A thorough review of class sizes is being called for by the National Commission on Education, which points out that the UK has one of the worst primary staffing ratios of all the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations.
Eighteen months ago, the commission recommended that within five years it should be mandatory that no primary pupils should be taught in classes of more than 30, with a limit of 20 for the youngest two years in circumstances of particular need. The expenditure needed to do this and to make high-quality nursery education available for all three and four-year-olds would bring the UK more into line with other countries.
"The case for increased investment in early-years provision seems now to be accepted by the Government, but no action has yet been taken. On the contrary, the average size of classes in primary schools has increased for over a decade and is certain to increase again in 1995-96," the report says.
It adds that in 1992, 20 per cent of primary classes contained 31 or more pupils; a proportion which had increased to 23 per cent by 1994. In secondary classes the equivalent 1994 figure was 5.3 per cent. That had increased by less than 1 per cent over the same two years.
The commissioners want to see a national framework and regularly updated local plans for nursery services. Nationally, they want a lead department co-ordinating education and care policy for the under fives, targets for places and staff training, criteria on curriculum and staffing levels, inspection arrangements, a database of information and commitment to the necessary expenditure.
The commission is also keen to raise standards by looking at teaching, management and innovation in schools.
Official complacency about recruitment during the recession has wasted time, it says, and the large numbers of applicants necessary to select high-quality staff have not been attracted.
It adds: "It may be noted that teachers' pay is currently 2 per cent above average non-manual earnings in comparison with 37 per cent 20 years ago. Research . . . suggests that a 1 per cent fall in teachers' starting salaries relative to other occupations results in a drop of 4 per cent in the supply of graduates to teaching."
Management and staffing in schools deserves special study, it says, suggesting that the Department for Education might undertake research to help answer questions on the optimum mixture of teachers and support workers. The Commission also reiterates its support for a General Teaching Council.
Another commission recommendation is that the DFE should develop a nationwide policy for innovation in education so that schools are made aware of new developments.
The commission is particularly concerned about the fate of schools in disadvantaged areas, and is currently working on a project called Success Against the Odds, which is making case studies of 11 particularly effective and improving schools in disadvantaged areas throughout the UK.
A book on the results of the case study research is due to be published in the autumn.