Closer to the gods

29th September 1995 at 01:00
Government apologists will, as always, respond to tomorrow's London demonstration over education cuts and rising class sizes (page 4) by pointing out that Pacific Rim countries get better results from even bigger classes. But they will "forget" to add some important caveats.

In Chinese societies, such as Hong Kong, the teacher has traditionally been revered as a "surrogate emperor" who is "close to the gods". As mere mortals, British teachers are therefore hardly competing on equal terms. Moreover, in Japan, which is often held up as the most academically successful country in the world (though South Korea and Taiwan could dispute that) primary school classes are, on average, smaller than ours, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Professor David Reynolds, one of the leading school effectiveness gurus, is therefore right to open up the debate on whether we should at least consider adopting some Japanese educational practices (page 15). Having studied primary teaching methods in nine countries, Professor Reynolds and his colleagues from the International School Effectiveness Research Project have concluded that the child- and group-centred strategies employed by most UK state school teachers can only be mastered by the most able practitioners. Front-of-class teaching, preferably from a 4inch-high stage so that every child has a good view of the teacher, may therefore be preferable, they suggest. Many teachers will chortle dismissively at such an idea. If you have a large class of infants with butterfly attention spans it does not matter how high a plinth you stand on, they will tell you wearily. Even the best teachers will still struggle to hold their attention - particularly if, as is increasingly the case, some of the children are disruptive or lacking even rudimentary social skills.

That is why Staffordshire's imaginative plan to spend Pounds 800,000 on improved infant pupil-teacher ratios in the 40 schools catering for the most disadvantaged children (page 4) will strike most teachers as a more practical proposition. Although we must now wait to see which educational Peter will be robbed to pay for this Paul it does appear to be a sensible investment. The Tennessee STAR project that has impressed Staffordshire's education committee established that the benefits of being taught in a class of 13-17 were still visible two years after children had returned to normal-sized classes.

Staffordshire should not, however, have to totter off down this road alone, without so much as a "Good luck" from the Government. Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, is aware that the current state-school pupil-teacher ratios are the worst for 15 years, that the gulf between state and independent school PTRs is growing, that 1 million primary children are in classes of more than 30, that school rolls will continue growing for at least the next two years, and that probably 4,500 teaching jobs have disappeared this year (bringing the redundancy total to 16,500 since 1992). But she and her Cabinet colleagues have expressed no public concern about the problem and have now added insult to the injury that many teachers, governors and parents feel by announcing that they want to abandon the minimum teaching and playground space requirements for children.

Mrs Shephard, who has been overheard to say that she does not need to see any more research on class size effects, is right to question whether it would be sensible to invest millions in trying to reduce primary and secondary classes by one or two pupils. Bigger classes will undoubtedly create more teacher stress and may mean that special needs children in mainstream schools will receive less attention. However, as Professor Michael Bassey of Nottingham Trent University has pointed out, it would have cost up to Pounds 600 million to reduce the average class size from 27 to 24 in 1993. In any case, the evidence on the effect that class size has on the achievement of older primary children and secondary pupils is equivocal.

But the Government's reluctance to reduce infant PTRs is much harder to justify when research has repeatedly illustrated the value of devoting more time and space to very young children. Even the Office for Standards in Education accepts the value of concentrating teaching resources on the early years.

In the short term, the Government should be backing up its fine talk about the importance of education by providing the sort of targeted cash injection that Staffordshire envisages. The longer-term objective, however, must be to correct the imbalance in school funding which means that secondary schools get almost twice as much funding per pupil as primary schools receive. No government will relish the prospect of having to correct that anomaly, but it now seems inevitable that the weighting will have to shift, albeit gradually. Anyone who doubts that should spend a week in a reception class of 35.

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