Ed Miliband will revive the central pledge at the heart of Tony Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997 when he announces that a Labour government would restore the cap on class sizes for children aged five, six and seven.
In a speech on Thursday at the north London comprehensive school he attended in the 1980s, the Labour leader will promise to ensure that education acts as a “passport to a good life” by capping class sizes at 30.
The first of five pledges listed on the New Labour election pledge card in 1997, which John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, always carried round in his pocket, said: “Cut class sizes to 30 or under for five-, six- and seven-year-olds by using money from the assisted places scheme.” This was the scheme in which the state funded the education of scholarship pupils at private schools.
Miliband will announce that his plan will be delivered by ending the practice of opening free schools, championed by the former education secretary Michael Gove, in areas where there is a surplus of school places. The Labour leader will say that the coalition is directly to blame for a trebling in the number of classes with more than 30 pupils from 31,265 in 2010 to 93,345 in 2014 as a result of opening free schools in areas where new schools are not needed. This has added to pressure on over-subscribed schools.
Speaking at Haverstock school in Camden, which he attended between 1981 and 1988, Miliband will say: “Successful teaching and classroom discipline is made harder when classes are so much bigger. Our plan 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 five-, six- and seven-year-olds at no more than 30 pupils.”
Labour has been gearing up for a series of major announcements on schools after the prime minister, David Cameron, said earlier this month that a future Tory government could only guarantee a settlement of “flat cash per pupil”.
This means that the schools budget will not be cut but will not necessarily rise in line with inflation, which translates as a real-terms cut of 10% in the next parliament. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said after Cameron’s speech that Labour would clarify its schools spending plans.
Party sources dismissed suggestions that Miliband’s decision to revive the first pledge of Blair’s 1997 election pledge card indicated that a rapprochement is under way with the former prime minister. Under the last government, schools were not allowed to increase the size of classes over 30 for more than 12 months.
Blair, who suggested to the Economist in a New Year interview that Miliband was on course to lose the election, indicated over the weekend that he would do all he could to support the Labour leader in the general election campaign.
The sources said that Miliband, who worked as an adviser to Gordon Brown in the early years of the Blair government, said he had always hailed New Labour’s success in tackling child poverty, improving standards in schools and increasing investment in the NHS. His apparent lack of interest in Blair is explained by Miliband’s belief the challenges of 2015 are different to those of 1997.
Miliband will make clear that improving schools remains at the heart of his vision for tackling inequality and equipping children with the skills needed for the 21st century. He will say: “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.”
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