Professor Alan Smithers: Government still has time to change children's lives

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The Government has missed a trick. With primary pupil numbers falling and more money being found for education it had a golden opportunity to make a decisive difference to class sizes in primary schools. Instead, it looks as though the trend is worsening.

I have never understood why it was thought acceptable that primary schools should have to make do with one-third fewer teachers than secondary schools. It is the youngest children who need individual attention the most. But the UK has one of the highest average primary class sizes in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The Government will claim it has funded more teaching assistants. But these should have been in addition to, not instead of, more teachers.

The Government deserves credit for imposing a limit of 30 on infants' classes, though this is still too high. But even allowing for parents winning appeals and children moving into an area, this is being exceeded far too often. The Rose review of the primary curriculum, with its proposals for earlier entry, could exacerbate the situation further.

It is still not too late for the Government to act. Primary pupil numbers are at a nadir. The teachers have been trained and are ready to be employed. Money, though tight and becoming tighter, could be diverted from other sectors of education.

If the Government is not up for it, we should challenge all parties in the coming election. The earliest years of education are the best chance of intervening to make a real difference to children's lives.

Professor Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University

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