Britain near bottom of the class on pupil-teacher ratios

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The Independent Online

British primary schools are close to the bottom of the international league for pupil to teacher ratios, a study showed yesterday.

Only Ireland, New Zealand and Korea have more pupils for each teacher, the survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says.

Hungary, Norway, Austria and Sweden had the most teachers to primary pupils, aged between 5 and 11, according to statistics taken from 21 countries in 1998.

The OECD research found UK primary schools, on average, had 22 pupils for every teacher, compared with 11 to one in Hungary and 12.6 to one in Norway.

Ministers defended their record, insisting that efforts to cut class sizes for infants, aged between five and seven, had reduced pupil-teacher ratios. But headteachers said little had changed on the ground.

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the issue of class size was still a "critical timebomb" for the Government. "Pupil-teacher ratios have not moved for nearly 20 years and I am not in the least surprised by the OECD figures. The gains at the infant level have certainly not been reflected at the junior level [ages eight to 11]. Ratios for junior children are something of a critical timebomb."

Pupil-teacher ratios do not directly reflect class sizes, because they simply compare the total teaching staff with the total number of pupils. But they are a broad indicator of the staffing position in schools.

Estelle Morris, the minister for School Standards, said the Government had made inroads into the situation since the OECD collected its figures. She said: "The picture on class sizes and child-adult ratios has also improved greatly since the OECD snapshot, when both had been rising for a decade," she said.

The improvement had come as part of the effort to cut infant classes to 30 by 2002, an "unprecedented trend" backed with a £620m programme, she said.

But Donald Hirsch, an expert on international education, questioned whether the changes made by the Government to infant class sizes would have much of an impact on the overall pupil-teacher ratio. "The figures are interesting because they show that we don't really have a strategy to bring ourselves into line with the rest of the world," he said.

Experts at the OECD say that the high pupil to teacher ratio is one explanation for the comparatively high salaries that teachers in the United Kingdom are paid.

Teachers in Britain earn more, but they teach bigger classes and work the longer hours of 798 hours a year compared with an average of 700 for other countries.

Secondary school teachers in Britain earn about £25,370, compared with an average in industrialised countries of about £20,000. With France, Germany, New Zealand and Switzerland, Britain is one of the few countries where salaries of secondary teachers are comparable with or higher than the average earnings of graduates.

Teachers' unions reacted angrily to the salary figures. Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The figures are assertions which bear no relation to the reality. Figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters show that the starting salary for teachers is 12 per cent less than for graduates as a whole. Later, the gap widens still further." The report highlights the comparatively high proportion of pupils leaving secondary school without five good GCSEs and compares it with the big increase in the percentage of the population graduating from university.

Ms Morris defended the Government's record on GCSE results. She said: "We have also reduced the numbers of 15- year-olds leaving secondary school with no qualifications.

"In the 1996-97 year almost 8 per cent of 15-year-olds failed to gain any GCSEs. By 1998-99 this had fallen to 6 per cent. We have set ourselves a target of reducing this to 5 per cent by 2002."

The survey also revealed that Britain spent a smaller proportion of national income on education in 1997 than the average for OECD countries. The 4.6 per cent total was below New Zealand, Norway, Austria, Belgium and Sweden. Ms Morris said that the three-year-old comparison "shows the scale of the challenge that the Government has inherited".

Ministers had increased spending by £300 for each pupil in real terms since 1997, she said. Spending as a proportion of national income was expected to rise to 4.9 per cent by 2002, fulfilling the Government's election promise to increase the share of gross domestic product that is spent on education.

But Theresa May, the shadow spokeswoman for Education, said the figures showed the Government "cannot be trusted". She added: "The OECD figures confirm that this Labour Government has been spending less on education than the last Conservative government."