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Session 1997-98
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Education (Infant Class Sizes) (England) Regulations 1998

Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 18 November 1998

[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]

Education (Infant Class Sizes) (England) Regulations 1998

10.30 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Education (Infant Class Sizes) (England) Regulations 1998 (S.I., 1998, No. 1973).

I apologise for being a little hesitant in moving the Motion, but I have only just learnt the procedure. I welcome you, Mr. Wells, to the Chair. This is the first opportunity that I have had to be on a Standing Committee that you are chairing. I am sure that you will be your usual fair and just self.

The reason why Conservative Members want to debate the regulations is quite clear, as is our position on them. At the election in May 1997, the Labour party went to the electorate with a firm pledge on infant class sizes. One of the five key election pledges in its manifesto was to cut class sizes to 30 or fewer for five, six and seven-year-olds. That pledge was repeated several times in the Labour party's manifesto, and was on of the key pledges on its little election cards. I do not know whether Ministers and Back Benchers still produce those cards from their top pockets, but for their first 18 months in office, they had to remind themselves from time to time of exactly what were the Labour party's commitments to the electorate. The point about the regulations is that they allow the Government to break their pledge by providing an opportunity for infant classes to be of more than 30 pupils, not 30 or fewer.

Yesterday, a statement issued on the Minister's behalf quoted figures for the number of classes of 30 or fewer across the country. In it, the Minister referred to the progress that had been made in reducing the number of infant classes of more than 30 children. In doing that, she missed the point, and I hope that she will not do so when she responds to today's debate. The point is not whether there are classes of 30 or fewer in infant schools today, or whether the number of classes of five, six or seven-year-olds with 30 or fewer children is increasing, but that, whatever the size of a class today, and notwithstanding that the number of children in an infant class might have been reduced to 30 or fewer, that class could, under the regulations, have more than 30 children tomorrow, next month, the month after that, or next year.

The Government gave the electorate a clear pledge, but the regulations provide an opportunity to break it. They created the opportunity to do so by issuing the regulations a week after Parliament went into recess. The regulations came out when nobody was in Parliament to debate them or to raise the issue. They technically came into force at the beginning of the present academic year. The Government sneaked them out behind closed doors when nobody was looking--or when they thought nobody was looking--so that everybody would miss the fact that they were sowing the seeds of their own policy's destruction, But, they did not succeed.

I can give several quotes of the Government on their infant class size pledge. As I have said, one of the Government's key election pledges was to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 or fewer, and that was what they pledged throughout the passage of the School Standards and Framework Bill. Several hon. Members here today were stalwart members of the Standing Committee that considered that Bill, which became the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. In Committee on 22 January, the then Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), said:

    ``Our pledge is clear . . . It is that every child of five, six or seven will be in a class of no more than 30.''--[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 22 January 1998; c. 66.]

Earlier, shortly after the election, in June 1997, the present Minister for School Standards made the point on the Floor of the House during consideration of the Education (Schools) Bill that:

    ``The Bill will release funds that we will use to cut to 30 or fewer class sizes for all five, six and seven-year-olds.''

She went on to say:

    ``That pledge was one of the reasons why the people elected us to govern.''--[Official Report, 10 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 1010.]

What clearer breach of the people's faith could there be? The Minister said that the pledge of infant class sizes of 30 or fewer was one of the reasons why the people elected Labour, and yet the regulations provide for infant class sizes of 30 or more, not 30 or fewer.

On 2 July 1997, the pledge was reiterated by the Prime Minister. In response to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), he said:

    ``As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to cutting class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 or fewer.''--[Official Report, 2 July 1997; Vol. 297, c. 291.]

I could continue quoting, but I shall first give way to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner).

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): I should like to understand clearly the development of the hon. Lady's argument. Does she now support a move to smaller class sizes and recognise that urgent action must be taken and results achieved before the end of the Session, or does she hold the view on which I understood Conservative Members fought the election, which was to oppose the move?

Mrs. May: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to know how I am developing my argument, he should wait to hear it being developed before interrupting. I am talking about the issues with which he went to the electorate--[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. In my experience, interventions from sedentary positions quickly lead to disorder in Committee. Such comments are not in order, and I should be grateful if hon. Members would refrain from making them.

Mrs. May: I was saying to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, who intervened correctly, that he went to the electorate with a pledge that no five, six or seven-year-olds would be in a class of more than 30 childre. If he supports the regulations, he will be supporting the Government in allowing five, six or seven-year-olds to be in classes of more than 30 children. Clearly, the pledge that he made to the electorate would be broken. Before he supports the regulations, he should think clearly about his pledge to his electorate, and about the regulations' implications for it.

The quotations are legion, but I shall not take every possible opportunity to refer to the commitment made by the Government on the floor of the House or in Committee during proceedings on the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Ministers said consistently that no five, six or seven-year old would be in a class of more than 30 children by the date that the Government gave, which was originally the end of this parliamentary Session.

Opposition Members argued for flexibility. Our position was clear: other things being equal, the size of the class matters. The most important factor, however, is the quality of teaching received by the children in the class. We argued that, in some local circumstances, local authorities and parents would support classes of more than 30 children with classroom assistants as well as teachers, rather than classes of 30 with just one adult. The Opposition suggested that in some circumstances the Government might find a need for flexibility. We had long debates about that in Committee, during which various examples were quoted at the Government. The Government were clear about the point. During the Committee debate on 22 January, the then Minister for School Standards, the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said:

    ``There are concerns, expressed most articulately by the Opposition, about inflexibility, about ensuring that we have a system that can respond . . . By phasing in the pledge over several years . . . we will overcome the difficulties of inflexibility referred to by Opposition Members.''--[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 22 January 1998; c. 79.]

No hint was given that the Government would find it necessary to bring forward regulations to provide for the very flexibility that Opposition Members had suggested might be necessary for the implementation of the Government's pledge.

A week later, on 27 January, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) challenged the Government on the issue which has, I am sure, remained in the memories of hon. Members who served on the Committee: the question of the 31st child. My right hon. Friend said:

    ``Do the Government recognise the need to ensure that, whatever regime is put in place, it should be sufficiently flexible to deal with the 31st child and that that must sometimes mean class sizes of more than 30?''

The then Minister for School Standards responded in the negative:

    ``I am indicating that, within the admissions procedures that we shall bring forward, we will implement the pledge that we gave at the general election--there will be no five, six or seven-year-old in a class of more than 30. However, we believe that we can achieve that without creating the sort of difficulties that have been referred to by the Opposition.''--[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 27 January 1998; c. 99.]

The Minister is today defending the very policy that in January, in the Committee of which she was also a member, her colleague said that the Government had set their faces against. What has changed to move the Government from stating that there was no need for flexibility--that it was absolutely clear that there would never be a child of five, six or seven in a class of more than 30? The regulations provide for a series of circumstances in which a child of five, six or seven years old can indeed be in a class of more than 30.

In June 1997, during a debate in the House on the Bill concerning the assisted places scheme, the then Minister for School Standards explained the Government's view of the importance of the 30-child limit policy. He said:

    ``The Government believe that classes of more than 30 pupils become not so much a valuable learning experience as a question of crowd control. We are no longer prepared to tolerate that situation.''--[Official Report, 26 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 966.]

In June 1997, a class of more than 30 children was a question of crowd control that the Government would not tolerate; today, according to the regulations, a class or more than 30 children is not a question of crowd control, and the Government are perfectly happy to tolerate it. What has happened to change the Government's mind to take them away from their pledge? Is this yet another example of Government rhetoric; of saying one thing, but acting in the opposite way?

As I said, the issue of the 31st child was debated in Committee. It was normally discussed in terms of a child moving into an area and wanting to attend the local infant school or infant classes in the local primary school. A problem could arise if the class size were kept to 30, and the child kept out, thus preventing the parents from exercising their preference. That is a particular problem in rural constituencies, as hon. Members who represent rural constituencies will be aware.

The Government consistently set their faces against any solution to that problem. They said that it would not be a problem; that there was no need to cater for that 31st child. However, the regulations cater not only for the 31st child, but for the 32nd child, the 33rd child, the 34th child, the 35th child and the 36th child.

 
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