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Baroness Blackstone: I am disappointed and sorry that the noble Baroness does not feel able to support Clause 2 of the Bill, which is central to the Government's delivering smaller class sizes for young children. Without a clause placing a duty upon LEAs to produce statements setting out how they will introduce the limit on infant class sizes in their area, the whole policy would be jeopardised. The target is clear, but the way that limits are introduced in an area will rightly depend on local circumstances and the differing starting points of different LEAs. It is therefore right that LEAs should determine the approach that best suits local needs.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: May I ask the Minister a question? Why is it that in this clause all the schemes have to go to the Secretary of State? As I said at Second Reading, it seems to me very dirigiste. An enormous problem will be landed on the department. As I have said before, I am sure that under the noble Baroness it will become a much quicker department, but it has not been famous for its speed in the past. These schemes for class sizes all have to go up to Whitehall and come back. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that he trusted local government. Why is it that you are so mistrustful that the Secretary of State has to be like an ombudsman, an intendant or a prefect?
Baroness Blackstone: I believe it is perfectly reasonable, in asking LEAs to consider what their approach should be and allowing them to look at local needs and to take into account the particular circumstances of their authority, to ask them then to submit their proposals to the Secretary of State. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, have made a great deal of the costs of the scheme. Taxpayers' money will, of course, be involved, although
The required contents of the statement will be set out in regulations, as will the dates by which they have to be submitted. We are presently consulting on the regulations and copies of the consultation papers are in the Library of this House, as noble Lords opposite are aware. We want to keep to a minimum the work required by LEAs. I entirely endorse what the noble Lord and the noble Baroness said in that regard. Of course it makes no sense to impose ridiculous demands on local education authorities that deflect them from all their other work. However, for the most part LEAs accept that this is a reasonable request, particularly given our assurance that we will try to keep to a minimum the work that is needed. At the same time, we need to ensure that we have collected sufficient information to have a clear picture of how class sizes will be reduced by each authority.
In preparing their statements, LEAs will be asked to consult with schools and with other interested parties, in particular the representatives of the Church and parents. That will ensure that the LEA statements represent a clear consensus of the right way forward for each area. That again is extremely important.
The clause places a duty upon LEAs to consult and regulations will state whom they must consult. Other bodies or persons may be called upon to provide LEAs with information or assistance and the clause will allow us to set out in regulations who must assist the LEA in that way. Grant-maintained schools would be an example of those who may have to provide information to LEAs. We are clear that pupils in existing grant-maintained schools must also be able to look forward to smaller infant class sizes and those schools must therefore be part of the planning process. I am sure again that Members opposite will think it right and proper that that should be so.
Statements will have to be submitted for the Secretary of State's approval. If he does not approve a statement--I hope that there will be few cases where that occurs--the LEA will be notified and given the opportunity of providing a revised statement. Only when the revised statement has been approved will grant be payable.
The noble Baroness mentioned the importance of teacher quality. I absolutely agree with her on that. There is nothing more important than having teachers of the highest possible quality, not just teaching five, six and seven year-olds, but throughout the educational system. It is vital--this is one of the points of which the noble Baroness will be aware--that the great majority of teachers feel as strongly as do the Government that class sizes for these very young children should be lower than they are and certainly not more than 30, if we are to be absolutely clear that we are doing our best for these small children and ensuring that they do not in any way fall behind, particularly in the key areas of early learning of literacy and numeracy.
The noble Baroness asked what was a "reasonable distance". It would be quite wrong to quote a specific distance in miles. A reasonable distance will depend on local circumstances; for example, what the transport links are like. In some cases it may be easier for a child to travel quite a long distance because there is a good train service. There may well be a situation where the parents can take a child by train quickly or there may be, as is more likely in rural areas, a good bus service as opposed to a train service. It is important that we take into account what the services are like rather than having a rather arbitrary figure for a reasonable distance.
The noble Baroness mentioned that populations can change and that therefore investment in capital is undesirable. She went back to new town policies or policies of population movement that took place much earlier. It is, of course, true that there are shifts in population and there have been ever since compulsory schooling was introduced in the 1870s. In some cases we have empty places in our schools and there are other cases when there are big influxes of population. I know from my period in the ILEA that Tower Hamlets, for example, had a big influx of people from Bangladesh which caused pressures on schools. We had to expend capital in order to meet those needs. Similarly, it is perfectly reasonable to expend capital in respect of keeping class sizes down for very small children.
Clause 2 is absolutely central to our approach to reducing class sizes, in close co-operation and in partnership with LEAs. This is not a top-down matter. It is a dialogue--and a constructive one--and a partnership. We are well aware that we have to work through LEAs who are much better placed to consult on plans and propose how best to deal with the statutory obligations they have. If reductions in class size are to be achieved it is vital that they make these plans. The statements that they will submit to the Secretary of State will illustrate and demonstrate how the plans meet the objectives of smaller infant classes. For those reasons Clause 2 should stand part of the Bill.
Baroness Maddock: From these Benches we support that the clause stand part of the Bill, mostly because we support the aims of the Government. I share some of the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, earlier. I would have more sympathy if I had not been involved in schools during the time when space standards were changed by government which meant that flexibility and the problems of dealing with smaller class sizes were made infinitely worse.
I say to the Government that it will not be easy to carry out the proposal. There will be problems. The message I would like to give is that consistency over a number of years in policies will pay off.
I was chairman of governors at a first school during the period of the last government. I was not a governor of the school when it was a joint middle/first school. The middle school was closed and we had a wonderful modernisation of the Victorian building, which was a sort of sop to the community. All the things that we said
Baroness Young: Perhaps I may make two points. The noble Baroness said that this was not an edict of the Government on local authorities. It certainly reads like that and I am bound to say that that was the impression given.
The great thing about having been interested in education for a long time is that the wheel turns full circle. I well recall that when I first went into local government there was a direct grant to education authorities, of which Oxford was one, which had to be spent specifically on education. Then, of course, things moved on. We were told that this was quite wrong and that it was much better for local authorities to have freedom to spend the money they were given in the way they thought best. So the direct grant was removed. There was then a general grant, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred earlier. We are now coming back to saying that that is not perhaps such a good idea, that local authorities, on the contrary, cannot be trusted to deal with the policy of reducing class sizes, and we must therefore give them a specific grant which will tell them precisely what to do. If I were a cynic on this matter--of course, I am not--I would say that perhaps the policy will work. Indeed, perhaps it is necessary because some of the worst education authorities, sadly, are Labour-controlled. I leave out those where the Labour Party is conducting an investigation on matters of fraud and so on but, nevertheless, clearly Labour feels that local authorities are not to be trusted and must be told precisely what to do. Perhaps that is the state we have reached.
As an old local government hand, I welcomed the freedom that local authorities were given to make their own determination of their priorities as they thought right, but so much has subsequently gone unhappily awry in education that many things have changed. It seems to me that this is a Bill in which the Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be, will be able to say, "I know what is going on in every school in the country because I have looked at the plans and I have determined them". That is what we are getting under Clause 2.
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