Class size is still a big issue

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The Independent Online

Class sizes resurfaced as an issue when Matthew Taylor, head of the Institute for Public Policy Research, New Labour's favourite think tank, criticised the Government for its 1997 election pledge to cut the number of children in a class. Ministers, remember, had committed themselves to setting a maximum class size of 30 for all five-, six- or seven-year-olds. Far better, he argued, to have pumped all the money spent on cutting class sizes into inner-city schools. That would have made a real difference, cutting class sizes to around 14 – similar to those in the independent sector.

His argument has merit. Research in Tennessee in the United States has shown that smaller class sizes only begin to make a difference to attainment levels when the numbers fall dramatically to 14 or 15.

In support of his argument, Mr Taylor said that the Government's policy had produced only a minimal reduction in the number of children in a class - from 32 to 30. That may be correct in some cases. But the truth is that the consequences of successive cuts in education spending under Conservative governments had seen many classes rise to more than 40, particularly in the shire counties. It was therefore right as a first step to introduce a maximum class size for the younger age groups, even if this did end up benefiting parents in rural areas more than in Labour's traditional heartlands, the inner cities. Classes of more than 40 are unmanageable for teachers.

Surprisingly, Labour abandoned any specific policy of reducing class sizes during its second term. Ministers now say that the extra money they are ploughing into schools is enabling them to reduce class sizes – in particular the ratio of pupils to adults. That is because so many more classroom assistants have been employed. The truth is, though, that Mr Taylor is right. A radical reduction in class sizes – particularly in inner London, where some schools are in danger of closing, because one-quarter of parents use the independent sector – is the cleverest way to tempt parents back to the state sector and make a noticeable difference to standards.