At the start of the 1990s, pupil numbers were beginning to rise again, after falling sharply during the 1980s. As teacher numbers had not fallen nearly as fast as pupil rolls during the 1980s, the staffing ratios were close to their best-ever levels in 1990-91. From then on, there was a decade of rising pupil numbers, and falling real expenditure, at least in England. By January 2000, staffing ratios in secondary schools across the UK were worse than in 1990-91.
This was not the case in primaries, however. By 1999-2000, the staffing position in primary schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was better than it had been in 1990-91. Only England failed to match the early 1990s figures. Nevertheless, as the impact of the First Comprehensive Spending Review has begun to be felt, the ratios have started to improve in England, too.
Despite the recent improvements, the UK fared badly in a recent international comparison of pupil:teacher ratios by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The UK was placed 17th out of 22 countries in the primary table, even though private institutions were included, and 15th for secondaries.
Declining pupil numbers should lead to improvements in staffing over the next few years, unless there is a spending clampdown. By the end of this decade, the figures might even be better than they were 12 years ago. But as large numbers of classroom assistants begin to take on teaching roles, it will become increasingly difficult to tell how meaningful these statistics are.
John Howson is a director of Education Data Surveys.