Successful but 'desperately squashed'

Emma Burstall

"My special talent is for making bricks without clay and straw," comments Trafford head David Higgins, who regularly teaches classes of 39 yet manages to achieve impressive results.

Last year three-quarters of the top year at 560-strong Brooklands primary school in leafy, middle-class Sale, passed the 11-plus exam and went to one of the Greater Manchester borough's five selective grammar schools. Inevitably, Mr Higgins often wonders how much more they might achieve if taught in groups of a reasonable size.

This autumn staff are coping with classes of no fewer than 33 pupils, mostly between 35 and 39. The figure is only marginally better than last year when one class in Year 3 had 40 pupils.

"In a sense we're victims of our own success," Mr Higgins says. "Estate agents often use the school as a selling point for houses in the area.

"Trafford is one of the lowest funders of primary education in the country ever, and we're one of the lowest-funded schools. I don't think classes should be above 32-36. With that number, we could get the right sort of money to run quite a generous staffing allowance, including classroom assistants. But with more than that we're desperately squashed. We badly need new buildings. I often have to teach in the canteen."

Brooklands is not the only primary school in Trafford with large class sizes. Provisional figures for 1995 show that 52.2 per cent of primary pupils are in classes of 31 or over.

According to a new report by Oxford Brookes University, since 1979 when the Conservatives came to power the borough has dropped from 9th to 93rd in the ranking of 95 local authorities' primary pupil:teacher ratios (PTRs).

Trafford's new Labour chair of education, David Acton, says Labour inherited the problems from the previous Conservative administration.

"The Tories spent very little on education in order to keep council tax as low as possible. As a result, there has been a gradual increase in class sizes. Furthermore, when local management was introduced the extra weighting went to the secondary sector at the expense of the primary," he explains.

"Dealing with the problem is one of our top priorities, but we don't want to take from the secondary schools where the PTRs are also rising. Instead, we'd like to try and top up the primary sector and gradually close the gap. However,there's every chance class sizes will go up even more if the Government is set on giving very bad settlements to local authorities."

Spending on Trafford schools has increased only slightly above the rate of inflation in recent years. Between 199495 and 199596, devolved funding in primary, secondary and special schools rose from Pounds 44.8m to Pounds 46.8m, an increase of 4.5 per cent.

Ray Else, assistant director of education, admits that national statistics show the borough comes a long way down in the league tables on spending in primary schools in particular.

"However, we are spending Pounds 2.3m above the Government's Standard Spending Assessment for Trafford primary schools, largely because of the investments we've made for under-fives," he claims.

Brian Rigby, the Conservatives' education spokesperson, blames large class sizes not on underfunding but on the popularity of Trafford's schools with parents in and out of the borough. There has also been an unforeseen flurry of new housing developments, Mr Rigby adds.

"We believe in parental choice, but it does mean that we have an admissions problem and we need to add to school buildings in order to meet public demand."

This is cold comfort, however, for teachers dealing with bigger and bigger classes. Eddie Smallridge, head of 950-strong Lostock high school, Stretford, Trafford, a co-educational secondary modern, says although no classes at present have more than 30 pupils, the PTR is gradually increasing. Technology staff recently complained to governors that class sizes had reached 23 or 24 when the recommended figure is below 20.

"I can only see the PTR getting worse unless there is a change in allocation of resources from central Government or the local authority," he says.

Arthur Crosby, secretary of Trafford's National Union of Teachers branch, is equally gloomy.

"Teachers are extremely un-happy about class sizes. Some schools are having to put three age groups together because there aren't enough staff.

One of the problems is that although there's an increase in pupils across the borough, each school may only get three or four extra children which isn't enough to buy more teachers."

The problem has been compounded by the fact that through the late Seventies and early Eighties, Trafford responded to falling rolls by closing some schools and amalgamating others.

The council failed to anticipate the present boom in pupils from outside the borough, Mr Crosby says.

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