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Classes are already overcrowded

Primary heads think worsening pupil: teacher ratios are undermining curriculum reform. David Budge reports.

Teaching unions will find further evidence to support their campaign against oversized classes in a survey report to be released by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

Nearly 60 per cent of the 265 English and Welsh primary headteachers who took part in the NFER study said that their key stage 2 classes were too big to enable "adequate" teaching of the national curriculum.

One fairly typical comment was: "Class sizes have increased to an alarming extent since local management of schools was introduced. Classes of 35 are now the norm."

About two-thirds of the heads also said that they had mixed-age classes containing key stage 2 pupils and the majority of them admitted that these classes had been formed for reasons of expediency rather than any educational aim.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the heads told the researchers that if their schools were to receive a hypothetical five per cent increase in funding their top priorities would be to recruit more teaching staff and classroomwelfare assistants rather than invest the money in books and equipment.

Government ministers may find some satisfaction in another, apparently contradictory, finding: about 70 per cent of the heads were "reasonably satisfied" that their schools' overall staffing complement at key stage 2 was adequate. But the author of the survey report, Wendy Keys, a principal research officer with the NFER, said this probably reflected heads' general satisfaction with the quality - rather than the quantity - of their staff.

Many heads are, however, still frustrated by the lack of non-contact time for key stage 2 teachers, a problem that has assumed more importance as a result of the increase in record-keeping. Eighty-six per cent said that non-contact time was either very inadequate or inadequate.

The heads were also concerned about the low standard of school facilities for science, technology and PE at key stage 2.

Two-thirds of them said that their school was inadequately resourced in this respect and a third said that they needed new textbooks, library books and equipment such as computers or music keyboards.

More than 80 per cent did say, however, that they had enough "consumables", such as paper or wood.

The survey revealed that the heads are much less interested in promoting specialist teaching at key stage 2 than the Government might like.

Only five per cent of them gave this a high priority, but most of the heads did attach great importance to three other aims: developing pupils' learning in the core subjects, helping pupils to develop an independent approach to learning, and developing pupils' personal and social skills.

The survey, the second of its kind to be mounted by the NFER, had a wider focus than simply key stage 2. The researchers also asked several "barometer" questions on such issues as the impact of school governing bodies, parental involvement, budgetary matters and special educational needs, which will be repeated in future surveys to monitor changes in schools' perspectives over time.

These revealed that heads' main areas of concern are (in order of priority): budgets, inspection, curriculum change, staffing, special educational needs, school buildings, national curriculum assessment, parental pressures and specific aspects of the national curriculum.

The relatively high placing awarded to special needs is somewhat surprising, but this may be partly due to the additional demands made by the new SEN code of practice (see page 14).

Nearly 40 per cent of heads said that the proportion of pupils with SEN statements had increased since 1992 and just under a half reported that the proportion had remained the same.

But the researchers did not attempt to establish whether that increase in statementing was due to a change of local education authority policy or a rise in the number of children with special needs coming into schools.

They did, however, ask more detailed questions on the role of governing bodies.

More than three-quarters of the heads acknowledged that their governors had had a strong impact on staff appointments and about half said that they had had an important influence on resource management and staffing structures.

Fewer heads (about a third) considered that their governors had had a significant impact on the school's aims and objectives, development planning, and SEN policies. And very few heads (less than 10 per cent) thought that the governors had exerted a strong influence over the implementation of the national curriculum.

The survey also provides an interesting insight into the roles of non-teaching staff and parents.

About two-thirds of the heads said that the total number of hours worked by administrative and secretarial staff had grown since September 1992, while 60 per cent reported that classroom and welfare assistants were also working longer hours.

The researchers conclude that the overall number of parents who are helping in or out of the classroom is still relatively small.

But the range of activities they are involved in appears to be growing. Not only are they listening to children read and accompanying groups on visits, they are also taking on maintenance jobs that would have been carried out by local authority staff in the days before before local management of schools.

Heads reported that parents had helped to paint school buildings, put up shelves, undertaken clerical duties, and trimmed hedges. Some had even acted as cleaners.

Wendy Keys said she had been surprised to learn that parents were doing such jobs. "It could be said that this is more evidence of schools trying to use parents to save money," she said. "But there is a positive side to this too, in that anything that involves parents in their children's education is to be welcomed.

"The pity is that our survey confirms that it is the schools in more favoured areas that are benefiting most from parental involvement and this is widening the gap between them and the disadvantaged schools."

Copies of the report can be obtained free from the Dissemination Unit, NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough SL1 2DQ. Telephone 01753-574123.

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