§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ What proportion of classes in maintained schools in England and Wales had over 30 pupils at the last available census point.
My Lords, in primary schools, 23 per cent. of single teacher classes contained over 30 pupils; that is, 23.2 per cent. in England and 20.6 per cent. in Wales. Figures for secondary schools are not available for Wales but the proportion of classes in England with over 30 pupils was 5.3 per cent. In all cases, the proportion of classes with over 30 pupils has declined substantially since 1979.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the letter that Gillian Shephard sent a few weeks ago to the Prime Minister and to other members of the Cabinet in which she warned that if the Government's policies were to be put into effect there would be a loss of between 7,000 and 10,000 teaching places and that class sizes would shoot up? Is it not time that the Government listened to their own Secretary of State before overriding her and making the conditions for our schoolchildren even worse?
My Lords, not yet being a member of the Cabinet, I am afraid that I have not seen the letter. I am glad that it has reached the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I understand that such a letter may have been leaked to the press. We are now further on than when that letter was sent and we shall see how local authorities have coped with the settlement that they received this year. 579 As a result of recent announcements, my impression is that they are coping a great deal better than they said they would.
§ Baroness Young
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that since 1979 expenditure on education has risen by 50 per cent. in real terms; that during the past four years the total number of teachers has stood at about 390,000; that local authority schools have considerable reserves; and that local authorities have the power to give added money to education departments? Should not all those issues be put ahead of the threats that have been made to damage schoolchildren?
My Lords, we very much regret the use by some local authorities and others of threats which, in the event, it is clear they had no intention of carrying out but were merely to gain political advantage. We believe that the interests of the children should come first and that such incidents should not happen.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I make no comment on the noble Lord joining the Cabinet, in particular in the presence of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. Is it not a fact that during the past two or three years the number of pupils in oversized classes has risen? More importantly, in the Government's judgment, as a result of the likely pay settlement, will the size of classes rise this year or next year? Will the Minister give a guarantee that whatever else happens no such deterioration, which would be a continuation of a recent deterioration, will occur?
My Lords, yes, I confirm that during the past few years class sizes have risen in general, as have the number of classes with more than 30 pupils. Perhaps I may summarise what has happened. The number of pupils has been rising at a time when education spending has been keeping pace with costs and with the number of existing teachers but without allowing for an increased number of teachers. That appears to be exactly the right thing to do at a time of recession and at a time of financial stringency. It is clear from all the research available to us that there is no major disbenefit arising from slight increases in class size.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, is the Minister absolutely certain that a time of recession is the time to intensify financial stringency? Would it not make sense in a time of recession somewhat to ease public expenditure, in particular in education, so that one gains certain benefits?
My Lords, the effects of increased education expenditure are long term. One should not look to increasing education expenditure in a recession in order to get out of that recession. There must be better ways of spending to achieve that, if that is what one believes should happen.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that this country is greatly in debt to dedicated teachers from John o'Groats to Land's End whose major concern is the well-being of the children? Is he further 580 aware that it would be most unfortunate if a war of attitudes were declared between members of that distinguished profession, which I once had the honour of belonging to, and those in public service? Will the Minister bear in mind that when teachers ask for 30 pupils per class as a maximum they do so in the interests of the children and not of themselves?
My Lords, as regards the noble Viscount's last point, yes, I cannot but agree. Clearly, if the Government were to put in funds so that no class should ever be more than 30 in number, that would severely, and for a long time, restrict the Government's ability to pay any increase to teachers. Surely, yes, it must be entirely noble of teachers to be looking in that direction. What is less than noble of them is the idea that they should go on strike to achieve that. I hope that what the noble Viscount said about teachers in the first part of his Question, with which I totally agree, will be borne out when they come to vote on the resolutions which, sadly, were passed at their conferences.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, is the Minister suggesting that these complaints are made for party political advantage? Can he tell the House why his party's councillors in Warwickshire and elsewhere are so strongly in agreement with them?
My Lords, I said "in some cases". I believe that in this year, when there has been a hard settlement, there are some areas of real problems, and we have always said that.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, important though class size is, the professional quality of good teaching is very much more important? Would he also agree that were many of our teachers to abandon their Left-wing teaching practices, presumably so favoured by the Benches opposite, and concentrate more on teaching children the phonic method of reading, for example, our children would have a very much better education, and that there should be fewer examples of the kind of outrageous behaviour perpetrated by the teaching unions in the past few days?
My Lords, yes, it is clear that one of the reasons why some teachers find it difficult to teach large classes is that they are using teaching methods which are entirely inappropriate. They are still back in the trendy 1960s, trying to use totally child-centred approaches, which are inappropriate not only for a class size of 30 but for any size of class. We hope very much that the progress being made by Ofsted and others will result in great improvements in the quality of teaching. We believe that that is where the benefits to the pupils will come from and that reductions in class sizes, at great expense, would have only marginal benefits.