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1.10 pm

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): The right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) spoke of the nation's tolerance for idiosyncratic behaviour. The way in which Members sat quietly and listened to some of his remarks was a good illustration of tolerance. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his valiant effort to try to fill the gap between £5.3 billion in cuts so far identified and the £16 billion that we know Conservatives plan to cut from the Government's spending plans. If the cuts come down to the costs of providing the disabled access to leisure centres, they will have to look much harder to find the rest of the £16 billion.

I am pleased to be able to participate in the debate, even though in doing so I have had to offer my apologies for not being present at a special event that is taking place as we speak--the opening of a new computer suite at Chantry primary school in Gravesend, with the unveiling of 13 brand new computers. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for providing £9,000 from the national grid for learning. The rest of the funding is the result of a prize won by the head teacher of the school, Mr. Eric Gates. I hasten to say that he did not take part in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" The money came following his award for having been nominated teacher of the year. I know that the House would wish to congratulate him on that. He has also received congratulations from my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development.

Judy Mallaber: Is my hon. Friend aware that Tony Cooper, the head teacher of Aldercar school in my constituency, won the award for being the best secondary school head teacher of the year? Would he like to compliment Mr. Cooper as well?

Mr. Pond: I am delighted to add my congratulations to him. I am sure that my hon. Friend has ensured that there was sufficient celebration in the House, as I did for Mr. Gates, who took on his job as head teacher just over three years ago, when I took on my present job as the Member for Gravesham.

When Mr. Gates took over the school, it was in special measures. The roof was leaking, the windows were broken and there was a total of 40 books for the entire school. Earlier, when the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was in her place, we had a discussion about whether she should be visiting schools. I was delighted to learn that she was visiting schools in my constituency. I am not altogether surprised that she decided to visit two of the schools that have shown outstanding success recently. One of them was the Ifield special school--a

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special school in every sense--and the other was Chantry school which I have mentioned, perhaps to bathe in the reflected glory of the success of the two schools.

I say to the hon. Lady--as she is no longer in her place she will have to read my remarks in the official record--that as she left Chantry school there were those who wondered how long it would be, if her policies were implemented, before the school was back in special measures with leaking roofs, broken windows and 40 books in the entire school.

Yesterday's performance tables for primary schools show that Chantry school and many other schools in my constituency have done exceptionally well in improving standards, often against the odds. Kings Farm primary school, which I visited a couple of weeks ago, has done very well. It is still in special measures, but I hope that we shall soon have an announcement that it is coming out of them. When I visited the school, I was honoured to be awarded a copy of a book by some of the children there. It was a signed copy, because they had made contributions to a collection of poetry, which was appropriately entitled, "Up, up and away". That describes the feeling that many of the students and staff in such schools have about the progress that they are making.

That is also true of Northcourt primary school, in a deprived part of my constituency, which, until recently, was in special measures and which Kent county council had wished to close. It was the heart of the local community, yet it was to be closed. The community as a whole drew together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect the school. We saved it from closure, and it is now out of special measures and making great progress in providing the standards of education that its children deserve.

None of that success has been achieved by accident. It has not just come about, but has been the result of investment, most notably investment in the reduction in infant class sizes. In Kent, the number of infants in classes with more than 30 pupils has fallen to one tenth of its 1997 level. That is a 90 per cent. reduction in the number of large classes. The announcement last week of the standard spending assessment allocations allows spending on schools in Kent to rise by 6.5 per cent., which is three times the rate of inflation. That reflects the extra £12 billion to be spent on education nationally over the next three years.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that early-years nursery class sizes have grown under this Government?

Mr. Pond: We have seen the kind of investment that the Government have made in early-years education. No one would say that all the problems have been solved. We faced an enormous backlog when we took over, three and a half years ago, especially in the provision of nursery and early-years education. Increasing investment will be needed, of the type that the Government have announced, to ensure that we deal finally with the problems.

Mr. Hayes rose--

Mr. Pond: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way again on that point.

One of the most important elements of the announcements on spending is the concentration of some funding directly to schools, especially the £540 million

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announced in the pre-Budget report that will go directly to head teachers to boost standards. That represents £40,000 this year and £60,000 next year for a typical secondary school in my constituency, and £9,000 this year and £20,000 next year for a typical primary school.

Those are important proposals for my constituency, because I am sorry to say that Kent county council, in previous years, though provided with fairly generous spending assessments on education by the Government, has proved unwilling to pass on much of that funding to schools in my constituency and elsewhere in north Kent. That is why it is important that an element of funding goes directly to the schools to be spent on the priorities that they consider important.

Mr. Willis: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, although local education authorities are putting about £3.8 billion more than the standard spending assessment into schools this year, the fact that the Chancellor is bypassing the local education authorities and sending money directly to schools will force some authorities--such as Conservative-controlled North Yorkshire--to top-slice the money so that there will be no net benefit to schools?

Mr. Pond: Clearly, there will be a problem in certain parts of the country, but it is important, especially in Conservative-controlled authorities, to ensure that the element of the funding earmarked for the raising of school standards goes directly to the schools, so that they can use it in ways that they think appropriate.

That is not the same as Conservative party policy, which states that everything should go directly to schools, no matter what the impact on services such as school transport or on the funding of special needs. I would not support such a policy.

I very much hope that some of the other measures, such as the provision of specialist school status, will be warmly embraced by local education authorities, including that of Kent. In particular, I welcome the proposal to give Northfleet boys school and Gravesend grammar school technology status. I am sure that Kent county council and the Department will look favourably on that.

Education spending will increase dramatically, but I am anxious about what would be the effect on that of the Conservative party's plans, were it ever able to implement them. I mentioned the £16 billion of public spending cuts that they would make. I would be happy to give way to anyone on the Conservative Front Bench who wants to tell me that there will not be £16 billion of cuts, £24 million of which would be in my constituency.

A couple of days ago, we heard about £5.3 billion of Tory cuts. The Daily Mail said that

than of a serious attempt to balance the budget. The same paper last week described the Tory Opposition as "a stumbling, incoherent shambles." I do not understand why the Daily Mail is surprised by that; as a Government the Conservatives were a stumbling, incoherent shambles. Why should they change the habit of a lifetime, and why would anyone believe that they would be different if they took power? I have given the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen plenty of opportunity to challenge the claim that they will make £16 billion of cuts, but no one has responded.

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There is also good news in the Queen's Speech for schools such as Chantry school, Northfleet school and Kings Farm school, where a large proportion--almost half--of the children have special educational needs. The Government have rightly developed a programme of measures to raise the achievement of children with such needs and to create a more inclusive education system. The special educational needs standards fund has been increased by £20 million, to £55 million for next year.

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