Why bigger is not always better

Personally Speaking
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The Independent Online
The Campaign for the Advancement of State Education (Case) campaign for a legal maximum on primary class size - "No More Thirtysomethings in Primary Schools" - began more than five years ago. Although over the succeeding years we have been able to prove our case time after time, class sizes have continued to rise. Now (and Case can claim some credit) we have a government pledged to do something about primary class sizes.

Until we see how much is needed to reduce class size in each primary school, the cost can be only roughly estimated. Not all schools will need new classrooms; some will. But I believe that merely shifting resources will not be enough. In the years of campaigning over class size I have spoken to many parents, concerned about class sizes in their primary schools, who have been told by their local education authorities that there is enough money in the budget to reduce class size, and by their governors that there isn't.

If we are to avoid this claim and counter-claim we need legislation to fix a statutory maximum class size. If there is a legal limit, the money will have to be found. A recent survey by the Audit Commission showed that the majority of OECD countries have either a nationally recommended minimum space allocation, or a maximum class size for primary pupils.

Legislation based on the Scottish model of agreed maximum class sizes in the teachers' pay and conditions of service could be introduced. The nature of the agreement there gets over the problem of one maximum number of, say, 30, which could result in child No 31 not getting a school place. The agreement has a normal maximum and an upper limit. For Scottish primary schools the range is a normal maximum of 33, to the upper limit of 39. Child No 34 is thus admitted by agreement between teacher and head. Although the limit is much higher than we want to see, there are fewer children in classes over 30 in Scotland than in England. The government could stay with a normal maximum for infant classes of 30, up to an upper limit of 35, and set targets to bring these two numbers down, to a normal maximum of 25 with an upper limit of 30, as soon as possible.

The existence of the national limit would influence decision making at school, local and national level. As the Audit Commission showed in 1993, two primary schools with similar funding and pupil numbers employed 12.7 teachers and eight teachers respectively. Ofsted recently quoted a range of 55 per cent to 83 per cent of primary school budgets spent on teachers. These are decisions made at school level.

At local level, spending formulae are based on an expectation of a particular class size. If class sizes are to be reduced in primary schools these expectations, and the formulae, will have to change. Appeal committees now have to consider whether admitting a child would prejudice the effective education of other children at the school. If admitting a child would take the numbers above 30, that decision will usually have to be that effective education would be prejudiced. In Edinburgh, for example, it is made clear to parents that the appeal committees will take the teachers' maximum class size agreements into account in their decision-making.

Other legislation would have to change to be brought in line. Standard numbers for admission to primary schools should be based, as now, on 30 in the classroom, but should not have to be a larger number if in earlier years more children were crammed in. Minimum space requirements for school buildings should be reintroduced. Currently, the only protection against children being overcrowded in class is the governors' overall duty for health and safety, since health and safety protection against overcrowding does not apply to children or to classrooms. A legal minimum would ensure that protectionn

The writer is executive secretary of the Campaign for State Education.

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