class size pledge.

In other words, the reason they become exceptional in any situation is the imposition of the class size pledge. Do they benefit from costs incurred even though, as the noble Baroness explained, it will be only for the remainder of the academic year when the children have to be taken into the LEA's plan? These are children who could not be planned for. Will they be taken into the legitimate area of expenditure which is incurred directly as a result of the imposition of the class size pledge? I cannot see any answer other than that they must be as regards the three exceptions referred to in the regulations. It would be very helpful if the noble Baroness can confirm that.

I was interested in reading again the committee's report. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for accepting it. It suggests that the figure of 30 children maximum for a class should be on the face of the Bill because of the unequivocal nature of the pledge itself and because almost everything else flows from it. But the committee says that it is not an either/or situation because it adds also that the committee should think about making sure that these regulations come before the Bill using the affirmative resolution procedure. I not only hope but rather expect the noble Baroness to respond positively to this amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone

This amendment, like Amendments Nos. 2 and 247, which we discussed earlier, reflects the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee which reported on the Bill at the end of last week. As I indicated in the debate on those amendments, the Government have noted the committee's report. We are in discussion with our legal advisers about the necessary amendments to the Bill. We accept the principle behind the committee's recommendations and we want to respond as positively as we can with government amendments at Report stage. We need to reflect on some of the practical issues that might affect the implementation of this key policy on class size. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will understand that, having only recently received the report of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, we have not yet had time to look at these matters in detail and discuss them with our legal advisers. We will take this away and think very carefully about it, as we said when discussing two earlier amendments. Given that assurance, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

The noble Baroness asked particularly about SEN pupils. There is a difference between exceptional situations where the class may exceed 31 for a short period, which we believe is possible for pupils with special educational needs, and the situation in rural schools—of which the noble Baroness makes quite a lot—where the 31st child will trigger the funding for an extra teacher and situations where the class size limit will not be exceeded. I believe that that is a rather different situation from one where there is the temporary addition of a 31st child as a result of an allocation for a child with special educational needs. That situation would not be allowed to go beyond the school year in which the allocation had been made.

Baroness Blatch

I find that an extraordinarily disappointing answer. The 31st child will in many situations be there only for that academic year. I have said time and again that in rural schools very often the class size is broken simply for the purposes of one academic year. The next year one family moves out and another family moves in. The answer provided by the Minister in relation to children of military families was breathtaking. I spent most of my earlier life as a military wife. At this moment my daughter is a military officer in the Royal Air Force. If like me the noble Baroness had been governor of a school that took in a very large number of children from military families she would know that the number of movements in and movements out, to use the educational jargon, was phenomenally higher than at any other school. Those schools always try to make the case to their local education authorities for extra funding to meet the requirement to take children mid-term and mid-academic year. There is difficulty in taking children in at different ages without the follow-through material and information from previous schools; or it may arrive too late and therefore a much longer period of assessment is required. There are many children who do not see through the whole of their academic lives in any one school. There are many military establishments around the country where the movement of children in and out exceeds the normal movement of children in and out. It is not true that they can be set aside as not being material to this debate or because the noble Baroness believes that all of them neatly come in at the beginning and neatly move out at the end of an academic year. Some families go to great lengths to ensure that the children see through the term, and wives do not follow their husbands. They do so at great cost to themselves and their families. If they are moving into a village where the children are to attend a local school at home the chances are that they will come in mid-term. It is extraordinary that a child with special educational needs or a child who comes in mid-academic year does not trigger the money pledged on the basis of class-size, but that a child who busts the number because of denominational preference or parental preference, or where the distance between two schools is too great, does so. Why should the local education authority pay for a policy that is to be imposed upon it by the Government? Are these children to be taught in classes of 31 without an extra teacher while a school next door that takes in the 31st child gets an extra teacher? It does not make any sense.

I am extremely disappointed by the answer to my second question. I am also very distressed by the answer to my first question. I do not believe that it takes more than a few minutes to determine whether or not this is an important set of regulations. Given the way that this House considers such matters, I believe that this is a very important set of regulations, particularly as any breach of them when they are on the statute book will mean that a local education authority can be taken to court by an aggrieved parent or that the Secretary of State for Education can issue a direction to an authority and/or school, or both. Therefore, the consequences of the imposition of this policy can be very serious indeed. It is not for officials or councils but for Ministers to decide whether or not they believe the affirmative resolution procedure to be acceptable and appropriate.

The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has reported. Its view is that consideration should be given to the affirmative resolution procedure. I believe that we should do that. When we on these Benches sat on the opposite side of the Chamber we accepted every single recommendation—sometimes under pressure from noble Lords on the opposite side—of the scrutiny committee from its inception right up until leaving office. On a number of occasions, the Leader of the House has reminded us that we should have respect for the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and its work and that the House should regard it as an obligation to accede to its recommendations.

I am disappointed with the Minister's answer and I shall return with the amendments at the next stage of the Bill unless the Government bring them forward. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Plans by LEAs for reducing infant class sizes]:

Baroness Byford

moved Amendment No. 12: Page 2, line 18, after ("information") insert ("in such form"). The noble Baroness said: On behalf of my noble friend Lord Lucas, I shall move Amendment No. 12 and speak to Amendment No. 13. The proposal is his phraseology, not mine. He considers the words to be inelegant and hopes that the Government agree that his suggestions are an improvement. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, came to see officials in the department, I understand that he is offering the amendments as a constructive proposal. I am happy to consider them in that spirit. We do not believe that they make a great deal of difference to the effect of the clause. The wording may be an improvement, but we must ensure consistency with similar references elsewhere.

I should be happy to take advice on the amendments and introduce them or similar government amendments on Report, or write to the noble Lord, with a copy to the noble Baroness, explaining why we do not believe them to be necessary to achieve the purpose set out. In that case, he can decide to return to them on Report. I hope that on that basis the noble Baroness will be willing to withdraw them.

Baroness Byford

I thank the Minister for his comments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment on the agreement that my noble friend Lord Lucas can return to them at a later stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 13 not moved.]

9.15 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

moved Amendment No. 14: Page 2, line 46, at end insert— ("() The Secretary of State shall not approve any statement prepared by a local education authority under this section which envisages an increase in the average size of classes in junior schools or secondary schools in that authority's area over the level prevailing in the same area in 1997."). The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 14, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 15 and 16. As noble Lords opposite realise, we agree with their noble intentions. But there is an old Irish story that you never say in confession that you stole a rope, forgetting to say that there was a horse on the end of it. The consequences of this Bill are not always realised.

I do not know which of the trio of heads will answer—is it a gorgon?—but I am not frightened. It is the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, who was most generous. I wish to pin him down about the way in which Her Majesty's Government will support all the consequences of taking the rope and not mentioning the horse. We have isolated certain issues because governments can be not dishonest but careless and at times the Treasury can be over-powerful.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, have assured us that there will be no problem in relation to the subject of Amendment No. 14. Since Ministers' words are now in law absolute in this House, I hope that the noble Lord will assure us that there will be no increase in the average size of classes in junior or secondary schools. Although I admire the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in many ways, he has not run schools. They do not run as neatly as he says. The fact is that if classes are reduced in one section there is no guarantee that they can be reduced in another. The first amendment builds on the assurances given by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for which I admire him—they are written on my heart and on those of many other people—that there will be no danger of increasing the size of classes in junior schools.

Now we have a problem. The noble Baroness wishes to enhance travelling. I agree that she entered a greater note of caution than did the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, but I wish to have on the record whether there will be any problem in respect of travelling. The right reverend Prelate pointed out that some people who go to Church schools are not Christian. It is up to the right reverend Prelate and his colleagues to sort that out. However, it might be that a devout Catholic and a devout Anglican must travel 20 miles to find a Church school, as is the case in my part of the country. I am assuming that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, would not require that of a devout person who wished to attend a school of his parents' faith. Again, I ask for assurances.

The third matter relates to accommodation provided. At times, Her Majesty's Treasury is careful with its money. Members of the Committee opposite will know that some temporary classrooms have lasted for 20 years. I gather from assurances given that this will not be a cheap Bill. The Government are putting in £40 million and they are prepared to put in resources to ensure that their pledges are met. Therefore, it is not wrong for us to ask for those assurances which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, almost gave before. However, I should like just to see the commas marked and the full stops.

These are exploring amendments. I do not like this clause, which I shall speak against. However, my main purpose in tabling these amendments is to seek an assurance from the Government, which would stand up in court, that their heart is where their money is or more particularly, that their money is where their heart is. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will give me every satisfaction. I beg to move.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

As the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, made reference to Church schools, perhaps I may comment on what he said. The Church of England is in the education system in order to share in the total provision of education rather than in order to make provision for particular denominational members. Therefore, the basis on which we participate is quite different from that of the Roman Catholic Church. That is perhaps not always understood. In the light of the noble Lord's comment on my reference to those who may not be Christians but who nevertheless wish to attend a Church school, that needs to be made clear.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

Perhaps I may ask the right reverend Prelate a question because although I am a priest of the Church of England, I was speaking for the nation in general. I do not believe that the Roman Catholic Church shares the view which the right reverend Prelate put forward. I believe that it holds a stronger view. I ask the right reverend Prelate that because no Roman Catholic Bishop is present. I believe that the right reverend Prelate has joined in discussions with that Church.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

The Roman Catholic Church holds a different view because it believes that it is making denominational provision for Roman Catholic Church members. Many Church of England schools are rural schools in tiny communities which serve the whole community. Therefore, they do not have a basis of denominational membership for attendance.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

I recognise the position of the Roman Catholic Church in that situation. In the absence of anyone speaking for the Roman Catholic Church, its position should be borne in mind. The right reverend Prelate is speaking in a different sense. My noble friends have spoken of the problems of denomination and that should be borne in mind on the Government Front Bench.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I should start by warning the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, against a trap into which I have fallen too often, although not today; that is, irony. It does not work very well in this Chamber. It reads quite differently in Hansard. What he meant ironically will undoubtedly appear as wholehearted support for the position of this Government and remarks that I have made in particular. I do not say ironically that I find these amendments not so extraordinary in themselves but I find their provenance extraordinary.

I find it extraordinary that a Front Bench who were in government for 18 years, in the course of only the past 10 years of which the average primary class size rose from 25.4 to 27.5 and the average secondary class size rose from 20.3 to 21.7, should now put on that guise of concern for primary school class sizes. I find it extraordinary that a government who, over a period of 18 years, did nothing effectively—

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

The amendment that we are discussing is not about primary school class sizes; it is about the effect that these proposals will have upon them. I admire the noble Lord's picture of the record of the past and its history. However, I do wish that he would speak to the amendment about the effect of the proposals on future class sizes.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I shall of course speak to the amendment and do so directly. However, I am allowed to make a few comments on the provenance of the amendment which I find suspect.

As regards Amendment No. 16, I find it extraordinary that a government who held office for 18 years and left temporary accommodation, mobile classrooms, outside toilets and a grotesque deterioration in the physical condition of our schools, both primary and secondary, should now be expressing such concern for the physical condition of schools as a result of the improvements in standards that we propose.

Amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 16 would all require the Secretary of State to deny approval to LEA statements in specific circumstances. I believe that the amendments are unnecessary, but I will deal with each of them in turn. The first is Amendment No. 14. I want to make it clear, as did my noble friend Lord Whitty, that we do not intend to fund reductions in infant class sizes by allowing class sizes to rise in other key stages. We make specific reference to key stage 2 classes in the draft regulations and guidance that we have issued for consultation. In guidance, we state that, plans will not be approved that show reductions in infant class sizes being achieved at the cost of increases in Key Stage 2 class sizes"— to an old fashioned person like me, that is junior— arising from a transfer of funding from junior to infant classes". To put an amendment such as that proposed on the face of the Bill would stop the implementation of plans to reduce infant class sizes if there were unconnected developments in junior or secondary classes that might lead to small increases in those later key stages.

Perhaps I may stress that we do not envisage class sizes rising from January 1998 levels—and I am deliberately saying 1998 rather than 1997, as class sizes in January 1998 will have been the result of the spending plans of the previous administration. We are providing extra funding for schools (£835 million extra for schools in England this year) which should bring down, or at the least keep down, class sizes at all key stages.

The amendment would impose unnecessary restrictions upon the Secretary of State's consideration of LEAs' plans. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, will feel able to withdraw it.

We support the principle behind Amendment No. 15. We are aware that children in rural areas may only have one school within reasonable distance. It is important that they should therefore be able to attend that school. Indeed, Mr. Stephen Byers, the Minister for School Standards, has made it clear that children should not have to travel an unreasonable distance to school as a result of our pledge to reduce infant class sizes.

However, I am unable to support the amendment, in part, because I consider it unnecessary but, more importantly, because I do not think that it could be effective. The statements that LEAs have to produce will be quite detailed documents. I feel that LEAs would consider it more than a little unreasonable were we to ask them, as the amendment would require, to set out the travel arrangements of every infant pupil. I therefore do not think that the amendment could achieve what it is intended to deliver. I believe that we can, without such an amendment, ensure that children will not have to travel an unreasonable distance to school. Funds will be provided for an extra teacher—and, where necessary, for an extra classroom—when a child has only one school within reasonable distance and could not otherwise be admitted without an infant class exceeding the limit of 30. Our draft regulations make it clear that LEAs will have to provide information on how they will be handling such instances.

It is upon this broad level of the approach that an LEA intends to take that we should focus our attention. We can ensure that each LEA is adopting an approach that is suited to the demands of that particular area—and can pay particular attention to those areas where rural schools play an important role.

As regards Amendment No. 16, I shall explain why we do not require this amendment, but I must express some disappointment that the Opposition have raised this issue. As I said, under the previous government, schools suffered badly from under-investment in schools capital. This has led to mobile classrooms being used for extended periods, as well as many other unacceptable aspects of recent school life, such as leaking roofs and outside toilets.

Through the New Deal for schools, we are investing extra money in schools capital. A significant part of the first tranche of New Deal funding was directed at replacing old mobile classrooms with permanent structures. The Chancellor's Budget Statement provided an extra £90 million of capital to update boilers, to replace outside toilets and to provide extra classrooms for more, smaller infant classes. Our letter to LEAs wishing to apply for the class size capital funds makes it clear that their plans will have to be for permanent classrooms not mobile classrooms. The guidance we sent out states that, Applications relating simply to the provision of mobile classrooms will not be accepted. We are putting additional money into allowing schools to undertake real improvements, expansions or adaptations to allow them to accommodate more, smaller infant classes. We can control the use of mobile classrooms more effectively—

Baroness Byford

I hesitate to interrupt the Minister when he is in full flow. He condemned the previous government's history—if you like—as regards temporary accommodation. I assume therefore that any new provision that will be made for these extra places which we have discussed today will definitely not be in temporary accommodation but will be in permanent buildings built of bricks and mortar.

9.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I have just said that our letter to local education authorities wishing to apply for the class size capital funds makes it clear that their plans will have to be for permanent classrooms, not mobile classrooms. As I have already quoted, the guidance we sent out states that, Applications relating simply to the provision of mobile classrooms will not be accepted". I hope that that answers the point the noble Baroness has just made.

Baroness Byford

The Minister must forgive me, but it is obvious that over the years some schools have found it useful to erect temporary accommodation. However, now the Government are saying that it will not be possible to do that in the future. That is the point I am trying to make.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I must be precise about this. We are saying that applications for funding for the purpose of reducing infant class sizes which rely on the use of mobile classrooms will not be accepted. As regards all the amendments we are discussing, it is more effective to control the funding than to introduce such amendments on the face of the Bill. I hope noble Lords will appreciate that point and will wish to withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Young

I wish to press the noble Lord further on the point about not having temporary buildings. I have no doubt that, when he says that so confidently, that is precisely what he means. However, I wonder about the reality of that in practice. If a class size is to rise by three, is the noble Lord seriously suggesting that a local authority will build permanent accommodation for three extra children in a class? I do not have the relevant figures in front of me but anyone who knows anything about school buildings knows that to build a permanent classroom is an expensive proposition. It would be exceptionally expensive if the three children were to leave the school the following year because they were temporary pupils.

I do not wish to cast doubt on what the noble Lord says, but I wonder whether it constitutes a sensible use of government and local authority expenditure. Like the noble Lord I am not a particular supporter of temporary accommodation as I have seen too much of it in my life. If I may say so, his remarks about what the Conservative government provided were in many cases quite unjust. I remember quite clearly in 1979, when I was a Minister in the Department of Education and Science, we inherited a situation which everyone has, of course, now forgotten. The IMF had intervened and told the government they had to cut down on expenditure. Public buildings, in particular schools and hospitals, suffered from those cuts. We inherited a situation in which little had been done for years. In fact, we poured money into schools to make them better. It may not have been perfect. Noble Lords may take an intake of breath, but the figures speak for themselves every year.

All that I am saying now is that I have been chairman of an education committee. I agree that it was some time ago and things may be quite different now, but to say that you will always have a permanent building when there are perhaps two or three extra children in the class is something I find very surprising. It is something which needs to be considered very carefully.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I suppose it is my fault. I referred back to the record of the previous government, and I can quite understand why noble Lords opposite are very sensitive about it. However, if we were to go into the matter the record would show that the shortfall, the deficit, in the necessary provision for school buildings which the previous government left in 1997 vastly outweighs any shortfall which the previous government found in 1979.

For the third time, therefore, perhaps I may repeat what I said about the particular issue which we are debating at the moment. It is the issue of how to reduce infant class sizes to 30. What I said was, Applications relating simply to the provision of mobile classrooms will not be accepted". Of course, it is not the case that we can remove mobile classrooms from all of our schools immediately. Nobody said that. I did not say that, and nobody in government has said that. We recognise that it may be the economical and sensible thing to do when there are changes up and down in school populations in individual schools or, indeed, in local education authorities. Anyone who has been concerned with education locally knows that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is right about that.

Our undertaking related to applications concerned with the reduction in infant class sizes. It relates specifically to those applications.

Baroness Blatch

Before my noble friend responds to the amendment, will the noble Lord not agree that in 1979 there were actually classes of over 40 and many, many classes of over 35? Would the noble Lord also not agree—and the information bears it out—that more money was spent per pupil when we left office than when we arrived in office?

Indeed, if one looks across the country as a whole and compares, for example, the Inner London Education Authority, with which the noble Lord is very familiar, with my own shire county, which is Cambridgeshire, with which I am very familiar, we have a very good rolling programme of capital spending. It was managed very well and our school stock is in pretty good order. That goes for many well-managed local education authorities. There are other poorly-managed local education authorities where the stock is pretty awful. Therefore, it is not just about money; it is actually about the management of the authority and the degree to which priorities are considered year on year.

What the noble Lord said about the previous government does not raise any sensitivities with us. We are rather proud of what we achieved in many of our local education authorities with money provided for by government and by the local taxpayer.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I am delighted to hear it. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, will now return to the amendments.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

The noble Lord interprets kindness as ironies. It is rather sad. I was impressed that with a policy which has many ramifications a Minister on the Front Bench was prepared to guarantee more than I had expected. My noble friend said that the noble Lord was making a ministerial statement with the authority of the Government behind it. He stated that the problems which could occur from class sizes could be resolved. There was no irony in my remarks. I hoped that the Minister was right. I hope that he can resolve the problems. I thought that his ministerial colleague, the Minister of State, was a little more cautious. I shall read Hansard tomorrow.

I think that there will be problems about class sizes. That is why I put down the amendments. I think that there will be problems about Roman Catholic schools. There is strong passion for attending denominational schools. There will be problems about travelling, as I know from my home county of Somerset. I have experienced that in an anecdotal way. There will be problems about buildings. I believe also that there will be problems about the slight overlap. The Government have made promises which they may find hard to fulfil.

I shall withdraw the amendment. But there was no irony in my approach. The smile belied the tiger, I think. However, we shall return to the issue. The Government have promised more than they can give. On this side of the Chamber, we shall hold them to every dot and tittle of the promises they have made. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 not moved.]

9.45 p.m.

On Question, Whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Blatch

I oppose the Question that Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill. At the outset let me make it clear that we have sought to do some mental arithmetic on how much the policy will cost. We now have an additional aspect to what I call the McIntosh formula: that even the buildings that will be built will be permanent.

I wish to echo a point made by my noble friend. I believe that the Government may rue the day. I remember when there was a policy to move large numbers of people out of the cities, in particular out of London, into greenfield sites in Middle England. The temptation was to build large numbers of primary and secondary schools in order to accommodate a large influx of families with children. But about 15 years later it was discovered that, as the population settled down, there were too many schools. Therefore one had to take out those schools. With hindsight, one would say that we overbuilt those schools at that time in many of the shire counties with that movement of people from the cities into the countryside.

Something similar will happen in this situation. But this is a more fluid policy. It is a policy in perpetuity. Every year local authorities will have to present minutiae of detail to the Government. It is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, to say, "We don't want to be involved with little Johnnie X who has to travel an unreasonable distance to an alternative school". The truth is that if the Government are to carry out that policy, that is precisely what they will have to do. If that work is taken away from the local authorities which should be undertaking it, the Government will have to get involved in the minutiae. In order for the local authorities to trigger the money which will come from heaven (if I may so describe the Treasury in this case) they will have to make out the case that X-number of children are travelling unreasonable distances; X-number of children are making denominational preferences which cannot be met; and X-number of parents are losing their preferences. According to the guidance and the regulations, there is a responsibility to the local authorities to enhance parental choice, not simply to sustain it. There is also a movement of SEN children.

This is a very fluid policy indeed. If all of that is to be rigidly met by 2001, it will be necessary to erect buildings for very small numbers of children. If, for the 31st, 32nd, 33rd or 34th child, the alternative to a particular school is an unreasonable distance, or there is no denominational alternative, then that child will go to that school. If there is not another classroom for such children, then one will need to be provided. I suggest that some of the mobile classrooms in today's world are excellent; they have changed out of all recognition. A sensible local authority would have a quota of high-quality, very mobile classrooms which it could move into place to resolve the issues of the day, and to prevent a challenge in the courts, in order to meet its obligations under this policy.

My first point is this. If money is to be made available to provide an extra teacher for one child, to provide brick buildings for a small overflow of children, to provide for keeping class sizes down wherever and whenever it is necessary, to meet all the capital and revenue costs, and to cover the bureaucracy—as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, this information will need to be planned, recorded and submitted to the Government for them to crawl all over and approve or disapprove, as is their wont—that will be a considerable sum of money. My plea is for that money to be made available directly to local authorities and to the schools themselves. They would make good use of it. I still trust them, in that their priority, particularly in primary schools, would be to make sure that that money was applied to the education of the youngest children. I would trust them to use it in that way. Instead, we have a bureaucratic proposition and a very cumbersome system in which the DfEE would run everything from London.

For that reason, the proposal is fraught with practical problems. It pre-empts the budgets for schools and local education authorities. As I said, though measures are desirable, so far as I and my colleagues are concerned, teacher quality is the key to good teaching. A less than adequate teacher teaching 20 children will do more damage than a highly competent teacher teaching 31. That is the issue that we should be examining. I can promise that, over a very short space of time, when the one-off payment of windfall money has run out, this money will be top-sliced from education budgets, and there will be less money for other priorities.

The Government have given no definition of "reasonable distance". I therefore ask the Minister to do so in replying. No definition has been supplied for "poor schools". I asked a question earlier which has not been answered; namely, do we mean "poor schools"—and, if so, what is the definition? Or do we mean where a parent makes a choice and, for one reason or another, that choice is denied and the child is sent to a school down the road, if the school down the road is poorer than that school, rather than being a "poor school"—in other words, its achievements are not as high and it is not as popular—is that parent given the right under the law to challenge the local education authority or to challenge the Secretary of State? It seems to me important to have the Government's response on the record.

The Government have committed themselves to a blank cheque policy. There is no question of that. Whatever this policy costs, the revenue and/or capital costs will be met by specific grant. It is to be by specific grant into the foreseeable future, because the amendment asking that this money be fed into the revenue support grant was rejected earlier on the grounds that the Government wish to retain the specific grant.

I noted in either the guidance note or the regulations a reference to the money being paid through the LMS formula. Again, I am not absolutely certain what that means. My understanding is that if a specific school triggers a specific need for a teacher under this policy, that school will receive that money. It will not receive it through some LMS formula, but it will receive the cost of a teacher in that school for the children who break the 30 barrier. There is an inconsistency and confusion in relation to the application of that policy, either through the LMS system or by specific grant to the local authority to meet the specific needs of each local education authority school.

If the local authorities are to enhance parental choice; if they are not to send children an unreasonable distance to school; if they are not to fill up surplus places at poor or poorer schools—depending on what the answer is from the Government; if they have responsibility, as they do under the guidance, to expand popular schools that are achieving high standards, according to Ofsted; if they are to protect denominational preference—and that is to be protected; and if the 31st child under those circumstances is to trigger a teacher, I believe that the Government will be in difficulties in realising this policy.

In his response to a previous set of amendments, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to irony. There is no irony. In the course of their first year, so far the Government have got away with very warm words about a lot of policies. As my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking said earlier, they are a government of adjectives. Because this policy was so clear, because the clarity was as crystal, because we have unequivocal responses that costs, revenue and/or capital, whatever they are, whatever it takes, will be met, we believe that the safeguards that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, have been offering all day should be on the face of the Bill. If that is what they mean, there should be no problem about putting them on the face of the Bill. It is not what we would do. I oppose this clause because I believe it is bureaucratic and fraught with difficulty and because I believe fervently that, if this money is in the system, these decisions could be taken at a local level more economically and efficiently and in a more educationally effective way. For that reason, I do not believe that this clause should stand part of the Bill.

Baroness Blackstone

I am disappointed and sorry that the noble Baroness does not feel able to support Clause 2 of the Bill, which is central to the Government's delivering smaller class sizes for young children. Without a clause placing a duty upon LEAs to produce statements setting out how they will introduce the limit on infant class sizes in their area, the whole policy would be jeopardised. The target is clear, but the way that limits are introduced in an area will rightly depend on local circumstances and the differing starting points of different LEAs. It is therefore right that LEAs should determine the approach that best suits local needs.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

May I ask the Minister a question? Why is it that in this clause all the schemes have to go to the Secretary of State? As I said at Second Reading, it seems to me very dirigiste. An enormous problem will be landed on the department. As I have said before, I am sure that under the noble Baroness it will become a much quicker department, but it has not been famous for its speed in the past. These schemes for class sizes all have to go up to Whitehall and come back. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that he trusted local government. Why is it that you are so mistrustful that the Secretary of State has to be like an ombudsman, an intendant or a prefect?

Baroness Blackstone

I believe it is perfectly reasonable, in asking LEAs to consider what their approach should be and allowing them to look at local needs and to take into account the particular circumstances of their authority, to ask them then to submit their proposals to the Secretary of State. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, have made a great deal of the costs of the scheme. Taxpayers' money will, of course, be involved, although I think that most parents, and indeed many taxpayers who are not parents, will welcome money being spent in this way. It is only right that Ministers should take the responsibility of ensuring that the schemes that are introduced are acceptable and meet the Government's objectives, since money will be put behind those objectives.

The required contents of the statement will be set out in regulations, as will the dates by which they have to be submitted. We are presently consulting on the regulations and copies of the consultation papers are in the Library of this House, as noble Lords opposite are aware. We want to keep to a minimum the work required by LEAs. I entirely endorse what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said in that regard. Of course it makes no sense to impose ridiculous demands on local education authorities that deflect them from all their other work. However, for the most part LEAs accept that this is a reasonable request, particularly given our assurance that we will try to keep to a minimum the work that is needed. At the same time, we need to ensure that we have collected sufficient information to have a clear picture of how class sizes will be reduced by each authority.

In preparing their statements, LEAs will be asked to consult with schools and with other interested parties, in particular the representatives of the Church and parents. That will ensure that the LEA statements represent a clear consensus of the right way forward for each area. That again is extremely important.

The clause places a duty upon LEAs to consult and regulations will state whom they must consult. Other bodies or persons may be called upon to provide LEAs with information or assistance and the clause will allow us to set out in regulations who must assist the LEA in that way. Grant-maintained schools would be an example of those who may have to provide information to LEAs. We are clear that pupils in existing grant-maintained schools must also be able to look forward to smaller infant class sizes and those schools must therefore be part of the planning process. I am sure again that Members opposite will think it right and proper that that should be so.

Statements will have to be submitted for the Secretary of State's approval. If he does not approve a statement—I hope that there will be few cases where that occurs—the LEA will be notified and given the opportunity of providing a revised statement. Only when the revised statement has been approved will grant be payable.

The noble Baroness mentioned the importance of teacher quality. I absolutely agree with her on that. There is nothing more important than having teachers of the highest possible quality, not just teaching five, six and seven year-olds, but throughout the educational system. It is vital—this is one of the points of which the noble Baroness will be aware—that the great majority of teachers feel as strongly as do the Government that class sizes for these very young children should be lower than they are and certainly not more than 30, if we are to be absolutely clear that we are doing our best for these small children and ensuring that they do not in any way fall behind, particularly in the key areas of early learning of literacy and numeracy.

The noble Baroness asked what was a "reasonable distance". It would be quite wrong to quote a specific distance in miles. A reasonable distance will depend on local circumstances; for example, what the transport links are like. In some cases it may be easier for a child to travel quite a long distance because there is a good train service. There may well be a situation where the parents can take a child by train quickly or there may be, as is more likely in rural areas, a good bus service as opposed to a train service. It is important that we take into account what the services are like rather than having a rather arbitrary figure for a reasonable distance.

The noble Baroness mentioned that populations can change and that therefore investment in capital is undesirable. She went back to new town policies or policies of population movement that took place much earlier. It is, of course, true that there are shifts in population and there have been ever since compulsory schooling was introduced in the 1870s. In some cases we have empty places in our schools and there are other cases when there are big influxes of population. I know from my period in the ILEA that Tower Hamlets, for example, had a big influx of people from Bangladesh which caused pressures on schools. We had to expend capital in order to meet those needs. Similarly, it is perfectly reasonable to expend capital in respect of keeping class sizes down for very small children.

Clause 2 is absolutely central to our approach to reducing class sizes, in close co-operation and in partnership with LEAs. This is not a top-down matter. It is a dialogue—and a constructive one—and a partnership. We are well aware that we have to work through LEAs who are much better placed to consult on plans and propose how best to deal with the statutory obligations they have. If reductions in class size are to be achieved it is vital that they make these plans. The statements that they will submit to the Secretary of State will illustrate and demonstrate how the plans meet the objectives of smaller infant classes. For those reasons Clause 2 should stand part of the Bill.

10 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

From these Benches we support that the clause stand part of the Bill, mostly because we support the aims of the Government. I share some of the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, earlier. I would have more sympathy if I had not been involved in schools during the time when space standards were changed by government which meant that flexibility and the problems of dealing with smaller class sizes were made infinitely worse.

I say to the Government that it will not be easy to carry out the proposal. There will be problems. The message I would like to give is that consistency over a number of years in policies will pay off.

I was chairman of governors at a first school during the period of the last government. I was not a governor of the school when it was a joint middle/first school. The middle school was closed and we had a wonderful modernisation of the Victorian building, which was a sort of sop to the community. All the things that we said would happen happened. Parents were not prepared to go to split sites with their children at middle schools and first schools and so we were a school that was not full. That was very nice in many ways but when schools' space standards changed and the policy changed so that it became an all-through school, we were back to an even worse situation than before. Consistency of policy is extremely important if we are to go down this road.

Baroness Young

Perhaps I may make two points. The noble Baroness said that this was not an edict of the Government on local authorities. It certainly reads like that and I am bound to say that that was the impression given.

The great thing about having been interested in education for a long time is that the wheel turns full circle. I well recall that when I first went into local government there was a direct grant to education authorities, of which Oxford was one, which had to be spent specifically on education. Then, of course, things moved on. We were told that this was quite wrong and that it was much better for local authorities to have freedom to spend the money they were given in the way they thought best. So the direct grant was removed. There was then a general grant, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred earlier. We are now coming back to saying that that is not perhaps such a good idea, that local authorities, on the contrary, cannot be trusted to deal with the policy of reducing class sizes, and we must therefore give them a specific grant which will tell them precisely what to do. If I were a cynic on this matter—of course, I am not—I would say that perhaps the policy will work. Indeed, perhaps it is necessary because some of the worst education authorities, sadly, are Labour-controlled. I leave out those where the Labour Party is conducting an investigation on matters of fraud and so on but, nevertheless, clearly Labour feels that local authorities are not to be trusted and must be told precisely what to do. Perhaps that is the state we have reached.

As an old local government hand, I welcomed the freedom that local authorities were given to make their own determination of their priorities as they thought right, but so much has subsequently gone unhappily awry in education that many things have changed. It seems to me that this is a Bill in which the Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be, will be able to say, "I know what is going on in every school in the country because I have looked at the plans and I have determined them". That is what we are getting under Clause 2.

Baroness Blatch

The Minister left two questions unanswered and I should be grateful if she could respond to them before I respond to her answer. I refer, first, to the feeding of the money through the local management of schools formula and, secondly, to the definition of "poor" and "poorer" schools.

Baroness Blackstone

Perhaps I may respond, first, to what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said and then return to the questions about LMS and the definition of "poor" and "poorer".

There is no edict, but there is a new duty on local education authorities. Indeed, much education legislation imposes new duties on LEAs. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, was a Minister at the Department of Education and Science, as it then was, and she will have been involved in such legislation. Given that the Bill places a new duty on LEAs, it seems reasonable that a specific grant should be provided in order to support local authorities in fulfilling that duty. It would be wrong not to provide that additional funding.

The noble Baroness also said that she thought that the Bill would lead to the Secretary of State knowing what is happening in every single school. That is something of an overstatement. I do not believe that the Secretary of State wants to know what is going on in every single school at every single minute of the day, as used to be said happened in the French system, where the French Minister of Education could look at the clock and say, "It is now 10 past 10"—not at night, but in the morning!—"and I now know that throughout the land pupils will be looking at their Latin primer". That is not what is intended here. We are trying to ensure that every child of five, six and seven should be in a class with no more than 30 children.

Perhaps I may return to the question about LMS. We shall shortly be consulting on the new LMS arrangements which will include the necessary arrangements to fund schools for this class-size policy. A process of consultation on LMS needs to be gone through to ensure that we have a sensible scheme available.

As regards the definition of poorer schools, again it is impossible to be precise. I do not believe that the noble Baroness can expect me to be precise. We all have a good idea what is meant by that. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Blatch

Perhaps I may take the last point first. Either we have to believe the words on the page or we do not. Paragraph 13 of the guidance says: While it is not possible to guarantee all parents that their child will gain a place in the school of their choice, LEAs' class size plans must however not lead to a reduction in parental preference, but to an enhancement of it. LEAs should plan on the basis of enhancing the exercise of parental preference, wherever possible, which would mean: (a) no child should have to travel an unreasonable distance to school: (b) surplus places in poor schools should not be tilled by keeping children out of schools that offer higher standards and a better quality of education". This is a legal obligation on local authorities and on schools. If it has to be interpreted, then I as a parent would want to know what it means. I have a view of what is meant by a poorer school being other than the one where I would prefer to send my child. Where do I stand under the law? At the end of the day someone has to make a judgment and who is going to do it? Will it be the Secretary of State in approving the plans? In that case, is the local education authority expected to say that it refers to each school to which a child may be sent if there is no place in the school of choice? I do not know. It is important because, if these are the words on the page and they are to be the guidance to schools, LEAs and parents, we need to know what they mean. I hope that by the next stage of the Bill we will have had some definition.

I take some of the points which the noble Baroness made about distance. Those of us who live in the country were mildly surprised. If one wanted to send the 31st or 32nd child from my village to another school, there would be no bus to take that child at school times to another primary school. There would be transport to the secondary school, but the distances and the directions are different. But if a primary school child has to be sent, there would be no way whereby that child could leave at 9 o'clock in the morning and return at 3 p.m. or 3.30 p.m. Therefore, there would be dislocation of the family. The suggestion has been made that the child can get on a train to go to school. In many communities they cannot even get on a bus unless there is a recognised school run. Even then, all the children are being bussed anyway. Children have grown up accustomed to going to their local village school and the little overflow of one, two or three children does not fit into that situation if they have to be sent on to other villages.

From my village it is easier to get into the local town which is 10 miles away than to get to the next village which is only a mile away. One has to walk there. We also have a dual carriageway to negotiate. It is a very difficult issue. The Government are going to have very real problems. They deal in broad-brush plans, which all sound wonderful, but when it comes to actual policy on the ground where a single child can breach the magic figure of 30, there will be all kinds of practical problems. The answer to some of them has not been given by the noble Baroness.

As regards LMS, I am quite perplexed. We were told by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, as regards LMS and the revenue support grant, that this money would be specific grant. If it is to be paid through LEAs by a formula, that is not specific grant, but something different. If it is formula, then each local authority will receive just its allocation which will come through under the normal formula. That would be expected to meet all the costs of the pledge and flies in the face of the unequivocal promise we were given earlier in some detail by the noble Lord.

In answer to my noble friend Lady Young, the Minister said that it was not an edict. I had a quick look in the dictionary to check the definition. The definition is: "Order proclaimed by authority". This is an order proclaimed by authority to local authorities and schools. It is a statute by which they will be obliged to conform and it cannot be anything other than an edict, so my noble friend was right.

I end with the statement with which I began. We do not argue with the policy intention of the Government but we are seriously worried about its rigidity and the practical implementation of that policy on the ground and the difficulty of sending—I hope that the noble Baroness did not mean it—five year-olds to school on a train. We are talking here about infants and not grown-up children.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone

This discussion about the travel arrangements of small children has perhaps gone a bit far. I said that it was impossible to specify a precise distance which might be regarded as reasonable. It will vary according to the transport arrangements in different parts of the country. I made reference to trains and went on to say straight away that in most rural areas trains did not exist. I have a small cottage in a village in the country which has trains. That is very unusual. For the most part one is considering buses. Nothing I said suggested that small children of that age should be put on trains or indeed buses. Their parents would have to take them where such facilities existed. For the most part, we hope that children will be able to go to schools in their own villages where these facilities exist. I believe that we are making rather a meal of this.

While on my feet perhaps I may make one point absolutely clear. The noble Baroness said that she was confused about LMS. As I understand it, funding would not go to LEAs by formula but by a specific grant, as has been said on a number of occasions. However, they may pay schools through LMS arrangements to ensure that there is fair funding for all schools. Therefore the grant will go to the LEAs. There is to be consultation on this matter so that in the longer term there is a fair funding system.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

Before the noble Baroness sits down, I do not wish to burden the Minister with the "country" point but I live in the country. One of the problems of broad-brush government Bills is that people are actually affected. There are people in the country who do not own motorcars. In the area of the country where I live there is no bus or train and I do not drive. I am very well aware of this. The noble Baroness must not dismiss this. The 31st, 32nd, 33rd and 34th child present a problem which the Government must face. The fact that the noble Baroness's village has trains is not a common feature in the country. This is not a frivolous or political point; it is a real point of concern. When one imposes classes of 30 and sends some children away the Government must give thought to it.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Baroness exhorted me not to make a meal of this. This is the policy of the Government. When I was a serving county councillor I was always taught that whatever I did, and whatever policy I made, thought should be given to what it would mean on the ground. Before my time there was a rather good chief education officer, George Edwards, who was well known in the educational world. The noble Baroness may even have heard of him. He often stopped education committees to ask what would happen to little children. I do not believe that we are making a meal of this. We are considering the Government's well-intentioned policy aims. They have taken a view that there should not be flexibility. It is envisaged that children will be moved from schools which would have taken them had there been some flexibility. I have even asked the noble Baroness that where in any small village in the country the parents, governors and staff of a school have agreed that the education of the children will not be compromised by accepting the 31st or 32nd child, they should be free to make that decision but that that should be underwritten by the consensus view of all of those bodies, rather than that a child should be put on a country bus or even a country train.

Baroness Blackstone

I want to move on while trying to be helpful. I have said twice—perhaps three times—in the course of either Second Reading or this afternoon that the Minister for School Standards has made it absolutely clear that a child in an isolated rural village that is some distance from the next one or another school will be able to remain at that school but that we will provide extra resources so that there is an additional teacher to ensure that children in rural areas are not taught in over-large classes any more than children in urban areas.

In many village schools, classes are much smaller because the population does not sustain large class sizes. We are talking about a rare and unusual situation. I know that in some villages the class size might be about 30 and could go to 31, but in most cases the reverse applies. Classes are smaller than classes for the same age group in urban schools.

I repeat that where there are more than 30 children in infant school classes in rural areas the resources will be made available to provide additional teachers in order to ensure that that does not happen and that children are not sent some distance to a school in another village or town.

Baroness Blatch

We welcome everything that the noble Baroness said, but I believe that she is under-estimating the number of areas in which classes will be bigger. To my knowledge, during the past 20 years many small schools have been taken out. I was responsible for taking out a school with fewer than 10 children. I was part of a group which as an experiment set up a federation of three schools whose total number was less than 40. Many experiments have been tried but a large number of small schools have been taken out. Village schools have been amalgamated and therefore three, four, five or more villages feed into the school.

Will it be possible to brick build between now and 2001? My local authority bid this year but has received nothing from the Government. Its bid to address class sizes of 30 was rejected. I do not know whether we will be lucky next year or the year after. I do not know what will happen in 2001 when it has not received its money. However, by 2001 every education authority in the country will need to receive money in order to ensure that they can conform to the proposals. On occasions, children will be moved to another school. Therefore, the definition of poor schools is important. There must be a realistic expectation of building brick extensions for small numbers of children, which is the only way some rural schools will be able to cope.

The whole purpose of opposing the Question that Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill was to elicit more information. I still believe that we will need yet more information and no doubt I shall return to the matter on Report.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Payment of grant in connection with reductions in infant class sizes]:

Baroness Blatch

moved Amendment No. 17: Page 3, line 8, after ("grants") insert ("for the purposes specified in subsection (1)"). The noble Baroness said: I hope that the Government will respond in detail to this amendment. From the outset of the policy, and well before the election, the Government made a firm promise to phase out assisted places—almost to remove them overnight—making available the money saved to meet the pledge. It was not long after the election before the Government realised that capital was separate, whatever they say. No doubt, there will he capital costs which we have heard today will be realised in the form of solid brick buildings. Therefore, the costs will be considerable.

On a previous occasion, the noble Baroness made it clear that money from the assisted places scheme was not meant to fund the capital scheme. I accept that that is a separate issue. However, I wish to know that the money which is being made available this year, the extra money which was made available for education and the money which was made available for all kinds of pet schemes that have been announced during the year are coming from a one-off source. When that one-off source of money dries up, perhaps the noble Baroness will tell me whether the Treasury is standing by to pick up the deficit which will appear. Something must replace that money or the education world must learn to live without it. What forward promise will the Minister give that the one-off money which has been used for many of those schemes will be reimbursed, substituted or made up to education?

In the case of the assisted places scheme, we have some concern as to whether the moneys being saved will completely meet the revenue costs of the pledge. Secondly, I am not absolutely certain that the Government have given us the net figure which must account for all the young people who will be fed back into the system. We must remember that this is mainly secondary education money. There was some in the primary sector but it mainly affects the secondary sector. Therefore, some of that money must pay for returning children back into the state system whose places will be removed from the independent schools.

Furthermore, it is not right to say that those children will go back in and be absorbed by the education authorities, because we now live in a world where money follows the pupil. Therefore, if a school has 1,000 pupils in one year, it will receive the aid-weighted pupil unit money and 1,000 times whatever that amount of money is, according to the age of the child. If the following year, the school has 1,010 pupils, it will receive 1,010 times whatever that unit of money is from the education authority. Therefore, there is a cost for each child returning to the state education system from the independent sector under the assisted places scheme. It would be helpful to know what the Government believe that net figure to be.

The point of my amendments is to make it clear, and abundantly clear to Parliament, that where the amount of money is exceeded—in other words, when and if there is a deficit from the money used from the assisted places scheme to provide revenue and it needs to be topped-up—first, the additional costs will be met by government and, secondly, that the specific grant will be dealt with by way of regulations so that we in Parliament can be aware of the costs of meeting the pledge. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The noble Baroness asked me to respond in some detail. I find that difficult because the amendments as drafted do not make very good sense. However, I hope that I can reply in sufficient detail to convince the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 17 sets out to do something which the present wording of the clause already achieves. The amendment relates to the grants that the Secretary of State may withhold when he has not approved an LEA's class size implementation plan. It is to ensure that he may withhold no grants other than those that would be paid for the purpose of reducing infant class sizes.

The amendment is not necessary. Clause 3(2)(a) refers to grants "under the regulations". The Bill states: Regulations under this section shall provide for the Secretary of State … to withhold grants … where no proposed arrangements by that authority have been approved by him under section 2 The regulations to which it refers are those in subsection (2) which relate to "this section"—that is, Clause 3—the clause covering the payment of grants to reduce infant class sizes. The power given to the Secretary of State under subsection (2)(a) would not enable him to withhold any other grants. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that her amendment adds nothing to the drafting of Clause 3.

Again, I am afraid that we found Amendment No. 18 rather confusing. I understand from what the noble Baroness said that the intention of the amendment is to ensure that the specific grant must cover all the costs that the LEAs will incur, but the drafting does not actually say so. We have said that we will provide the funding that LEAs require to enable them to reduce infant class sizes. We will base the funding, in the initial years at least, upon their plans. However, we will have to be careful how we assess the costs.

If an LEA has under-invested in infant classes so that its problems appear worse than those of comparable LEAs, we should not reward it for past under-investment. That would be a perverse incentive; but we will provide, through specific grant, the costs of meeting the limits on class sizes. We said as early as last June that the assisted places savings would be for revenue expenditure. The Minister for School Standards, Stephen Byers, said then in another place: The assisted places scheme is releasing revenue money which we shall use for the benefit of teachers' salaries … capital is dealt with differently in terms of public expenditure". We have already released the first £22 million of savings from assisted places to pay for extra infant teachers from this September, and we have made £40 million of new capital available in 1998–99. The noble Baroness sought a categorical assurance that we will provide, through specific grant, the costs of meeting the limits on class sizes. The answer to her question is that we do give that assurance.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response. I did not make myself clear on the first point, but I am enlightened by his answer. I wanted to be absolutely certain in that respect. I am still haunted by shades of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill in which the Government have taken a power to withhold grant—the grant being general grant—in order to punish a university or college for charging top-up fees for a course. These regulations apply where a local authority does not conform, or does not live up to its duty to uphold this particular policy and where grant will be withheld. In other words, my understanding, from what the noble Lord said, is not that it will be withheld; the LEA simply will not get it. The grant is not being withheld because, if the LEA does not apply for it and is not doing its duty, it will not receive the grant. If an LEA is not conforming and is then directed to do so, I understand that the money will follow the direction.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Perhaps I was not entirely clear in my reply. The noble Baroness is right to say that the power to withhold grants applies under the regulations. The regulations relate to plans to reduce class sizes, where necessary, in infant schools. The grant will be withheld where no proposed arrangements by the authority have been approved; in other words, not when no application has been submitted but when it is not satisfactory.

Baroness Blatch

Again, I am grateful to the noble Lord. As I understand the policy, there is no long-term proposition that a local authority can continue not to have a policy. If its plans are unsatisfactory and not approved by the Secretary of State—or worse, if the local authority does not provide the Secretary of State with such plans—then, as I understand the noble Lord and the Minister this evening, he will issue a direction to the LEA and that direction will be accompanied by the funding to produce and pay for whatever the direction is; for example, teachers, the building of premises, and so on. I understand that that direction will be accompanied by the resources to meet it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes. I repeat the assurance that my noble friend Lady Blackstone and I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour; namely, that a direction would be sought under Section 497 of the 1996 Act. Of course, a direction which required expenditure would be accompanied by funding.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful for that because now I understand that the withholding of grant is a technicality. It is withheld because plans are unsatisfactory, or for other reasons. On a direction of the Secretary of State the funds would flow. Eventually the children in that authority would still receive the benefit of the application of this policy.

The noble Lord missed completely my further point in his answer. I said right at the outset that I understood that the revenue and capital were separate. The noble Baroness has said that on previous occasions, and I have read every word that the Minister for School Standards in another place has uttered there on this Bill. However, the promise has always been that the savings from the assisted places scheme will meet the revenue costs of this pledge. We have reservations about that. Where in any year the costs that are needed to meet the pledge exceed the money saved from the assisted places scheme, there should be a specific grant and a regulation should come before Parliament so that the issue is exposed for Parliament to consider.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I can repeat only what I have already said. We shall provide through specific grant the costs of meeting the limits on class sizes. That undertaking is not limited by savings from the assisted places scheme.

Baroness Blatch

I press the Minister further. Is he giving a further pledge that if the assisted places moneys are not adequate they will be topped up by the Treasury? That question has to be posed because this is an open policy; whatever the costs may be, they will be met. If the revenue costs exceed the savings from the assisted places scheme, will they be met by the Treasury? If, and when, that is the case, is there some mechanism the Minister can offer that Parliament would be informed or that regulations would be drawn up? Or, is the noble Lord not giving the guarantee that if the assisted places scheme savings do not meet the revenue costs the Treasury will meet the additional costs?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The undertaking that I gave was quite clearly not related to receipts from the assisted places scheme. I said that we shall provide through specific grant the costs of meeting the limits on class sizes. If the noble Baroness wants me to say that we expect the receipts from the assisted places scheme to meet those costs, we do indeed expect that. However, the undertaking I have given is independent of that expectation.

Baroness Blatch

I accept that. I am grateful that I have obtained that undertaking from the Minister. It may be that I am asking about a hypothetical, theoretical, stratospheric occurrence. If, and when, the costs exceed the savings from the assisted places scheme, could we as parliamentarians be informed of that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The reason we are not able to calculate now the exact costs local education authority by local education authority and in aggregate is because local authorities have to submit applications for their solutions to solve the problem that we have set them of reducing class sizes. We do not know what solutions they will find; we hope that they will find economical as well as satisfactory solutions but we are dependent on them—subject to the guidance we give them about the submission of those applications—to produce the solutions which are most appropriate to their local areas. Therefore it is not, and never has been, possible for us to give the total sum that will be required for this purpose over the period of this programme until September 2001. However, we have said that we will meet these costs.

Baroness Blatch

When we reach the next stage of the Bill I shall not have this opportunity to keep pressing the Minister for detailed answers. I understand and agree with everything that the noble Lord has just said in that I accept he cannot say at this moment what next year's costs will be, or those for the year after that. That is not the point of my amendment. What the noble Lord can quantify are the savings that come on stream in any given financial year from the assisted places scheme. That will be a definitive sum of money that is made available to the department. Is the Treasury prepared to make provision that where the costs cannot be met from savings from the assisted places scheme—which was the pledge made by the Government—the Treasury will undertake to top up these sums? As the noble Lord has said with great confidence, he does not even envisage this happening. I am simply saying that if and when it does happen, can Parliament be informed? I shall leave the noble Lord to answer another time, unless he particularly wants to come back now.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

It now seems to me that the noble Baroness is asking for something for which I had hoped she would not need to ask. The amounts which will be spent on fulfilling this pledge and fulfilling the programme under this part of the Bill will be transparent. In other words, they can be known to Parliament. When we allocate specific grants we will advise the allocations to the local education authorities and that information will be available to this House.

Similarly, as was made quite clear during the passage of the Act which introduced assisted places, the savings which will arise from the abolition of the assisted places scheme are not secret; they are available and they will be available to this House as necessary.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Lord and his colleagues opposite made an explicit statement that this would be an assisted places scheme revenue paid policy. We will extrapolate the information ourselves if the Government are not prepared to present it in the form that I have asked for in this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment Nos. 18 to 21 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 22 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch

moved Amendment No. 23: Before Clause 5, insert the following new clause— ("CHAPTER IA GENERAL DUTY OF SECRETARY OF STATE —(1) The Secretary of State shall ensure that his functions relating to the provision of education in schools under sections 10 and 11 of the Education Act 1996 are exercised with a view to promoting high standards of attainment. (2) The Secretary of State, in fulfilling his duty under subsection (1), shall not require any school to alter its status if it is performing within the top third of schools or is consistently improving its performance in national performance tables for National Curriculum tests or GCSE examination results."). The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 23 requires that it shall be a general duty of the Secretary of State to ensure, that his functions relating to the provision of education in schools under sections 10 and 11 of the Education Act … are exercised with a view to promoting high standards of attainment". I put emphasis on the word "attainment" because I believe that is a rather clear way of making a judgement about schools. There are all kinds of other things that can be measured but, for the purposes of my amendments, I wish "attainment" to be added to the words "high standards".

The second part of my amendment asks that: The Secretary of State, in fulfilling his duty under subsection (1), shall not require any school to alter its status if it is performing within the top third of schools or is consistently improving its performance in national performance tables for National Curriculum tests or GCSE examination results". I feel particularly strongly about this amendment. I was about to say, "If the Government are genuine"; I shall rephrase that. I do believe that the Government are genuine in wanting to see high standards. I think it would be wrong of me to doubt that when the Prime Minister, even before the election, said that "Education, education, education" is a priority he actually meant it, that the Ministers in the department mean it and that the Ministers in government mean it and are supported by Cabinet colleagues, members of the party and members of the Government. I do not wish to call that into question.

I simply wish to call into question the ways of achieving it. It does seem to me particularly pernicious—I do not use the word lightly—when one looks across the piece at education to see what is working out there and to see where good education resides out there in the community. We know that our grammar schools are performing well. One has only to look at the performance tables produced each year. We also know that the majority of our grant-maintained schools are performing very well.

I have some colourful memories of a particular grant-maintained school. It was going through a traumatic time when overcoming the hurdles to become a grant-maintained school. I was visited by the chief education officer of the relevant local education authority who pleaded with the department not to allow the school to become a grant-maintained school. I was fascinated by the case put by the representatives. They said they wanted just a little more time because they felt that the school was not quite ready; its performance was not all that it should be. They had real doubts about whether the school could manage its own affairs. I was rather sucked into the case being made until I considered that that local education authority had had that school for decades, probably a century, and it was still underperforming in its eyes. Given that a good case had been put, I took the view that if the school were to be grant maintained it would be responsible for its own future, its performance, and the way in which the school was run within the family of state-funded education. I was not wrong. The school almost flew when it became free and independent but within the state sector.

There is something rather distasteful about insisting that these schools should have their status taken away in the way prescribed in the Bill. With grant-maintained schools, the parents themselves voted to take that road. Many went through a great deal of difficulty in doing so—opposed by the local education authority, opposed by the LSI (which I understand has now become an organisation called TEN), opposed by the Labour Opposition at the time, opposed by Labour councillors up and down the country, and, I admit, opposed by some Conservative councillors who have since realised how successful the policy was. It was because local authorities saw it as somehow losing their fiefdom.

As someone who came up through a local authority, I always took the view that the situation is rather like that of one's own children. When one grows up one has one's children; one is very attached to them, worries about them and nurtures them. One is concerned about their future. There is that dreadful moment when they start to seek their independence and to move away. Parents become nervous about that. But the joy of seeing one's children standing on their own two feet, being independent and taking their own decisions, is something to be grateful for. The fact that they can stand on their own two feet is to be celebrated. I see that as a simple analogy with schools. I used to say to colleagues on local education authorities, "Why don't you see it like this? Where schools become independent within the family of state education, reflect on and celebrate the fact that they are able to shine as schools." And shine they have.

It seems particularly pernicious not to give those parents an opportunity to vote the other way. At a stroke of the pen, when the Bill becomes law, with the massive majority in another place, it will see the end of grant-maintained schools and probably the end of grammar schools—all that works out there.

Another aspect of the same picture of good education is this. Given the opportunity, those schools on day one would like the opportunity to become foundation schools. It is the same argument. The Government began with a policy that they could become grant-maintained schools when the policy was implemented. Because the teacher unions—or some body—have now persuaded the Government otherwise, they have now put a hold on the time during which those schools could exercise their choice to change their status. I and my colleagues feel strongly about this. I do not doubt the intentions or the policy aims; I support them most strongly. But I think that it would be quite wrong to take away the status of grant-maintained schools and to return them to local authorities.

I have read these documents very well. Irrespective of LEA relationships and the code of practice, there are so many clauses in this Bill which give local authorities a window of opportunity to intervene in relation to grant-maintained schools. Indeed, the Secretary of State also has powers to intervene.

I therefore plead with the Government to think again on this policy. These are good schools. The amendment provides enough flexibility even for schools which are not achieving highly in the performance tables but are nevertheless making seriously impressive improvements year on year, starting from a very low base, and doing all that the Government want them to do and are exhorting schools up and down the land to do. Why not give them this opportunity? It is possible that some of them will, overnight, want to become foundation schools. I should be the first to say: give them that opportunity too. Where they have democratically voted for that status, it is only fair that they should be given a democratic opportunity to determine their own future. In the meantime, if schools do not wish to change their status, they should be left alone—particularly when they are performing so well and when some, while they may not be very high in the performance league tables, are making impressive improvements year on year. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty

This amendment goes very much to the heart of the matter, affecting the whole approach to the new framework. It is true that the first part of Amendment No. 23 is fairly straightforward. However, it is unnecessary. The proposal in the first subsection is that the Secretary of State should be placed under a duty to promote high standards similar to that which we are placing on education authorities and governing bodies.

We strongly support the assumption that the Secretary of State should promote high standards of attainment, but this provision is unnecessary. Section 11(2) of the Education Act 1996, with which the noble Baroness will be familiar, already places the Secretary of State under a duty to, exercise his powers with a view to", among other things, improving standards, encouraging diversity and increasing opportunities for choice". We believe that that duty is sufficient. The wording is not quite the same as that of the amendment, but it achieves the same purpose.

However, it is the second subsection of the proposed new clause which strikes at the very heart of the Bill. The intention appears to be to allow up to one-third of the highest-achieving maintained schools the option of retaining their present status. In the case of GM schools, that would mean remaining outside the new school framework.

I hesitate to use the term "wrecking amendment", but in effect this amendment challenges the whole basis of bringing the GM schools into the new framework. Moreover, the amendment seems to be based on the false assumption that the Secretary of State will have power to require any school to change its status. He does not and will not. Changes of status brought about by the introduction of the new school framework will be the result of the relevant clauses of this Bill being approved by Parliament.

If, as the noble Baroness implied, the main intention is to protect successful schools from unnecessary and unwarranted intrusion by local authorities, then that is also our intention in the new framework. We made it clear in the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, that intervention by local education authorities should be in inverse proportion to success. It is one of the key principles behind the code of practice referred to by the noble Baroness which we shall introduce under Clause 119 of the Bill and which we shall no doubt discuss later. The code of practice will ensure that local education authorities use a very light touch in their relationship with successful schools. But that is very different from excluding a large section of schools from the new framework. We have no sympathy for the retention of any system of school organisation which is divisive and which would leave some schools outside the new framework and beyond any influence on the part of the local authority.

We shall have opportunities later in the course of the Bill's progress to discuss grant-maintained status and the new framework. However, there are three points which are particularly significant to the present discussion.

First, what the noble Baroness proposes is not what the grant-maintained movement itself wants. In the Second Reading debate my noble friend quoted from a letter from the Grant-Maintained Joint Monitoring Group, which represents the main grant-maintained organisations. It said: We join the Government in looking forward to the new framework, not backwards to old divisions". That is exactly the point. We believe, like the Government, that self-managed schools will play an important part in driving up school standards and securing financial prudence". Secondly, it is our approach that all schools, including our most successful schools, do not operate in isolation from others. Success breeds success.

Thirdly, we believe that all schools, no matter how successful, should be considering how they can improve further. We have made clear on many occasions that all schools should regard themselves as primarily responsible for their own improvement. But we also see an important role for the local education authority in this area. That, it seems to me, is the main cause of the noble Baroness's opposition to these proposals. We regard the local education authority as key to supporting such improvements generally,

I am not sure whether the noble Baroness was referring also to Amendment No. 24, which is grouped with Amendment No. 23. I understand the objectives behind Amendment No. 24, but it is our view that, if it were carried, it could lead to a narrower interpretation of the duties of local education authorities than we intend. The word "attainment" in relation to pupils is sometimes used rather narrowly as attainment in relation to assessment in the national curriculum. We believe that the duties on standards should be interpreted more widely in that local education authorities have other duties in which they need to promote high standards and that that is reflected in the current wording of the clause.

I hope I have made it clear that I regard Amendment No. 23 as a serious inhibition on the intention of the Bill and Amendment No. 24 as unnecessary and possibly counter-productive to the intention behind the Bill. I hope, therefore, that, although we shall debate the issue of the framework and the definition of the new status of schools at a later stage, the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendments.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Lord takes some satisfaction in reading and re-reading the letter that apparently speaks for grant-maintained schools. I do not argue with that. I know the lady who signed the letter, or who had it signed for her, and I know the organisations for whom she speaks. However, I have to say to the noble Lord that many grant-maintained schools feel very strongly about this issue. There are also some, even among the organisations which are part of the trilogy behind the letter, which have taken the view that this Government was elected on 1st May with a very large majority and that they intend to carry out these proposals. Those schools have therefore fought for the best of a bad lot. They have been working with the Government, visiting Ministers and securing as many concessions as they can in order to make the Bill slightly more palatable than it was. I have checked their preferred position with them, and the noble Lord can check himself. Indeed I understand that they prefaced their comments by saying that they would rather there was no change from the present status at all. Given that they believe that that change will happen, they have taken a realistic view.

I thought that the Government could be more mature about this policy, offer the framework and give all these schools an opportunity to stay where they are. They are within the family of state education; they are not outside it. Many of our grant-maintained schools are working well with their neighbouring schools and have very good relationships with their local authorities. They are not out there as alien beings. There are a number within my own local authority, and their relationship with the authority is a very good one.

The noble Lord rightly said that the Secretary of State would not personally take away their status; it is a matter for Parliament. That is what we are here for today, unless we are rubber-stampers. I do not intend ever in my life to be someone who simply rubber-stamps policy, whether it is for my government or the party opposite. The proper job of Parliament, and particularly of this Chamber, is to look for ways of achieving policy objectives. The policy objective as I see it is that within our state system we should have the highest possible standards of education that are achievable. I strongly support that policy. I simply say that there are at least two categories of schools that are achieving very well; many of them are beacons in their own right. Certainly any performance tables that we have seen since their inception more than bear out how well those schools have been performing. And we have a Bill which is going to wreck them. It is a wrecking policy and will wreck them, particularly the grammar schools, to which we will come at some time in the future.

I am simply exercising my right, as a Member of this Chamber, to say to the Government that they could achieve their policies of seeking, promoting, encouraging and, where necessary, cajoling local authorities and schools to improve their standards from whatever base they are now at. They would receive a good deal of support from us for doing so. But I cannot think, for the life of me, why we should see the changing of the status of these schools and the demise of the grammar schools.

It may be new Labour, but this is "old" Labour with a vengeance. There are people in the Labour Party—who I understand in the future are to be expunged from it—who have been looking for a long time to get rid of the grammar schools and anything that they regard as elitist. I do not regard them as elitist; I regard them as rungs in the ladder for young people. Some young people are more suited to a highly academic curriculum than they are to a vocational curriculum or a mixture of the two. I thought diversity was now something that was common parlance between us as parties. In this great educational system of ours, choice and diversity—which I believe are now more commonly used by both parties—had room for these schools. I am extremely sorry that the noble Lord gave an old Labour answer from a new Labour Government.

This is the politics of envy back with a vengeance. We saw it over the down on Oxford and Cambridge; we saw it over assisted places; we are now seeing it on grammar schools; and we are certainly seeing it on grant-maintained schools. While there is breath in my body I shall fight for them. I hope that the noble Lord will at least use the time between now and the next stage of the Bill to register with his colleagues in another place that we are very concerned about these schools. We are not saying that they should not become foundation schools; we are not saying that they should not be brought into the framework. But they are owed democratic process. They voted for their present status. Why not give them an opportunity to vote openly and democratically for the opportunity to become foundation schools or even community schools if that is what they wish? I would trust them to make that choice. Some would, and some would not. I believe that we should encourage them and, where we see those lights burning, we should encourage them to shine even brighter.

This is a policy backed by the politics of envy. It is a sad day for education in this country. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Duty of LEAs to promote high standards in primary and secondary education]:

Baroness Blatch

had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 24: Page 3, line 44, at end insert ("of attainment"). The noble Baroness said: I am sorry that the Minister will not accept the words "of attainment". Perhaps he would like to think of all the other standards and place those other aspects on the face of the Bill. However, there is a coyness about "attainment" on the part of the Government opposite. I believe that "attainment" is an extremely important word. It is missing from the Bill. It should be in the Bill. It was missing from the 1996 Act and ought to be included. If it cannot be included in this Bill, then perhaps through the Bill the 1996 Act could be amended to include the word "attainment".

Perhaps the noble Lord can think of ways of making sure that attainment, quite specifically, is covered. I would be grateful if he could do that between now and the next stage. Meanwhile I shall not move the amendment.

[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]

Baroness Byford

moved Amendment No. 25: Page 4, line 8. at end insert ("and "high standards" applies inter alia to education, learning, teaching, governance and behaviour, and to the local education authority's own activities'"'). The noble Baroness said: I wish to move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lucas. This whole section deals with a duty to promote high standards. Clearly the amendment seeks to clarify that further. I should like to ask what the Government mean exactly by "high standards"? How do they propose to enforce that view unless there is some direct definition of it in the Bill? I beg to move.

Lord Whitty

The specification here runs up against the same difficulties as the specification of attainment, and nothing else, in the previous discussion. Local education authorities have a duty to carry out many functions in relation to education at school level: provision of services to schools, transport, personnel, health and safety, leadership, co-ordination, supply of school places, communication and other functions too numerous to mention. Those are not included in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but each of them in its own way contributes directly or indirectly to the quality of education provided and, therefore, to high standards. We think that local education authorities should be striving for excellence in all aspects of what they do.

To accept the amendment as it stands would risk diluting the commitment to standards in all of those fields. As currently worded, the reference to high standards is all-embracing, and includes all of these areas. If we start to specify it in this clause the opposite of the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, would be the result. We would dilute the effect and limit the way in which high standards were interpreted in the functions of local authorities. I, therefore, ask the noble Baroness, to withdraw the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

Baroness Byford

I thank the noble Minister for his response to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He will be disappointed that the Government are not prepared to include it as a definition in the Bill. However, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at seven minutes past eleven o'clock.