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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, may I give a word of explanation in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy? I did make it clear that I was speaking against a background in which the total proportion of denominational places was to be maintained. It seems to me that there is no question therefore of those from a particular faith finding any difficulty created for them. I would entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that children must be educated in the faith of their parents, where that is desired. Nor would I see that the Churches are embarrassed by this. The Churches are fighting for their fair proportion, which has always been the case for denominational places, and I do not think the move to reduce class sizes to 30 affects that.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, these amendments cover the issue of whether there is a need to apply the class size limits in certain situations, and I will respond to all of them together. I recognise the particular concerns to ensure that school places are available in specific cases, but I believe that the arguments against these amendments, raised when we last had the opportunity to discuss them, still stand.
If I could begin with Amendment No. 7, which is the one that has led to the most discussion, it is natural that parents of a particular denomination will want to get a place in a school of the same denomination. I certainly do not disagree with that. Indeed, though it is not possible in all cases at present, we want as many parents as possible, from all schools and not just denominational schools, to obtain the school of their first choice or one that they feel would be most appropriate for their child. However, we also want all small children to share in the benefit of being in small classes, including those in denominational schools.
The effect of this amendment would be to allow denominational schools to exceed the class limit so as to admit a child where a place in another school of that denomination was not available within a reasonable distance. The right reverend Prelate has clearly stated his position. This is not what the Churches want and nor do we. In their responses to our consultation on the draft regulations and guidance there has been a broad welcome from Church bodies to what we are proposing to do. Our approach does not guarantee a place in a school of a given denomination for every child whose
Consultation is at the heart of our policy to reduce infant class sizes. We intend that regulations under Clause 2(3) of the Bill will require LEAs to consult before submitting their class size implementation plan, including with representatives of denominational schools. We made it clear that we want to safeguard the proportion of denominational provision in an authority, as the right reverend Prelate has already said.
In the guidance which will be given under Clause 2(2), to which LEAs must have regard, we will be stating that they should consider the demand for denominational provision when preparing their class size plans. There should be no question either of schools being forced to expand against their will. LEAs will have to prepare plans that have due regard to parental preference. Our consultation document also states that the Secretary of State will not approve plans which do not demonstrate that the LEA has given due regard to the exercise of parental preference; but there does have to be planning and that is how we intend to ensure that parents' wishes are taken into account.
Amendment No. 8 would seriously weaken our policy of reducing infant class sizes in all schools. It would enable any school to opt out of the class size limit if the majority of existing parents supported it through a ballot. In practical terms the amendment is unclear on a whole range of issues. For example, it does not specify the circumstances in which ballots could be called. It also only covers parents of existing pupils at the school. One must ask about the views of parents of pupils who are about to join the school. Would there need to be a ballot to opt back into the limits? Would schools have to ballot every year, so that at any one time the views of all the parents are covered? Who would pay for these annual ballots? There are a great many unanswered questions here. These practical difficulties are not central to the Government's objection, however. As I have said many times, the class size pledge is fundamental to our proposals to raise standards. It has the overwhelming support of parents, who for many years have wanted to see smaller classes for their small children. The Government made it a manifesto commitment and we intend to honour it. I therefore cannot support any amendment which would see these limits being set aside on a school-by-school basis.
I also continue to believe that Amendment No. 9 is unnecessary as a means of ensuring that children may attend the same school as their siblings. This is best done through the admissions arrangements that individual schools make. While not every child with an elder sibling in the school can be given a cast-iron guarantee of a place in that school, nearly all schools already include a factor in their over-subscription
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am equally disappointed in the Minister's response. From the beginning of the school year in 2001 there will be no flexibility whatever. If parents who have been accustomed to sending their children to the local denominational school request another place making the class size 31--just one extra child over 30--the answer will be no, because one cannot overnight produce the classroom or the teacher in order to take that child at the beginning of the September term. LEAs do a great deal of planning, but they do not plan down to the exact number of children. Most LEAs act retrospectively and the Government will find that they, too, must do so. They make as intelligent a guess as possible about the intake of each school. So, too, do the head teachers of each school. However, at the end of the day the accuracy of that figure is judged retrospectively; it could be more or it could be less. Those of us who live in villages know that when a family moves in four children can be added to the school and that when a family moves out the school can lose four children. The position is as sensitive as that. My amendments are tabled against a background of no flexibility whatever.
I have no problem with the Minister's arguments about what parents want generally. They would like to see smaller classes, particularly in infant schools. The issue between us is one of flexibility. The issue between the Local Government Association and the Government is the flexibility they will need in order to deliver the policy.
The right reverend Prelate asked me to which parts of the Church I was referring. Individual clergy within the Church of England have approached me. On every occasion I have invited them to get in touch with the right reverend Prelate because I believe that that is correct. They are most concerned about particular schools in their localities. I hope that some of them have been in touch with the right reverend Prelate and have had their fears allayed. Nevertheless, those fears exist.
The noble Lord, Lord Dormand, reinforced the point made by the right reverend Prelate that we should not make a special case for the Church. In fact, we do make a special case for the Church; there is special provision for the Church of England. Throughout the progress of the Bill the right reverend Prelate and his colleagues have visited the DfEE and have asked for and received favours. We are delighted that that has been the case. Many fears have been allayed as a result of denominational schools asking the DfEE for recognition
As regards the particular point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, the truth is that there are many choices for secular schoolchildren. In my local town of Huntingdon, a child looking for a place in another secular school can walk to half a dozen or more schools. However, the choice of denominational schools is a very different matter. Children cannot go to the next school or the one beyond that.
The right reverend Prelate referred to the story that was leaked to the press on Monday about the funding for 100 Church schools. We all look forward to learning which schools those are. But the perspective needs to be understood. There are 3,557 Church schools with infant classes. I understand that 46 per cent. of those schools have classes over 30. Forty per cent. of 3,557 is about 1,600 schools and we are talking about funding for possibly 100 of them. There are only two years to go before the policy must be put into operation when we must cope with all such classes. We must provide all the extra classrooms and all the extra teachers with all the planning that that will entail. Church schools are popular schools. One of the reasons why they have more than 30 children in classes for five, six and seven year-olds is precisely that they are so popular with local parents.
The Minister rightly said that the Government could not guarantee a place for every child at a denominational school. I do not believe that any previous government have done so and I do not believe that any future government can do so. However, the inflexibility of the policy will mean that fewer children will be guaranteed a place.
Perhaps I may give as an example a school with an intake of 62 children a year. The extra two children will not receive a place at the school unless the Government are prepared to change it from two classes of 31 to three classes of 20. Are the Government saying that they will do that overnight at a stroke? Will they find a brick-built classroom--we know from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that there will be no temporary classrooms--in order to create three classes of 20 to accommodate 62 children? In the following year the intake might be only 58. That is what happens in rural schools. The inflexibility of the policy is incredible.
I am depressed almost beyond words to know that the right reverend Prelate does not support the amendments. Parents will find that under the new system their child cannot have the 31st or 32nd place whereas under the present system that child can be accommodated. I am going to stand up and be counted and I hope that my colleagues will, too. We will fight for the right of flexibility that is agreed by the parents, the school and the community. I seek the opinion of the House.