Infant Class Sizes

Part of Orders of the Day — School Standards and Framework Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:50 pm on 11th March 1998.

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Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:50 pm, 11th March 1998

The new clause would allow a local education authority that achieved an average class size of three below the Government target—27, for this target group—the flexibility to have class sizes of up to 35. The new clause would deliver the principle for which the Government have an electoral mandate—focusing on reducing class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds—in a way that is consistent with efficient use of resources and efficient delivery of the objective that the hon. Gentleman and I share: securing the best possible education, in local circumstances, for individual children. This is merely another suggestion, originating from the same stable as several others made in Committee, of a means by which the principle of flexibility could be introduced.

My first proposition is that local circumstances vary. My second—which must undermine the simple principle that it is always better to be in a class of 29 than to be in a class of 31—is that different teachers perform at different levels. It is patently true that, in a profession the vast majority of whose members are dedicated people doing their best—often in difficult circumstances—to deliver a high-quality service, some will perform better than others. Surely to goodness, when deciding about class size against the background of the different skills and experience of individual teachers, a head ought to take that into account. It is nonsense to say that it is always better to be in a class of 29, even if the teacher is young and recently qualified and has had some difficulty in qualifying, than to be in a class of 31 taught by a very experienced, highly qualified and successful infant school teacher.

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The third principle on which I base my case for flexibility is that parents' priorities vary when they are choosing a school. As a recent recruit to the Roman Catholic Church, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has made a strong case in the newspapers for Catholic parents to be able to choose Catholic education. Some parents will have a strong desire for their children to be educated in Catholic schools; others will have a strong desire for their children to be educated in Church of England schools; others will have an equally strong desire for their children to be educated in secular schools. Although we have an established Church, not everyone wants their children to be educated in schools with a religious ethos. Some people will want their children to be educated in Jewish or Muslim schools, or in specialist schools of other kinds.

The Secretary of State is conferring with the Minister. I suspect that he is recording the fact that this week he used the grant-maintained school legislation to introduce a further principle of diversity in the religious basis of education. I congratulate him on that, and I am pleased that our legislation gave him the opportunity. No doubt he has asked himself how he could have done it without that legislation.

The important point is that parents want, and ought to be able to have, the maximum opportunity to ensure that their choice for their children reflects such considerations. I am not talking about an absolute consideration—the factors that I am citing must be balanced against each other—but those factors ought to be taken into account alongside the Government's doubtless justifiable desire for infant school classes of no more than 30.

Family circumstances are another consideration. Never mind expressions of preference; family circumstances vary. Parents will often be influenced by where siblings go to school. We discussed that in Committee. Parents may want children to go to the same school as their siblings; they may also want them to go to a particular school because the sibling is at another school. That may be more convenient from the family's point of view, because the school concerned is grouped with the school of their choice rather than with their second or third choice. The location of relatives or child care is another consideration. In the real world, parents must bear all those factors in mind when choosing schools.

Finally, there are factors specific to rural areas. It was vaguely amusing to see the Minister for School Standards promoting in Committee a Bill whose effect will be to give the adjudicator power to make decisions—which are currently made by the Secretary of State—on the closure of rural schools, and to see him then, on the day before the countryside march, rush off to a television studio, dressing himself in the clothes of a friend of the countryside, to say that the power that he is transferring to the adjudicator should be transferred back to the Secretary of State.

Later in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) will move a new clause to give effect to the Minister's policy, and I look forward to hearing his support for that policy, which he announced from Millbank tower on the day before the Millbank march—the countryside march—[Interruption.] The Millbank march is something that the Minister does quite often.

The Minister has not yet had an opportunity to table a new clause, so we have done it for him. Undoubtedly our new clause is technically flawed, but he will be able to move his own in another place, to give effect to his policy—which I merely wish to endorse. I merely wish to help ensure that he does not miss the opportunity to include it in the Bill.

In the real world, all those considerations have to be balanced against that of class size—a subject on which Ministers, when they are in a corner, betray considerable sensitivity. When the Standing Committee was debating those matters, the Minister issued a press release, which I do not think was circulated to all members of the Committee. None the less, I have—for greater accuracy, as they say—obtained a copy. It stated that in rural schools, extra money will be provided for a new teacher so that a child can attend their local school in a class of 30 or fewer and not be forced to travel an unreasonable distance to go to a school which has empty places. Although I am delighted for rural schools, I just wonder why that applies only in rural schools and not in urban schools. I should not have expected to have to remind the Government that a majority of people in the United Kingdom live in urban communities. Presumably the Government's pledge applies equally to urban communities and rural communities.