There is probably a wider divergence in the pupil-teacher ratios (PTR) for primary-age pupils across Europe than for any other single measure in the education system. This is partly because of differences between countries in school starting age and the provision of pre-school facilities in the various education systems.
However, across Europe this is an age group where there has been additional spending in recent years. Only four of the 27 EU member states experienced any worsening of pupil-teacher ratios for the primary age-group between 1998 and 2007.
France was one of the four, and although the increase was only in the order of 0.1 pupil per teacher, between 1999 and 2007 that was enough to move it into bottom place, with a PTR of 19.7, compared with 19.4 in the UK.
Of course, in both France and the UK, there are wide regional and local differences around this average figure, and PTRs do not translate precisely into class sizes. This is partly because of differences in calculating contact time and other duties expected of teachers. The UK has seen a rapid growth in the use of teaching assistants during the past decade, but PTRs have also improved.
What is striking is the grouping of countries towards the extreme ends of the scale. Some 15 of the 27 countries have PTRs of better than 15 pupils to one teacher, with nine countries where it is better than 12:1. On the other hand, there are 12 countries where the PTR is worse than 15:1, with four, including the UK where it is worse than 18:1. Indeed, in France, Germany and the UK, all countries where education is important for economic prosperity, the primary PTR is above 18:1, whereas in Poland it is 11:1.
These figures were recorded at the height of the economic boom. What will happen when the effects of the recession finally catch up with education? Only time will tell. But perhaps this time around primaries will be more protected than in the past as the value of early learning has become more widely acknowledged.
John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.