Ed Miliband has long been both praised and criticised for breaking with New Labour. But in a speech today on education, he will revive the first policy included on the party’s famous 1997 pledge card: capping class sizes for 5 to 7-year-olds at 30 pupils or under. The original promise was funded by abolishing the assisted places scheme, which subsidised children from low-income backgrounds to attend private schools. Miliband will pledge to meet his £200m commitment by ending the establishment of free schools in areas where there are surplus places, which Labour estimates has cost £240m.
Since 2010, the number of young pupils taught in classes bigger than 30 has trebled to 60,000. This is partly attributable to the free schools programme, which has seen more than 30,000 places created in areas where they were not needed. Based on present trends, Labour estimates that the number of classes larger than 30 will increase to 11,000, close to the level it inherited in 1997.
In a speech at Haverstock School, the Camden comprehensive he attended between 1981 and 1988, Miliband will say:
Successful teaching and classroom discipline is made harder when classes are so much bigger. Our plans will turn this round. Currently, the government is spending money on new Free Schools, in areas where there are surplus places. This simply makes no sense when class sizes are rising in the way they are. Or when people can’t get their kids into the good schools they want.
So by ending the scandalous waste of money from building new schools in areas of surplus places, we will create more places where they are needed. This will allow us to cap class sizes for 5, 6 and 7-year-olds at no more than 30 pupils.
It’s a sensible and almost certainly popular policy. Although free schools are beloved of the right, they are not, contrary to common belief, popular with the public. A YouGov survey for the Times in October 2013 found that just 27 per cent back the schools with 47 per cent opposed. The Conservatives’ defence has long been that they offer parents choice in areas where there may no be shortage of places but there is a lack of good schools. The Department for Education has emphasised that it has provided an additional £5bn to councils to create new places, double the amount it claims the last government over the same period.
But it is far from clear that this will prove sufficient at a time of rapid population growth. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, an executive member of the Local Government Association, has warned: “The process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies.” On this issue, the public are likely to side with Miliband.
The Labour leader will also say tomorrow: “My vision for education is shaped by my belief in equal opportunity, built for the modern world. It is based on the idea that education gives people a passport to a good life. It is a means not just of learning but of earning a decent living, transcending circumstance, understanding how to be part of a community and venturing into new worlds.
“This has always been true. But now we must adapt this vision to the 21st century. Indeed, the biggest challenge we face is preparing our young people for the economy of the future, not of yesterday. The generational question facing us is whether we are fated to be an economy in which a few people do fabulously well, while most people work harder and harder just to keep their place. If we do not give every young person the skills and knowledge they need we will lock in a two tier economy. It is the key to building a different kind of economy which works for all and not just for some.
“Because in the 21st century, when companies can move across borders, it is the skills and talents of our people that is our unique national asset. In the 21st century, world class education isn’t a luxury for the individual. It’s a necessity. For Britain’s young people to succeed. For British business to succeed. For Britain to succeed. So if we are to restore the Promise of Britain by which the next generation does better than the last, we need to fulfil the promise of our young people. Equipping our children with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed with excellence from the first steps a child takes to the day they stride into the adult world.”