Excellence comes in many sizes

Large classes don't matter in good schools, argues Anne Spackman
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From the ages of nine to 10, I was taught in a class of 46 children. Though that was particularly large, it was not freakish in a school where classes generally numbered between 40 and 45. We were third years at Abbey Junior School, a state primary in Darlington, County Durham, and that year with Miss Thompson ranks as one of the best learning experiences I ever had. Miss Thompson, of course, may remember it differently.

The year was 1969-70, when experimental teaching methods were in full swing. Our school was no exception. Though we were mainly taught at desks, we also did group work. We even tried "integral" days, in which each child had to complete a number of tasks during the school day in whatever order they chose.

During breaks and lunch times we were often to be found in the small quadrangle by the hall, where one of the staff supervised high jump. We played netball and rounders and had a running strip so that we could compete in the Amateur Athletic Association five star awards. All this in addition to a full programme of reading, writing and arithmetic, basic French and projects about the Elizabethans and suchlike.

There were two reasons for the school's success. First, it served an overwhelmingly middle-class catchment area. Children came to school after a good night's sleep, no horror videos and with breakfast inside them. The school was not required to operate as a social services department.

But more important than that was the school ethos. Its aim was not to make the children happy or make them feel part of the community, but to make sure they learnt as much as possible in as many subjects as possible. The school encouraged participation and excellence. There was never the view that if you were above average for your age that was enough; every child had to reach the maximum of his or her potential. This is the crucial quality that many parents find absent in the state sector and which drives them on to the waiting-lists of independent schools.

Many of the schools currently faced with bursting classes are in a similarly privileged position to Abbey Junior. My elder son's infants school is one. It is desperately trying to hold class numbers down to 30, but more than 100 in-catchment children have applied for 60 places - one of them being my second son. Though I would prefer him to be taught in a smaller class - and I hope it can be achieved for the teachers' sake too - it would not make me think twice about sending him there.

According to ISIS, the Independent Schools Advisory Service, which makes its annual report tomorrow, Manchester Grammar School has roughly the same number of pupils in its lower forms as neighbouring comprehensives. King Edward VI School in Birmingham is the same. Yet parents are still desperate to send their children there because they know they will be well educated.

Class size has become a convenient shibboleth. If, like many of the most trendy parents who send their children to private schools, you do so reluctantly, it is easy to use smaller classes as the justification. When ISIS asks parents anonymously why they opt for independent schools, they put high standards and discipline top.

How many of the parents who think a selective, disciplined, ambitious environment is best for their child are willing to say publicly that they think it is good for everyone else's? Very few it seems. Instead, they talk about single-sex education, church schools and class sizes; they say it depends on the individual child.

State schools are very closely associated with the councils that control them. Many reluctant private school users are Labour voters living in Labour-controlled local authorities. If they want their local schools to be good enough for their own children, they have to stand up for some politically uncomfortable tenets. Would they be going private if we still had grammar schools?