Leading Article: The wrong time to slam on the brakes

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The Independent Online

New statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development give a timely warning to Gordon Brown ahead of the comprehensive spending review this autumn. They show that, in spite of the UK spending more than the average for Western industrialised nations on primary schooling, class sizes in the sector were higher than in all but six developed countries. Furthermore, the gap in the class sizes of independent and state schools is one of the widest, showing that the Prime Minister has a long way to go before he can meet his pledge to increase state school education spending to the level of private schools.

Since the 1997 election, when there was a commitment to reduce class sizes for children aged five to seven, the issue has not been a priority for Labour. That is a shame because – as a new study shows – the private sector may have now set fees at an unrealistically high level for parents and be forced to cut costs. That would present a golden opportunity for the state schools to emphasise class size.

Just as worrying in the OECD report is the revelation that the UK has slipped from third to 10th place over five years in the percentage of young people going on to higher education. We are not contracting, but other countries, notably Australia and Finland, are increasing at a faster rate. The end result is that we could end up being less competitive than some of our rivals.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that this year's OECD "Education at a Glance" survey paints an altogether gloomy picture of British education. Indeed, it says our performance remains strong – and singles out the expansion of early-years provision and improvements in teaching quality, as identified by Ofsted, as being of particular merit. All in all, the report's message could be summed up as "trying hard but could do better". The higher education minister seemed to acknowledge this when, in responding to the report, he said that we still had a long way to go.

Let's hope the Government shows it has absorbed this message in the comprehensive spending review later this year. The UK's economic rivals seem to have understood that now is not the time to put the brake on education spending.