Class size cannot limit choice, ministers warn

12th June 1998 at 01:00
Parental preference must not be compromised in the battle to reduce infant class sizes, education ministers have warned.

Education minister Stephen Byers this week told local authorities that any plans they submitted for reducing class sizes to the Government's target of a 30-pupil maximum would be rejected if they also reduced parental preference.

A report for the Local Government Association last week blamed admissions procedures and parental appeals for more than half of over-sized classes for five, six and seven-year-olds.

Redirecting pupils to spare places in nearby schools was put forward as a possible solution in some areas by the Coopers amp; Lybrand report.

But after a meeting with the LGA to discuss its findings, Mr Byers said: "In our meeting, it was made clear that our pledge to cut class sizes will be met and it will be achieved by targeting extra teachers and additional classrooms at those schools which are popular with parents."

That means the Government will have to tolerate more surplus places andor provide cash for more new classrooms, according to Graham Lane, the LGA's education committee chairman.

"The main thing will be the building of more classrooms, creating extra space in schools that have reached their standard number (admission limit)," he said.

"The Government still needs to think through some of the implications of that. I think there still needs to be some diminution of parental preference. If they don't want to reduce parental preference, it's more expensive."

The Coopers amp; Lybrand report illustrates the dilemmas facing schools and education authorities as they tackle large class sizes, via a series of case studies based on real schools.

A three-form entry infant school within a mile of two less popular schools, which has separate year groups, a standard annual intake of 96, and eight out of nine classes with more than 30 pupils, could: Reduce the intake to 90 and redirect any pupils in excess of this to the neighbouring schools. This would be unpopular with parents, go against Government guidance on parental preference, and reduce the financial resources available to the school.

Maintain nine classes but have one of 48 with two full-time teachers. This maintains the school's financial resources - but requires readjustment or additional money to pay for another teacher. There may not be a teaching space large enough for such a class, and there will be mixed-age teaching.

Create a 10th class, with one mixed-age class of at least 18 pupils covering reception and first year. An extra classroom area is needed while the appeals committee may increase the class of 18 to 30 giving a school total of 300.

Create a 10th class and reorganise on mixed-age classes (giving average age spans of between three and four months, or up to seven months, depending on how you do it). Again, this requires an additional class space, and may lead - on appeal - to an increase in overall numbers. Some classes will be made up of children from two traditional school years.

Retain the intake at 96 but alter the admission age to the statutory limit (term after fifth birthday), so reducing numbers in the reception class. This has knock-on effects for other schools, will affect the education authority's under-fives policy, and be unpopular with parents unless they get equivalent nursery provision.

In other examples cited, schools might have to sacrifice "jealously guarded" resource and library rooms, or install mobile classrooms to meet class-size requirements.

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