Opted-out schools 'have much bigger classes'

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

Opted-out schools in London have much bigger classes than those that stayed with local authorities, according to a study published yesterday. The grant-maintained sector also takes fewer children from impoverished backgrounds and fewer children with special educational needs.

Critics of opting out said the figures showed that while parents might expect a better quality of education from an opted-out school, their expectations might not be realised.

The survey, by the London Research Centre in conjunction with the Association for London Government, shows that while local authority secondary schools in outer London had 17.1 pupils per teacher, opted-out schools in the same area had 26.3. In local authority secondary schools, 6 per cent of pupils were in classes of more than 30 compared with 11 per cent in opted- out schools.

Almost one-third of pupils in local authority schools were entitled to free school meals in January 1995, when the figures were compiled, but in grant-maintained schools only one child in seven was eligible. The local schools had nearly twice as many pupils with special educational needs.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "The research demonstrates the need for greater equity within the system. It also shows that the most important issue for all schools is raising standards."

One explanation for bigger classes in opted-out schools could be that they are popular because parents believe they have higher standards. They often have more middle-class and more able pupils because more are academically selective.

In January, the schools inspection body, Ofsted, said that there were few substantial differences in standards between grant-maintained and local authority schools in terms of pupils reaching their potential, in behaviour or in teaching quality. However, exam results were higher compared with national norms.

Adrian Pritchard, director of the Grant Maintained Schools Centre, said the figures showed how high the demand for places was. "Any examination of the results that are obtained by grant-maintained schools in London or elsewhere seems to indicate that they are doing rather better."