Clarke: We were wrong to focus on class size

10th December 2010 at 00:00
Former education secretary backs Coalition decision to prioritise teacher quality

Labour was wrong to prioritise smaller class sizes, a former education secretary said this week as he threw his weight behind the emphasis on teacher quality adopted by the Coalition Government.

Charles Clarke admitted that the research case behind the class size policy he trumpeted while secretary of state between 2002-2004 did not "stack up".

"When you go through all the educational research there is not that much research which proves that a maximum class size of 30 is the key thing to do," he told a meeting at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha.

"There is more research which says (recruiting) high quality teachers is the thing to do."

Cutting class sizes to 30 or less for five, six and seven-year-olds was one of five central pledges made by Labour in its 1997 election campaign. The party changed the law to require all infant classes to meet the limit from the start of the 2001-02 academic year.

It missed the target but that did not stop Mr Clarke from heralding the "important part" that class size reduction had played in the "strategy to raise standards".

This week he told The TES: "I strongly supported it. I thought it was the right thing to do. But actually I don't think the research stacks up, that it makes such a major difference. I would never say you want large classes but I think higher-quality teachers must be the priority."

The change in tack from Mr Clarke, now a visiting professor at the University of East Anglia, echoes the conclusion of an influential report from the McKinsey consultancy in 2007.

It inspired Education Secretary Michael Gove, who made teacher quality a central theme of last month's schools white paper.

Mr Clarke suggested there were "some quite serious vested interests" in the UK acting against improving teaching.

"People believe that once they trained to be a teacher ... then that's enough," he said. "At the age of 21 they know it and another 40 years later they are doing it the same way."

The former education secretary also admitted that despite Labour's emphasis on basic numeracy and literacy there was still a long way to go.

"In Britain, where we have seen big improvements in the performance of people reaching basic standards over the last 15 years or so, there is still an unacceptably large number of people who can't read or write at the most basic level," he told the conference.


Learn 'em - PowerPoint

Coalition ministers already rail against what they see as the "faddish" skills elements added to the national curriculum under Labour.

But this week Charles Clarke revealed that he had wanted to go further still and had considered requiring all pupils to learn how to use PowerPoint.

"I often toyed with the idea of trying to get an aspect of the British curriculum system called articulacy," the former education secretary told the WISE conference.

"An ability for every pupil to be able to write something clearly, to be able to stand and speak for five minutes in front of a group, to be able to do a PowerPoint presentation. There are many, many people who leave university not able to explain themselves very clearly. Some university professors are in that category as well."

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