Rise before the fall...

Joan Dalton

Does size matter? We are about to find out. My little primary is a victim of its own success. Numbers have risen steadily over the past few years, which means that our Small Schools' Protection has dropped proportionally. This, combined with the phasing-out of our LMS transitional support and the general cuts in education funding, mean we receive an astonishing 20 per cent less per pupil than we did four years ago. Which means larger classes.

Number juggling is particularly tricky for small primaries. We do not want to move children during the school year, but we have two intakes at Christmas and Easter who have to be integrated into the September framework. We start this year with three key stage 2 classes of 34 and two vertically grouped key stage 1 and reception classes of 27. Both of these will rise to 35 by Easter.

As usual, it is the summer-born children who lose out, not only by being the youngest of their year group and having less time in reception than their peers, but also by joining the school when it is at its most crowded.

Catch 22 of small primary staffing goes like this. "Because we have large classes, we need to employ classroom ancillaries to support the teaching staff. Because we employ classroom ancillaries, our budget is overstretched and we cannot afford more teachers, so class sizes continue to rise." We may be able to afford extra teaching support just for the Easter term - but this will have to be planned and advertised for just after Christmas, when we will have only provisional figures for our 1996-97 budget to work on.

The ancillaries are an enormous help, as are our parent helpers, student teachers, trainee nursery nurses, special needs staff and part-time teaching head; but the pressure on teachers in terms of planning, monitoring, assessing and reporting are huge. In a small school, they also all have responsibilities for subject areas. We are trying to squeeze out a little non-contact time for them, perhaps a day a term for report writing, but the money will have to come out of our slender supply budget, and stressed staff are more likely to take time off ill.

Most of the children who come to our school have attended playgroups. The Children Act lays down how much space each child needs and the required ratio of adults per eight children. So why is there no limit on the number of four-year-olds children one reception class teacher can be expected to cope with? Even with our support staff, we never achieve anything like that level of adult support.

But do not despair. I expect an announcement on class size from Mrs Shephard at any moment. It would be just as easy, and just as meaningless to stipulate key stage 1 class sizes of 25 as it was to announce nursery education for all four-year-olds. The small print would be the same in both cases, of course - no extra funding and the LEAs to enforce it, with the inevitable result of redundancies amongst support and clerical staff, heads having to teach more and conflict as governing bodies losing the much vaunted financial autonomy that LMS is supposed to have given them. It could increase opting-out rates dramatically - I cannot think why she has not done it already. Remember, you read it first here.

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