The demography of large classes

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Reducing infant classes to acceptable sizes is one of the issues of 1997. Several commentators perceive appeal committees as architects of overcrowding.

Few headteachers readily agree to take more pupils than the standard number, and it is the appeal committee that gives the green light to the extra ones. Circumscribing the appeal process is increasingly seen as a means of curbing class size.

My experience, from several years of primary appeals, is that bringing down class size is going to demand a different strategy from some of the measures that have been suggested.

Returning to catchment areas, or fettering the discretion of the appeal committee to take account of the circumstances of particular children, will prove both unworkable and unfair.

This is because it is not market forces that underlie the growth of large classes so much as the effects of changing demography and society.

Almost every primary appeal I have heard has been for admission to the child's nearest school. Far from deserting the perceived underperforming schools in favour of the achieving ones, parents are clamouring for a place at their local school because the alternative offered is impractical.

In my own borough, the explosion of new housing has placed an impossible burden on some primary schools.

On occasions the LEA has found itself unable to offer a place at any reasonably accessible alternative school without exceeding the standard number.

In such situations the ability of the appeal committee to apply a common-sense solution is welcomed by all parties.

Meanwhile, some good schools remain undersubscribed because there are not enough children living locally to fill them. When these schools are several miles from the child's home, parental reluctance to attend them is not surprising.

Even schools within the two-mile walking distance expected of a five-year-old can pose problems for families without transport. The route may be hilly, run alongside busy main roads, or involve crossing derelict tracts of land.

Younger siblings could face a daily eight-mile walk and have their own prospects of pre-school education limited by the time involved in the journey.

There may be no convenient bus service between the home and the allocated school, or it may be too expensive for a low- income family.

In such circumstances, many appeal committees accept that attending the undersubscribed school would cause particular hardship to the family and reluctantly admit the child to an oversubscribed school closer to home.

In tackling class size, education must be integrated with other aspects of social policy and must explicitly acknowledge the individual problems experienced by some families.

When new housing is planned someone needs to take specific responsibility for ensuring that the local schools will be able to accommodate the anticipated additional pupils.

Perhaps the developers of green-field sites could be required to contribute towards expanding educational provision, such as building a new classroom for the local school.

It is not reasonable for additional facilities to be provided years later.

Second, a pragmatic approach to providing transport for certain lower income families could quickly achieve a more equitable distribution of pupils between schools and would be more cost-effective than building new classrooms to relieve overcrowding.

Capping the numbers in a school or class is a red herring that would result in significant hardship for the unlucky ones. I have concluded when hearing appeals that the design and layout of the school building is the critical factor determining when the school can take no more pupils.

As schools are costly to build and run, pupil numbers should, arguably, be restricted by the size of the premises rather than by any other ratio.

This could be achieved by allowing schools sufficient resources to employ extra teachers or other forms of classroom assistance - in other words, to make the school's pupil-teacher ratio (or a skill-weighted adult-pupil ratio) rather than actual class size the significant indicator.

Along with this, governing bodies should be expected to achieve a minimum acceptable ratio with their allocated budget.

This would ensure that every child could be given greater access to individual attention while leaving schools free to determine how the total available staffing could be deployed most effectively.

Many teachers acknowledge that it is the number of pupils who require particular attention that is more critical than the overall number in the class.

As demographic factors are a significant cause of imbalance of pupil numbers in particular areas, preventing some pupils from attending their preferred school is cruelly unfair.

Any measures to reduce class size must specify how the extra children are to be dealt with rather than just imposing rules.

Denise Bates chairs a local appeals panel

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