Is this what they mean by a crammer?

Amid growing concern about class sizes, the Government is about to scrap its school space regulations. Diana Hinds reports
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The Independent Online
There is barely a parent in the country not concerned about whether their child will suffer if taught in a class of more than 30. But few perhaps would link that concern to the Government's announcement, just before the summer recess, of revisions to the 1981 Education (School Premises) Regulations.

It all sounds dry and technical, and, to a large extent, it is - including, for instance, specific requirements for washrooms and fire safety. But the regulations also lay down the minimum space standards for teaching accommodation (ie classrooms, halls and other practical areas), and recreation space (ie playgrounds, but not playing fields), which represent the only existing legal protection for children against overcrowding. The Government intends to scrap this section of the regulations.

The 1981 regulations have a long and muddy history. They were introduced by Margaret Thatcher but existing schools, many of which did not meet the space standards, were given 10 years to comply. In 1990, the then Secretary of State for Education, John MacGregor, announced a review of the regulations in the light of the wide-ranging requirements of the new national curriculum, and extended the period of compliance by five years.

Mr MacGregor's review has not been heard of since. Robin Squire, the schools and employment minister, argued that abolishing minimum space standards would give education authorities and school governors "more flexibility to manage school land and buildings in the interests of pupils and in the light of the facilities available".

For playing fields, however, minimum area standards are to be retained, because of "public concern" (in addition, perhaps, to the Prime Minister's predilection for competitive sport). "There may be a temptation to dispose of playing fields that schools need," Mr Squire said.

So what of the "public concern" about overcrowded classrooms? Certainly, all the teachers' unions and governors' associations are firmly united in opposition to the plans. Far from giving schools greater "flexibility", they believe the Government is intent upon buck-passing; instead of giving schools the money they need to bring their buildings up to standard, the Government is doing away with the standard, washing its hands of the problem and leaving it up to the schools.

"That schools are now freer than in 1981 to manage their resources is irrelevant," contests Walter Ulrich, of the National Association of Governors and Managers. "The abolition of space standards is not about how a school manages its premises, but whether it should have been given the premises to manage in the first place and how many pupils should use them."

John Coe, of the National Association for Primary Education, believes the Government's motives are financial, as well as ideological. "It is embarrassing for them to have a standard and a deadline, which many primary schools are unable to meet. Getting schools up to the standard would require great expenditure."

With more than 1 million primary school children now in classes of more than 30, pressure on classroom space is becoming intense. Overcrowded classrooms mean more disruption and noise, and potential accidents. Many primary classrooms struggle to accommodate the science and technology required by the national curriculum, and in secondary schools there are increasing safety hazards in technical rooms, where too many pupils are gathered round machines.

Minimum space standards, if fully implemented, would not completely solve the mounting problems of overcrowding, nor produce, overnight, all the funding required to improve school premises. But to abolish them altogether would be to remove a crucial legal safeguard.

Removal of minimum space standards in recreation areas is also causing great concern. The requirement for playing fields does not apply to children under eight, and it would therefore become possible for new nursery and infant schools to be set up without any outside area at all. Schools may also be tempted to sell off playground areas, or to build on them.

"Bureaucratic and outmoded" was how one spokesman at the Department for Education and Employment dismissed minimum space standards. The Government plans to put the revised regulations before Parliament this month, intending that they should be in force by 1 January 1996. But it is not yet too late to change their minds.

What the law says ...

The Education (School Premises) Regulations 1981 stipulate the minimum total area for teaching calculated according to the number and ages of pupils. Teaching accommodation includes classrooms, halls and other teaching areas; the regulations do not set space standards for individual classrooms.

For an average-sized primary school with 121-150 pupils, 2.61 square metres is required for each pupil under nine and 2.89 sq m for each pupil from nine to 11.

For a secondary school with 1,051-1,200 pupils, 3.21 sq m is required for 11 to 13-year-olds, 4.13 sq m for 13 to 15-year-olds, and 4.69 sq m for over-15s.

Many schools fail to meet these standards. Critics of the Government's plans to abolish them would ideally like the standards revised upwards, but argue that to have the 1981 standards legally implemented would be preferable to having no standards at all.

`They are always bumping into tables, chairs ... and each other'

The six-year-olds at Latchmere Infants School in Kingston-upon- Thames do not have room for a playhouse in their classroom. Their reading corner, squashed behind the door, is so tiny that it has room for only one small chair. Their teacher, Annwyn Long, has to climb over tables and chairs to get round her pupils, while the children themselves, if there is someone in their way working on the floor, simply jump over one another.

Next door, the reception class has similar space problems. The tables, already very close together, have to be moved if all 35 children are to sit squashed on the floor in a circle for conversation with their teacher. Because there is little space for storage units, there are few displays for the children to work with, and they are not able to get out resources for themselves, as the national curriculum demands.

"I'm always having to nag them about pushing their chairs in," says Norma Penny, their teacher. "They are constantly tripping over tables and chairs, and bumping into each other, and it makes them very frustrated. They are very young and egocentric, and do not have the social skills to say `excuse me' all the time, so there is quite a bit of confrontation."

These are the smallest and most unsatisfactory classrooms in a school stretched to capacity, with nine classes of 35 children, a hall, a cramped library area and only two small bays for practical work to be shared by the entire school. According to the minimum space standards, laid down in the 1981 regulations, a school with this number of pupils should have 775sq m of teaching space: Latchmere has 617sq m - a shortfall of 158sq m, roughly equivalent to two classrooms and a practical area.

The playground, too, is overcrowded. Instead of the minimum requirement of 9sq m of recreation space per child, Latchmere has about 6sq m. This has led to problems, says Jane Johnston, the deputy headteacher, with pupils bumping each other and getting into fights because they are too much on top of one another.

"I think the lack of space is plain uncivilised, and it gives the children the message, quite wrongly, that it is all right to be overcrowded," says Caroline Egerton, chair of the governing body. "When I come into classrooms as a parent helper, I have to find little corners for myself; you feel you're helping in one sense, but also that you are getting in the way because you are so big."

The local authority accepts that space in the school is substandard, but repeated applications for capital expenditure to replace its five small, outlying classrooms with a new block attached to the hall have so far been unsuccessful.

But if the Government abolishes the minimum space standards, there would be even less chance of help.

"The regulations provide the criteria upon which you base your arguments each time you make a submission," says Gordon Baker, governor and chair of the premises committee. "Removing them will seriously reduce our bargaining power."