Soaring numbers of pupils taught in ‘supersized’ classes

Government has allowed overcrowding ‘crisis’ to build over decade, says opposition

Adam Forrest,Lamiat Sabin
Sunday 08 August 2021 22:02 BST
Children at Manor Park School in Knutsford, Cheshire
Children at Manor Park School in Knutsford, Cheshire (PA)

The number of school pupils in England packed into “supersized” classes has risen by 20 per cent under Tory rule, analysis reveals.

A study of government figures by the Labour Party shows that just over 900,000 pupils are now in classrooms of more than 30 – an increase of 150,000 since 2010.

Labour said the government was responsible for a “major crisis” in schools, with children from the poorest backgrounds “hit hardest” as the analysis showed that some of the most disadvantaged communities suffered from the worst overcrowding.

Peter Kyle, the shadow schools minister, said: “Boris Johnson promised that education would be a priority on his watch. Instead, his government has continued with the Tory trend of rising class sizes and lowering social mobility. This was a major problem before the pandemic, this is now a major crisis.”

Teaching unions also condemned the rise in large classes, claiming it stemmed directly from government underfunding of the education system in England.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, told The Independent: “It says a lot that the largest class sizes are in the most deprived areas, and that this has got worse over the past decade of government cuts to education funding.

“If the government is serious about equality of opportunity for all children, it must invest so that every family can be certain of a great education, in a great school, with great teachers, regardless of where they are in the country.”

The average class size for all schools in England has increased over the past decade from 23.39 in 2010-11 to 24.54 in 2020-21, according to the analysis. The Department for Education (DfT) pointed to a decrease in average classes in primary schools this year compared to 2019-2020.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The increase in children in large classes is a direct result of government underfunding of the education system because schools are not able to afford the number of staff needed to maintain lower class sizes.”

The teaching union leader said it had become more difficult to provide individual support to pupils in “supersized” classrooms.

“Schools work very hard to overcome these difficulties and to minimise any impact on children and young people, but larger classes are far from ideal, and the government must do more to ensure that education funding is sufficient,” Mr Barton added.

The government’s “catch-up” tsar Sir Kevan Collins quit his post in June in protest at the government’s post-Covid education funding, saying it fell “far short of what is needed” to ease the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning.

The criticism over funding and class sizes comes as tens of thousands of students in England await to receive their A-level and GCSE results this week, after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row due to the pandemic.

The Labour Party leader warned on Sunday that a second straight year of exam results chaos is “not an option” – claiming ministerial “incompetence” had created extra stress for pupils as they wait for their results.

Sir Keir Starmer called for a “next-step” guarantee from government so that no young person is denied education, training or employment after they get their exam results.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson faced calls to quit and students protested over last year’s A-level results – after pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to have suffered the biggest reduction in grades from an “algorithm” system.

Writing in The Sun on Sunday, Mr Williamson said the government has put in place a system to “make sure grades are double-checked” and is “working hard behind the scenes with the higher education sector”.

Responding to the new analysis on the rise class sizes over the past decade, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “Schools and education staff have gone above and beyond over the course of the pandemic to make sure every child receives the education they deserve.

“At primary, average class sizes have decreased this year compared with 2019-20 – the majority of primary schools have 27 pupils or less per class. At secondary school class sizes remain stable, despite an increase of almost 800,000 pupils in the system since 2010.”

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