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Class-cutting trial awaits go-ahead

The size of reception and early-years class sizes in some of the most overcrowded primary schools in Britain could be cut by half.

Staffordshire County Council, which has some of the worst pupil:teacher ratios in England and Wales, will begin consulting schools and governing bodies next week on an Pounds 800,000 plan, drawn up by council officials with the local teaching unions.

A decision on the scheme, which would target money at 40 primary schools with the largest number of children from deprived backgrounds, is expected in December. Details on how it will be funded will not be known until the county's budget is agreed in the New Year.

The authority hopes the money, which would be channelled through a revised local management funding formula, will enable the schools to reduce reception and key stage 1 classes to 15 by employing additional teachers. Currently nearly 46 per cent of Staffordshire primary children are taught in classes of more than 30.

The consultation exercise aims to help schools target limited funds more effectively and to encourage those likely to receive the money to use it as intended. Under LMS, governing bodies can decide how to spend money in budgets delegated from the LEA.

Derek D'Hooghe, deputy director of education, said: "We can give the money to schools but we cannot tell them how to spend it. We will clearly explain why the money has been made available and monitor how it has been used."

The scheme is based on research in Tennessee by the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project which demonstrated that young children in reception and early-years classes in primary schools consistently do better if they begin their school career in small classes of around 15. Children from deprived backgrounds benefited the most from learning in this environment.

Next week the BBC screens a half-hour documentary Learning By Numbers which follows the progress of children in a Staffordshire primary school. In an experiment based on the STAR research a class of 31 seven-year-olds was split to demonstrate the effect of smaller classes. The programme, part of The Knowledge series of documentaries on education, finds that the class teacher rapidly begins to draw some of the beneficial conclusions of the much larger US study. The teacher, Kath Bates, says: "I felt my relationship with the children improved. I had not realised how much I was missing by not being able to talk to them more."

Classes were more orderly and she was able to pick up and correct errors the children made during lessons more readily.

British researchers have been pressing education ministers to fund a UK study based on the STAR research, but so far the Department for Education and Employment has not responded positively. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, concedes in the BBC programme that the way in which resources are divided between primary and secondary schools - where classes tend to be smaller - needs revising. But he maintains that research on the effect of class size remains inconclusive.

Education chiefs in Staffordshire believe their scheme could be used as the basis for a pilot study. However, funding the attempt to bring some of the county's classes down to 15 could prove controversial. With the county already close to the Government's limit on total spending, the obvious options - increasing council tax rates or shifting resources from other parts of the council budget - are likely to meet with resistance.b The council has ruled out taking money from secondary schools.

And although the targeted schools will welcome the cash, it will do little for heads in more affluent areas.

Chris McDonnell, headteacher of Fulfen primary in Burntwood near Lichfield, where he has vertically split year groups above reception in order to reduce class sizes for the youngest children, says: "If I have to keep cutting back staff to make the budget balance I am penalising children. We're having to reduce drastically other areas of the budget just to hang on to staff."

Keith Evans, head of Burton Manor in Stafford, where an experienced science specialist took early retirement last year to enable the books to balance, says: "Helping schools with disadvantaged children is fine, but the pressure remains for the rest of us."

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