Smaller classes may cut choice

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The Independent Online
Parental choice of primary schools will "go out of the window" under government plans to limit infant class sizes to a maximum of 30, a head teachers' leader warned yesterday.

David Hart, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the restriction would inevitably mean fewer parents securing their first preference school since popular schools would be able to turn away children after filling all their places.

Enforcing the planned limit, to be included in a White Paper due next month, would require fundamental changes to the appeal system available to parents denied a place for their child at the school of their choice, Mr Hart said on the opening day of the Association's annual conference in Scarborough.

If the maximum was to be enforced, appeals panels - which currently grant the majority of appeals which proceed as far as a full hearing - would have to give up the power to force the school to take a pupil where the admission would push the size of a class above 30, he said. Parents would then be obliged to turn to a less heavily subscribed school in search of a place.

The move to cut class sizes for five to seven-year-olds to no more than 30 by 2000 was a key Labour manifesto pledge. At present, some 440,000 children in the age group are educated in classes above that number. The Government proposes to reduce class sizes using pounds 140m saved by abolishing the assisted places scheme, which funds places in private schools for children from poor backgrounds.

At present, Mr Hart said, admissions appeals panels were "prone to accept parental preference" unless a school could come up with a strong reason why a child could not be admitted. Class sizes were not considered a strong enough reason for refusal.

To keep class-size targets, the panels would have to make class sizes their key criterion, even though the move would undermine parental choice. Mr Hart added: "You can't have a policy of maximum class sizes of up to 30 and at the same time say there must be free and full parental choice."

The NAHT believes a statutory maximum size might leave heads with problems from parents and governors. The association would prefer to seestronger appeals panels and "more coherent" planning by local education authorities to ensure funds are used to keep class sizes down.

Schools Standards Minister Stephen Byers said the Government was aware of "potential difficulties," surrounding implication for parental choice. He said: "This is an issue that we will be addressing in the White Paper we will be publishing in June. We are confident we can reconcile our pledge to reduce class sizes with the need to allow parents to exercise a preference about the school their children should attend."

t Headteachers yesterday called on the Government to clear the way for substantial pay rises for heads and deputies to stem a growing tide of early departures from the profession.

Unveiling new figures showing a rise of over 90 per cent in the number of heads retiring early this school year compared with last, the National Association of Head Teachers said salary increases would be crucial in reversing the trend.