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Super-size class plans

Sacked civil servants to assist in schools. William Stewart and Michael Shaw report.

Extra support staff would allow good teachers to teach "very large" classes under a government blueprint to streamline the public sector, revealed this week.

Sir Peter Gershon's draft efficiency review suggests that some of the new high-level classroom assistants could come from the ranks of 80,000 civil servants who will lose their jobs if ministers follow his recommendations.

It says that up to pound;2.2 billion worth of productivity gains could be made in schools through more use of support staff and technology.

The report appears to echo some of the thinking in a confidential Department for Education and Skills discussion paper, revealed by The TES in December, that suggested schools should exploit new "freedoms" to give support staff a much bigger role.

It is unclear whether Gershon is going quite as far as the controversial "blue skies" paper, rejected by the DfES, which said teacher numbers could be reduced.

But its recommendation of more high-level classroom assistants and support teachers so that "good teachers are able to teach very large classes" will alarm many in education and provide critics of the DfES's workforce reforms with new ammunition.

Last year The TES revealed the DfES's school workforce national remodelling team had suggested that single teachers could take classes of 80 pupils.

Government plans for the next generation of schools unveiled last week included classrooms big enough to teach up to 90 pupils.

Some schools are already merging classes under a single teacher for particular parts of the curriculum or to cover for absence.

Ministers have praised schools such as Kemnal technology college, in Kent for pioneering use of teaching assistants. The school runs classes of up to 75, with teachers being helped by support staff.

The draft Gershon report, leaked to the Financial Times, is reported as saying that innovative approaches to reducing absence levels, such as using non teachers as cover, could lead to product-ivity gains worth pound;400-pound;800 million.

It suggests that by using the online curriculum effectively lesson preparation time could be cut with a saving of pound;240-pound;500m.

Transfer of administrative and pupil support roles to non-teaching staff could save pound;450-pound;925m.

It implies that some of those staff could be civil servants redeployed from human resources and finance if the report's recommendations were implemented.

Sir Peter, a former chief operating officer for BAE Systems now heading the Office of Government Commerce, has suggested slashing 80,000 civil service jobs to save pound;15bn a year. The DfES confirmed last month it was planning to shed between 700 and 800 jobs between now and 2006.

David Normington, DfES permanent secretary, told staff that this was "a minimum figure and likely to rise". Chris Keates, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers deputy general secretary, said she did not have a problem with schools merging classes so long as it had been agreed with teachers and did not reduce their numbers.

John Bangs, National Union of Teachers' head of education, said the report showed how Whitehall workload discussions failed to reflect classroom realities.

A DfES spokeswoman said reforms would free teachers to give pupils more individual support.

Dave Prentis, general of secretary of Unison, the biggest support staff union, said it was bizarre to suggest that civil servants could be parachuted into highly-skilled jobs in schools.

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