Education: Victims of their own success

Government legislation to reduce class sizes has much support. But it is creating a dilemma for high-achieving schools - expand or face turning more children away.
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It could be called looking a gift horse in the mouth. But that is exactly what some of the most successful primary schools in the country are doing as they try to reduce infant class sizes to a maximum of 30.

Reducing class sizes was one of Labour's key election pledges last year. It was popular with parents and the wider electorate. Legislation is now in place, local education authorities have produced plans for Whitehall, extra funds have been promised and 30 will become a statutory maximum class size for five-, six- and seven-year-olds by the year 2001, although the Government expects that many schools will have achieved the target a year earlier than that. So why are some parents, heads and governors, particularly in highly successful schools, now expressing reservations?

According to Lloyd Morgan, chair of governors and a parent at Pownell Green Primary School in Stockport, an urban area with an unusually high proportion of high-achieving schools, there are serious dilemmas facing successful schools. Pownell Green was on Ofsted's list of "golden schools" last year and is oversubscribed. There were 90 applications for 60 reception class places last year and there are already 30 children in each reception class, with a high likelihood that numbers will go up during the year as children move into the area. "Of course we welcome the class-size initiative," says Mr. Morgan. "We would like to see reduced class sizes throughout the school. But for us, that may mean rejecting more children and creating more appeals."

Mr Morgan is a strong supporter of Stockport's policy to admit children who move into the area to their local primary. "I think if we tried to turn away a child who moved in next door to the school there would be a riot."

Stockport was so conscious of parental sensitivities over school choice that it held three major consultation meetings in the borough to discuss their proposals to reduce class sizes. According to the chief education officer, Max Hunt, parents were surprised at how complex reducing class sizes turns out to be. And they also made it pretty clear that they did not like some of the likely consequences of it.

The Government has taken account of parental concerns by saying that, as class sizes are reduced, choice must not be diminished. And local education authority officers speak warmly of the Department for Education and Employment's help in negotiating local plans.

But that still leaves Lloyd Morgan's governors with some difficult decisions to make. They could keep the same number of classes and re-organise the children into mixed-age groups instead of single year groups. This would provide the required small infants classes, but would tend to push up the size of Key Stage 2 classes - the ones for seven- to 11-year-olds - which are already well over 30.

Or they could take the Government at its word over funding and take on an extra teacher and find space for an extra classroom - which is not easy. This would also imply either teaching the infants or the whole school in mixed age groups. And they are very conscious that the second thing which emerged from the consultation is that there are many parents who hate mixed-age classes.

Nor are teachers convinced that this is the best way forward either. As Helen Ashcroft, head of Pownell Green says, the literacy hour and the national curriculum are based on year groups. Mixed age classes will tend to have an even broader range of ability and be that much harder to organise, she says.

Nor is her chair of governors convinced that the Government's financial promises will live up to expectations. "If they gave me pounds 50,000 and three new classrooms, I would have no problems. But at the moment, what I fear is a loss of numbers leading to a loss of income and therefore great difficulty in maintaining our current levels of teaching assistants who help us keep our standards high."

Three new classrooms is exactly what East Sussex is proposing for one of its successful schools, Motcombe Infants in Eastbourne. Motcombe is one of three popular schools in a cluster: the other two would find it difficult to grow, but Motcombe's head, Felicity Starkey, chose to expand from nine classes to 12, and has the space to do it. If the DfEE approves, this will offer enough room for all the children who currently seek places in all three schools. "My main motivation was to avoid mixed age classes. We believe very strongly here in an early years philosophy which does not push five-year-olds too hard, and so far this has helped us to raise standards. We are a bit worried that the funding that has been promised won't cover classroom assistants and resources, but we feel strongly that we want to keep single year groups," Ms. Starkey says.

It is finance which also worries Norman Fry, head of Torre Church of England Primary School and secretary of the Torbay Association of Primary Heads. As an oversubscribed school, he would be eligible to expand under the Government's criteria, but his governors do not want to increase pressure on play-space, toilets, the staffroom and hall, which are all relatively small. As a result, the intake must drop from the current 32 to 30 which means a loss of income over three years of around pounds 8,000.

"Something will have to go and it will be classroom assistants," Norman Fry says. "All I have got so far is platitudes from the local education authority and the DfEE. We have no difficulty with the principle of smaller classes. If they said that all classes had to be no more than 26, we would all jump for joy. But nobody seems to be taking the point seriously which is that when class sizes are reduced to 30, some children will inevitably be worse off."

Significantly, even small schools which are already obliged to teach in mixed-age groups, and are doing it with great success, are finding the number crunching involved in class size reduction a real headache. Helen Cook, the head of Silsoe Lower School in Bedfordshire, is trying to juggle her three-terms-a-year intake of five- year-olds amongst her four classes in order to comply with the new law. "We are not funded to take all the reception class children into school in September. This year, we only had three arrive then, and then 26 arrived in January. Last term, we kept our two first classes small, at 15 and 18, but the big January intake means that the 12 children who started school last summer will have to move up after only two terms and in the middle of the year, which I really don't like. And because we have under-eights in three out of the four classes, the top class will be running with some 37 children in it."

Silsoe has no room to expand. The governors actually turned down the opportunity to open a nursery class because the site is too small. So this popular school will continue to turn children away as Mrs Cook juggles her classes to keep in line with Government policy. And like Pownell Green in Stockport, its decisions will exacerbate the national tendency for Key Stage 2 class sizes to rise as infants' class sizes reduce.

Over the last two years the proportion of junior pupils in classes of 31 or more has risen from 30 to 33 per cent, with a few classes now over 41. And this is probably an over-estimate as only those children actually in school on census day are counted. The class size debate is not over yet.