Jenny Chapman MP


Infant size classes

Jenny debates funding pressures in education


Jenny Chapman MP discussed the need for education funding to follow need, in the wider context of falling social mobility, during today's debate in the House of Commons concerning the sharp growth in class sizes for infants since 2010.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). It was interesting to hear him draw on his experiences on the Public Accounts Committee. That was a good contribution.

I disagreed with the hon. Gentleman fundamentally on one point. He said that education should not be the same throughout the country. Of course, he was right about that. However, education never has been the same everywhere in the country and it certainly did not become the same under the last Labour Government. We actively supported specialist schools and introduced academies. Far more choice was generated by the Labour Government than we are given credit for.

Although neither the hon. Gentleman nor the Opposition want education to be exactly the same, one thing that we do want to be the same is the opportunity for all children. That, plainly, is not the case at the moment. Equal opportunity is not afforded to all children regardless of their background. That is why this debate counts. It is not about a very small area of the garden. We are talking not just about infant school class sizes nudging up over 30, but about what that means for the future. We are talking not just about the children who are now experiencing education in very large classes, but about what that means as it continues. I remember being at school in the ’80s under a Tory Government—we are all talking about when we were educated—when class sizes were much larger than they are now. I do not wish to see that for children who are currently in infant schools. When they get to secondary school, will they still be taught in classes that are larger and larger? The detriment is exaggerated as a child gets older.

I am particularly concerned about this matter because I see the huge disparity between the outcomes for the 7% of children who are privately educated, with the opportunities that they can access—they do very well—and the outcomes for the 93% of young people who are educated in state schools. That issue has been well debated. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has had a huge amount to say about the critical role of education in providing better opportunities to 
kids from all backgrounds.

According to the OECD, state primary schools have class sizes with four or more pupils larger than those in independent schools. The difference in secondary schools is significantly worse. Average class sizes in UK state secondary schools are more than double those in independent schools at 
21.1 compared with 10.

Justin Tomlinson: The hon. Lady is giving a characteristically great speech. I agree with absolutely everything that she has said. Will she therefore explain the logic of the last Government cutting 
200,000 places, thus denying people opportunity and choice?

Jenny Chapman: When I consider the issue I look at what is happening now, and numbers in my constituency have risen by 66%—66% more infant school pupils are being taught in classes of more than 30. That is happening now, and I am interested in what the Government will do to fix it.

I am a bit like some of my colleagues who said that they did not want to upset the shadow Secretary of State—of course I do not want to upset him. I do not think he would be upset by what I am about to say, but I do not produce a lot of antibodies at the mention of a free school. In Darlington we have a school that is a free school in name only. It was established by a local academy that wanted 
extra provision for pupils with special needs. We are a pragmatic bunch in Darlington and will go where the money is. These days, if we want capital money, we make ourselves a free school—“Thank you very much, we’ll have one of those.” We have that and it is going fine. There was not a peep out of me as a Labour MP or the Labour council. We will get on with it, and if it gets us the outcomes we need for young people in the town, that is what we will do.

We have another free school that is a little more unusual because it is a private school that decided it would like to become a free school. That got me scratching my head a little—I think that finances may have been a little tight, which may have focused its mind on that transition. However, as a good socialist, the opportunity to take away a fee-paying school and make education available to all 
was not something I was going to let pass by, and I have worked with those trying to set up the free school and wish it every success. It will be relatively small and will help to provide the additional places that we may need in Darlington, particularly for primary education.

I have listened to colleagues from different parts of the country and it is clearly not the experience everywhere that the additional resources—scarce though they are—are following the additional need. That is where our objection lies. This is not about governance. We are quite relaxed about different forms of governance in education, as we can prove by our record. It is about ensuring that we spend the money where it needs to be spent, so that we do not end up with class sizes creeping up slowly over time.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Everyone would agree that capital spend, limited as it always is, should focus on areas of greatest need, but does the hon. Lady recognise that 
the problem in Enfield was that the previous Government did not follow that through? They focused on Building Schools for the Future to fund secondary school buildings, and £1 million spent on consultants and not a brick laid to build more. Our primary schools were bursting at the seams, and desperately in need of what they have now achieved in terms of doubling spending and getting 
more primary school places. That is what the Government are now doing.

Jenny Chapman: I do not know the situation in Enfield, obviously, but I recognise the Building Schools for the Future that the hon. Gentleman describes. I tried to get BSF money for Darlington for three schools that badly needed it, and found the process absolutely tortuous. The process was perhaps too heavy and too rigorous, but it was there to ensure that resources went to the schools that needed them most. We had to demonstrate that the places we were creating and building capacity for would be needed, that we were not creating surplus places and there was demand for places in those schools, and that the right decision would not have been to go and expand another popular school somewhere else. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s criticism of BSF up to a point, but this Government have gone too far the other way. There needs to be some kind of procedure to ensure that money is spent where it is needed, and I have not heard any real answer to that throughout the debate.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Is the hon. Lady aware that in my constituency there were, I think, six secondary schools, and that from today there are seven? The reason their number has grown—the reason we needed a new school—was that one school was good and five were poor. The creation of a new school will give the other children the chance to do well.

Jenny Chapman: I am not familiar with the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and he did not actually tell me where his constituency was, so I am slightly disadvantaged, but I support the 
idea of looking at the choices parents make, and where there is pressure on a small but popular school, I favour its expansion to enable parental choice, if that can be done without harming the educational standards of the students already there. Opposition Members have supported that approach in their constituencies for years, so I do not see it as a point of debate.

My concern is about the standard of education afforded to children being taught in extremely large classes. I queried our briefing on this debate, which said there were classes of 70, and I could not believe it possible—it is not something I have ever witnessed—but I was assured that it was happening. If so, it is an urgent problem that must be addressed immediately. It would be galling if hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), saw money being spent in other boroughs, while her parents cannot get their children into classes of reasonable sizes.

It might seem like we are picking at a sore just to make a political point, but that is not it; this is about the future and what it signals not just for young people being educated now, but for all children as they progress through their school careers. We must nip this problem in the bud because if it continues it will only get worse, and children’s secondary education will be affected far more. Schools are probably managing quite well now, so this is more about the future than the argument over free schools or what the last Labour Government spent on school buildings. I am proud of what that Government achieved. In 1997, we had outdoor toilets in schools in Darlington, but we rebuilt, I think, every primary school in the town. Outcomes for young people and children there have soared ever since; the achievement gap between the highest and lowest achievers has narrowed, and the achievement of the top kids has got even better. That is a great record, and I am very proud of it, and it would be a shame if we let something like class sizes prevent that opportunity from being afforded to young people growing up now.

Follow the link to read the Opposition Day: Infant Class Sizes debate in full.


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