School leaders are having to increase class sizes, cut back support for vulnerable students and narrow the curriculum, according to findings revealing the "impossible choices" facing heads.
A survey by the Association of School and College Leaders found that class sizes are now as high as 40, support for vulnerable pupils is being scrapped and subjects are being dropped for financial reasons.
The survey of 1,054 ASCL members in England – mainly working in secondary schools – found that 82 per cent of respondents said their school has had to increase class sizes in the past 12 months.
The average largest class size among the cohort is 33 pupils. However, 129 respondents said their largest class has 35 or more pupils, while nine have 40 students or more.
The impact of class size on educational outcomes has been hotly debated. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs the Programme for International Student Assessment’s international education rankings, has said smaller classes do not boost pupils’ performance.
However, respondents to ASCL’s survey are adamant that funding-driven class-size increases are detrimentally affecting their schools. One leader commented: “As teaching loads increase, the increase in class sizes will impact on teachers’ ability to manage classroom behaviour, as they are more stressed and tired.”
In Wednesday's Budget, the government made funding available for new free schools, school infrastructure and to expand free transport to selective schools. However, it was criticised for not finding revenue money for schools that are facing a £3 billion funding squeeze by 2019-20.
According to the survey, 95 per cent of school leaders say that their support services have had to be cut back because of the funding situation.
There is particular concern that provision for vulnerable students will be impacted – 58 per cent of respondents said special needs support has been hit and 50 per cent said that mental health support has been affected.
One school leader, who responded to the survey, said: “The number of students with complex needs, including mental health conditions, is rising and we have had to cut the provision to support them.
“This has often only added to their distress and has made it more difficult for them to engage with their learning.”
The poll also suggests that funding pressures are leading to a narrowing of the curriculum. Seventy-two per cent of respondents whose schools teach key stage 4 said courses had had to be removed from their GCSE options or vocational subjects.
For respondents in schools with sixth forms, 79 per cent said they have had to drop A levels or vocational subjects.
ASCL interim general secretary Malcolm Trobe said: “This survey shows the impossible choices school leaders are having to make. Reduced budgets means fewer staff and with fewer staff, class sizes have to increase.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government has protected the core schools budget in real terms since 2010, with funding at its highest level on record. But the system for distributing that funding across the country is unfair, opaque and outdated. We are going to end the postcode lottery in school funding and under the proposed national schools funding formula, more than half of England’s schools will receive a cash boost.
“We recognise that schools are facing cost pressures, which is why we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding in cost-effective ways.”
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