PROPOSITIONS: Busting out of the classroom

We must limit the ratio of children to teachers, says Nichola Gregory

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In 1993, more than a quarter of primary schoolchildren were in classes of more than 30 pupils. Even if the Government decides later this week to fund the teachers' pay rise in full, other cuts will still leave some schools facing class sizes of 4

0 from September. It is time to impose a statutory upper limit on class size.

Since the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced local management of schools, funds have been directly related to pupil numbers. The temptation is for schools to accept more children in order to get more money. Also, the introduction of league tables has encouraged parents to appeal when their child fails to secure the school of their choice. The number of such appeals has escalated in the past year, resulting in many schools having to admit more children than they can comfortably cater

for.

The Government has always argued there is no evidence that class size has an impact on the effectiveness of education. But ask any parent what they would want! Independent schools make a feature of their small class sizes - often the reason parents give for choosing private education. And there has been convincing research in the US to show that reducing class size to below 20 pupils for younger children produces long-term benefits.

The teaching of the national curriculum, in particular, is demanding of teachers' time, and the emphasis on assessment requires that teachers monitor closely each child's progress. The national curriculum places great emphasis on every child being entitled to a broad and balanced education. Yet entitlement to a reasonable class size depends mostly on geography. If you are lucky enough to live in north London's Haringey, there is a 3 per cent chance your child will be in a class of more than 30, but across town in Redbridge the figure is 55 per cent. Rural counties are similarly disparate: Suffolk's figure is 12.6 per cent, Dorset's 41.5 per cent. The Campaign for State Education wants a legal maximum of 30.

Most European countries have such a legal ceiling: in Finland, for pupils aged seven to19, the maximum is 32; in Greece it is 35. Norway's primary classes may not exceed 28. Germany has variations across the autonomous regions, but in most the figure is 29. In Scotland, class size is governed by agreements in teachers' conditions of service, which stipulate 33 at primary level, and 25 for mixed-age classes. Regulations in the US vary not just from state to state but county to county; Texas stipulates a ratio of 22:1 "to ensure mastering of skills".

To legislate for a maximum class of 30 is not a cheap option. But there would be a direct saving a few years down the line on the enormous costs of special education for children with behavioural and educational needs who never had a fair start. And withcontinuing school closures and mergers, we must resist the drift to an unthinking acceptance of ever larger classes for short-term financial gain.

The writer is chairman of the Campaign for State Education.

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