Letters: Overcrowded classrooms

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SIZE MATTERS

I could not resist a wry smile at Steve McCormack's comments about the pretence involved in claiming a personal knowledge of the 200 pupils he faces each week as a maths teacher ("Big is cut down to size", EDUCATION & CAREERS, 17 January). Of course, he is absolutely correct about the impossibility of doing his job properly in such circumstances.

However, it is worth pointing out that teachers of subjects such as maths and English, who teach "only" seven classes, are in a minority. I left teaching 18 months ago because reduced teaching time was allocated to my subject (history) in the coming year. Consequently, I was faced with the prospect of processing (it certainly would not have been teaching) 600 pupils a week.

Many of those pupils would merely be names in my mark book. At the time I left, when I was only teaching about 500 pupils, there were faces in my classes that I did not even recognise. This is not fair on pupils or teachers: disaffected pupils become more disaffected, all pupils feel lost in the crowd, and teachers are exhausted by the impossibility of their task.

It is heartening to read about the learning communities being set up at Brislington Enterprise College. I hope other schools will have the courage and imagination to follow Brislington's example. Exam results might well improve, but even if they don't, youngsters will emerge as better people, and teachers and pupils will have an improved quality of life.

Ishbel Curr, Lichfield, Staffs

CHARITABLE STATUS

Your leader ("Make them pay", EDUCATION & CAREERS, 17 January) says that parents paying independent-school fees should reflect on the fact that they are sending their children to schools that are receiving financial aid from the Government as a result of their charitable status.

Parents are also bitterly aware that their own taxation funds maintained schools that their children do not attend.

Hilary Moriarty. National director, Boarding Schools' Association

You mention in your leader that parents who pay for their children's education are "receiving financial aid from the Government" because of independent schools' charitable status. Leaving to one side the fact that these parents are aiding the Government by paying for state education through their taxes but not using it, can somebody please explain what benefits independent schools receive from their charitable status?

They don't make profits for shareholders, so would presumably not be subject to corporation tax. Also, VAT seems not to apply to non-profit educational institutions, regardless of whether they are registered charities, so would not be chargeable on fees. I imagine donations apart from fees attract Gift Aid status but, in practice, how much of a school's income comes from such tax relief?

There is an implied assumption in much reporting on independent schools and charitable status that these schools are imposing an unfair burden on everyone else and have the resources to solve the problems of state education if only they could be made to cough up. If excessive requirements are placed on the independent sector to support and fund state education, some schools may choose to forego their charitable status. I'd be interested to know how close they are to that point.

Julian Gall, Godalming, Surrey

FIRST TO GO

In response to David Baker's article ("Universities are failing low-income students", EDUCATION & CAREERS, 17 January), we at Staffordshire University also welcome the Department for Innovation, Universities &Skills' First to Go initiative, which aims to encourage more young people with no family experience of university to consider higher education.

It is shameful that in England in 2008, higher education is still seen as presenting financial, social, educational and cultural barriers for a significant number of young people. This is of even greater concern at a time when government policy is focusing on the need to increase the higher-level skills base of the country to improve our economic competitiveness, and when we have clear evidence that education helps to produce a more inclusive, tolerant, civilised society.

Fast-track degrees save students a third of the cost of studying as their expenses are condensed to two years' tuition fees and cost of living, and they offer an achievable route to employment. We are one of only five universities offering these two-year degrees, currently in seven subjects, and we are committed to developing more.

The First to Go initiative will be helpful – but like our own initiatives in Staffordshire, it is essentially a remedial approach. If we are to achieve a long-term difference right across the country, we need to start early – with children and families at primary level.

My work with primary and secondary schools in some of the most challenging areas of the country has demonstrated that the reasons why many low-income families do not consider higher education have not changed in 40 years. I have seen many dedicated, talented teachers trying to make a difference to their pupils' life chances against all the odds – poverty, family breakdown, poor housing, poor health, hopelessness. Rather than initiatives – welcome as they are – we need a properly thought through strategy that starts with a deep understanding of the realities of life in so many households.

Gill Howland, Executive pro-vice-chancellor, Staffordshire University

David Baker's article highlights the persistent challenges faced by those working to enable people from low-income families to have access to higher education. But while First to Go is a positive step, we need to develop a focus on skills. The taster days, finance workshops, and buddying schemes all offer valuable exposure to higher education and enable universities, schools and colleges to work well together, but can fall short when it comes to engaging families.

Sustained outreach linking study with work opportunities provides a way forward. Working with the regeneration unit at Hillingdon Council, Hillingdon Education Business Partnership and local employers, Thames Valley University has developed a programme to address the mismatch in the skills of young people with local employment opportunities in the hospitality and catering sector.

We employed an outreach worker and, over two years, reached more than 150 young people from the five most disadvantaged wards. Sixteen have progressed to full-time diploma courses. Given greater resources, many universities, particularly post-92 ones, could do likewise.

Graeme Baker, Head of widening participation, Thames Valley University

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