The Government has made a good start in cutting infant class sizes. From September, 100,000 children are expected to benefit from an extra #163;22 million released from phasing out the assisted places scheme. Over the next three years more money should become available as assisted children complete their schooling. In this way ministers expect to meet their target of eliminating classes of over 30 for all five, six and seven-year-olds by the end of this Parliament.
David Blunkett's handout to 65 local education authorities, announced last week, is clearly welcome. But achieving the Government's goals of reducing class sizes - and raising standards - on such a tight budget will not be easy. Nor will those who need the most help necessarily be the first to benefit.
The criteria drawn up by the Department for Education and Employment meant that only authorities producing the most cost-effective bids for reducing class sizes were successful in this round. It follows from this that money has not necessarily been allocated on the basis of greatest need. The most crowded classrooms often occur in the most successful schools.
Two problems are likely to emerge. One is overcrowding. It is already evident (page 6) that in order to compete for the money, popular, oversubscribed schools are having to accommodate extra classes in some unlikely and unsatisfactory places. Although some may eventually receive additional funds from the scheme designed to restore the nation's crumbling school buildings the short-term problems of implementing class-size reductions are obvious enough.
But perhaps more worrying is the consequence for less popular schools, particularly those in inner cities struggling to recruit and hold onto good teachers. Increased recruitment to popular schools in the leafy suburbs is bound to have serious knock-on effects on staffing in urban schools where teaching is more challenging. There are already signs that such schools are heading for a serious recruitment crisis and this can only make matters worse.
The great majority of teachers - who have to live with the consequences of large classes - will applaud the priority the Government is giving to reducing them. But there are other, more flexible, ways of tackling oversize classes.
There are signs that the Government may realise this. While it has made a political promise to the electorate on infant classes, it's noticeable that the school standards and framework education Bill now going through Parliament makes no mention of a statutory maximum of 30 pupils. A recognition, perhaps, that while the first round of class reduction schemes may be relatively cheap and easy to achieve, it may become progressively harder as time goes on. In some cases, new schools will be needed, while hard decisions will have to be taken about whether to frustrate parental choice and turn away pupils from a classes of 30.
Another sign of flexibility is that successful local authority bids this time round appear to include some with registration groups of 35 or more, provided that teaching groups remain below 30. Local authorities would ideally like to see much greater flexibility, setting a norm of 25, rather than a limit of 30, to leave school managers room for manoeuvre.
Another form of flexibility favoured by the Office for Standards in Education, and indeed the Government itself in its own recent White Paper, is extending the use of classroom assistants. Only last month the School Teachers' Review Body gave figures to show that, while pupil-teacher ratios have worsened over the past five years, pupil-to-adult ratios have been improved by the employment of more classroom assistants.
Whether classroom assistants in larger classes are as effective in raising standards as smaller classes remains to be seen. One of the most influential pieces of research on infant class sizes in recent years, the STAR project carried out by Tennessee State University, seemed to indicate that while children in small classes scored higher in tests than those taught in regular sized classes, those taught in regular classes with help from assistants scored worst of all.
Little attention seems to have been paid to the ways to make the most effective use of their help, though some research suggests smaller classes themselves are not a panacea. Teachers used to teaching larger groups may need to learn new techniques if they are to make the most of smaller groups.