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Lord Puttnam: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if we are to have a mature debate on the development of secondary education, we shall have to navigate our way past the simplistic notion that class size is the fundamental criterion here? Any number of other factors need to be taken into consideration. Over the past three years I have spoken to literally hundreds of teachers. The overwhelming response from them has been that, given a straight choice between taking larger classes with the support of classroom assistants or being left on their own to teach smaller classes, they would always prefer the support component. What progress have the Government made as regards recruitment levels for teaching support?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend when he stated that many factors determine the performance of pupils in our schools. Class size is only one of those factors. It is wrong to become too hung up as regards whether there are only 21 children in a secondary school class or whether there are 22. I think that it was right for the Government to place particular emphasis on reducing class sizes in infant schools because all the research demonstrated that very young children do benefit from being taught in smaller classes.
To return to my noble friend's points about secondary schools, over the past couple of years we have increased the number of teaching assistants working in secondary schools by some 3,000. I think that the adult/pupil ratio is as important as the teacher/pupil ratio. Many teachers have said that they want us to provide such extra support in the classroom in order to free them to attend to their specialist tasks.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the pupil/teacher ratio is not necessarily a guide to how many children there are in a class? While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that there is a more mature debate to be had, it was the Government who chose smaller classes as their target when they came to office. Does the noble Baroness further agree that the department's own figures as of April last year, after three years in office, show that the number of children in classes of 31 and more had increased and that the number of children in classes of 36 or more had increased by 50 per cent? After listening to
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am not sure what the noble Baroness's reference to pupil/teacher ratios was about. Of course pupil/teacher ratios are different to class sizes. The pupil/teacher ratio in secondary schools is approximately 17.2 pupils to every one teacher. As I have said, it was right for the Government to focus on class sizes so far as concerns infant school children because the previous government, of which the noble Baroness was a member, left literally hundreds of thousands of infant school children in classes of more than 30. The Government have now virtually achieved their pledge; some 98 per cent of infant school children are in classes of less than 30. There are also fewer pupils among the older age group in classes of more than 30 in primary schools and, indeed, in secondary schools. I simply do not recognise the noble Baroness's figures.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, replacement of officers of superintendent and assistant chief constable rank are matters for the Chief Constable and the Police Authority for Northern Ireland respectively. All sides welcome the Government's generous severance terms for the RUC. The offer has been taken up by 54 officers of superintendent rank or above during the period January to March 2001. A further 42 officers of these ranks are expected to avail themselves of the offer in the next year. The introduction of district command units by the Chief Constable has reduced the need for superintendent ranks by 34, and his review of the headquarters structure is expected to lead to a further reduction in the number of officers of this rank. However, the Chief Constable intends to hold assessments to create a pool of successful candidates from which vacancies arising for superintendents can be filled.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Does he not agree that the pace of restructuring of the Northern Ireland police force in order to meet the Patten requirements should take account of the lack of decommissioning and the serious increase in organised crime? Will the Minister assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will take whatever action is necessary to
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I unhesitatingly give the assurance that the Government will take no chances with security and will continue to protect the people of Northern Ireland. The Government do not believe that the need to protect against the dissident terrorist threat is a reason not to modernise the police service. In all matters such as this, the Government will take the advice of the Chief Constable. He has made clear in recent remarks that he believes that the police service can certainly cope with the current challenges, in particular the challenges brought about by the changes involved in implementing the Patten recommendations.
Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that a certain amount of command resilience is absolutely essential in the police service because of unexpected and sudden demands? Will he join me in paying tribute to the thousands of officers who have served in the RUC throughout their working lives--and, in many cases, given their lives--in the service of all communities in Northern Ireland?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I unhesitatingly associate myself with my noble friend's remarks. I also agree that command resilience is incredibly important. I am quite certain that the Chief Constable will ensure that that exists.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, in view of the alarming domination of the civil power by drug baron paramilitaries, will the Government keep in mind the possibility--and perhaps the necessity--of increasing Army strength to prevent a complete breakdown of order?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I have repeatedly said that the Government will take no chances with security. They will continue to be advised by the Chief Constable and the Army in relation to that.
Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord reassure the House that the Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, will permit senior staff to take early retirement only if it is consistent with the management needs of the RUC?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the Chief Constable, among others, has welcomed the generous increased severance package that has been on offer for the past few months. He will, of course, ensure that the numbers remain consistent with security requirements.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, in the past few months, the RUC has embarked on a recruitment campaign. There were in excess of 240 applicants, and choices in relation to that will be made in the next few months.
Moved, That Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with today to enable the First and Second Readings of the Elections Bill to be taken and on Monday 9th April to enable the remaining stages of the Bill to be taken.--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)
Moved, That the Lord Brabazon of Tara, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, be appointed Chairman of the European Union Committee in the place of the Lord Tordoff and a member of the House of Lords' Offices Committee and the Procedure of the House Committee.--(The Chairman of Committees.)