Class sizes in UK still too high, says report

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The Independent Online

Class sizes in UK primary schools are still far higher than in most other developed countries despite millions of pounds of government cash being pumped into the sector, an international study revealed yesterday.

Figures show the UK – with an average of 25.8 pupils per class in state schools – comes 23rd out of 30 Western countries surveyed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for class sizes.

Only Korea, Chile, Japan, Turkey, Israel, Brazil and Ireland have larger class sizes. The smallest primary school classes are in the Russian Federation, where there is an average of just 15.6 pupils per class.

The report goes on to reveal that the gap in class sizes between private and state schools is higher in the UK than anywhere else in the world, with only 10.7 children per class in independent primary schools.

The gap is almost twice as high as the country with the second largest difference; Poland has 20.6 pupils in state primary schools and 12 in the private sector.

The figures underline just how far the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has to travel before he can deliver on his pledge to increase state school funding to the level of that in the private sector.

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said last night: "Levels of support for youngsters from deprived backgrounds must be raised. State school classes must be brought down to private school levels."

Yesterday's report also revealed a dramatic slide down the league table for the UK in terms of the number of graduates. The UK has slipped from third position in 2000 to 10th, despite massive government encouragement for widening participation.

In terms of young people entering university (rather than graduation rates), the UK fares worse still – falling behind the OECD average.

Student numbers are rising in the UK, though – up to 52 per cent participation in 2005, the year the study focuses upon. It is just that they are rising faster in other nations, notably Australia and Finland. In Australia, participation has topped 80 per cent.

However, the survey also revealed that teenagers in the UK had fewer expectations of going to university than anywhere else in the Western world.

Diana Warwick, the chief executive of Universities UK, the body which represents vice-chancellors, said: "This figure is a cause for concern and highlights the need for all those involved to do more earlier on in the education system to raise expectations.

"If we are to keep ahead of our international competitors, the UK must maintain and improve public investment in higher education. Many countries are catching up and indeed overtaking us in this respect."

However, the report concludes that the UK "remains strong" in overall performance, singling out the Government's expansion of education provision for the early years and its attempts to improve teaching standards for particular praise.

"The share of public expenditure that is devoted to education has increased in the UK – though at a slower rate than in the OECD on average," the report said. "Despite above average spending per primary-level student, the UK has – with 24.2 students per class (when private and state schools are combined) – one of the largest average class sizes at the primary level of education."

The report's authors said the UK had sought to spend more money attracting better qualified teachers "rather than solely lowering class sizes". "However, the data show that progress has levelled off in recent years such that other countries now outperform the UK," the report concluded.

The Schools minister, Jim Knight, said: "I welcome the fact that the UK education system is performing strongly but we won't stop there. Since the OECD finance figures relate to data for 2005 we anticipate that our position will improve even further over the coming years."

Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, added: "The figures are encouraging... But we still have a way to go."