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Class sizes face threat from parent power

Has the Government promised the parents of infant children more than it can deliver? Dorothy Lepkowska reports

The Government's plans to cut infant class sizes came under fire from school governors this week for potentially causing problems if schools are forced to expand.

The warning came as Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, announced that extra teachers would be employed if parental demand was pushing infant class sizes over 30, and that money would be found to increase the size of popular schools.

At the same time he threatened low-achieving schools with closure unless local authorities could justify keeping them open (see story below). He also said that it would be harder to close rural schools but pledged that no child would be forced to attend a failing or unsatisfactory school.

The pronouncements led to calls for clarification. How big should schools become? And can governors be forced to accept children into schools which are already full?

Governors predicted "disaster" if popular schools expanded out of control.

Pat Petch of the National Governors' Council, said: "It is time the Government accepted that there are schools which are already genuinely full.

"We can see a situation where we will resurrect all those Portakabins which were dumped near railway sidings over the past few years. If you expand a school you change the very reason parents wanted to send their children there in the first place. The dynamics do not remain the same."

The expansion of good schools also raises questions over the future of those which are less popular, and Labour's previous commitments of "excellence for all", Ms Petch added.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University, said that all children should expect a sound education. "There is a danger that parental choice will become a proxy for a particular kind of selection which would result in the creation of some excellent schools but also sink schools, which would exaggerate the differences between children and lead to a more unequal society," he said.

Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee, broadly backed the Government initiatives, claiming that they could be made to work.

But he expressed anxiety over the question of parental choice. He said: "The issue of parental choice and preference becomes troublesome when you consider that while governors may decide to put 32 pupils in a class there will be those parents who want their youngsters educated in a class of no more than 30. Where, then, does their parental preference fit in?" John Acres, who led a parents' group to fight the for rural schools in Warwickshire four years ago, welcomed moves to make it harder to close them.

"The Government has acknowledged the focal point that village schools occupy in their communities. But it also needs to adopt a more holistic approach to rural education because the closure of schools has wider implications," he said.

Mr Byers said the Government planned to work with local authorities, governors, teachers and parents to "overcome the practical problems which clearly exist" with reducing class sizes.

"In the year 2000 we shall have pound;100 million available to ensure that we can both meet parental preference and reduce class sizes. In regard to village schools, we want them to act as real community resources, recognising the vital role that they play," he said.

What the Government has said

Village schools

Greater protection against the closure of rural schools. The Secretary of State can call in all proposals and make the final decision.

Class sizes

Infant class of 31 or more will automatically trigger an additional teacher to be provided by the local education authority, using Government money set aside for reducing class sizes.

Parental choice

Unpopular and failing schools with surplus places will be closed down - unless local authorities can make a case why they should not be - and the money saved will be used to expand popular schools.

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