New pupils join the crush

8th September 1995 at 01:00
The 500,000 children who started school this week have only exacerbated the problem of burgeoning class sizes. Clare Dean opens a three-page report on an issue that inflames parents.

Half a million children started school for the first time this week - at least 100,000 more than last year - with many going into classes of more than 30 pupils.

The new school year saw rising pupil numbers while local authority education budgets have been cut by an average 5 per cent per child. At least Pounds 500 million has been slashed from school budgets and governors estimate that 4,500 teaching jobs have been lost.

With between 100,000 and 150,000 new pupils, governors said an extra 4, 000 teachers needed to be appointed.

Government claims that there is little evidence that larger class sizes adversely effect pupil performance have cut no ice with parents who have been unwilling either to accept or understand the increases.

With more than a third of primary pupils now in classes bigger than 30, next year's Government spending settlement for education could be the last opportunity for the Conservatives to rebuild confidence among parents and teachers before the general election.

The campaign group FACE - Fight Against Cuts in Education - is already gearing up for a demonstration in London later this month aimed at influencing the autumn statement. And Labour this week launched its campaign for increased funding with a national petition, letters to send to MPs and postcards to hand out at school gates.

Latest Government statistics reveal there are 1,076,173 children in primary classes of 31 or over. In three authorities - Kingston-upon-Thames, Redbridge and Tameside - more than half the primary pupils are in classes of more than 30. These statistics cover 1994 - figures for 1995 will not be available until the autumn but are thought to be worse.

John Howson, of Oxford Brookes University, who has surveyed pupil-teacher ratios (PTRs) between 1978 and 1994, said education under-funding could be the downfall of the Conservatives.

"It may be the Government's failure to heed its own Secretary of State's warning in the autumn of 1994, that the levels of expenditure needed for education will play as great a part in the defeat of the Conservative government at the next election as its policy on the sale of council houses proved a vote-winner at an earlier election," he said.

The study by Mr Howson, a senior lecturer in education, disclosed that improvements in PTRs since the 1950s came to a halt in the mid-1980s in primary schools and by the end of the 1980s in secondaries (see graphs). He has ranked the PTRs of 95 local authorities, charting the changes between 1978 - the year before the Conservatives came to power - and 1994.

Worst affected was Trafford in Greater Manchester, which dropped from 9th to 93rd in the primary sector. In the secondary sector, PTRs in the London borough of Brent have worsened by 40 per cent since 1988. In the primary sector, five authorities saw their PTRs deteriorate by more than 20 per cent - Newcastle, North Tyneside, Leeds and the London boroughs of Brent and Newham. Newcastle dropped in the primary rankings from 1st to 50th place.

In the secondary sector, apart from the dramatic deterioration in Brent, 11 other authorities reported that their PTRs had worsened by between 20 and 30 per cent. They were Waltham Forest, North Tyneside, Barking and Dagenham, Ealing, Newham, Dudley, Knowsley, Manchester, Rochdale, Salford and South Tyneside.

Some authorities experienced improvements: in the primary sector Dudley moved from 94th to 37th place, while at secondary level Oxfordshire rose from 93rd to 69th.

But said Mr Howson: "It is difficult to see how any figures realised by the Government before the latest date for the next election in 1997 will reveal anything except a continued deterioration in PTRs.

"Even if the Secretary of State persuades the Cabinet to spend more on education in the 1996-97 funding round, the figures for January 1997 will not become available until summer 1997 at the earliest."

In the London borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, which according to Mr Howson, enjoyed its best primary PTR of 21.4:1 in 1987, parents complained that a new school had not been built in the past 20 years.

The previous Conservative administration had sold off school buildings and land for housing - which in turn brought more families with children into the borough.

Joy Uren, who has two children, said: "We feel terribly dissatisfied and concerned that five-year-olds are going into classes of 35."

She said one school had been forced to sell off part of its playing field to housing to fund a rebuilding programme, while an annexe to another was being thrown up hut by hut as children turned up.

"Our grouse is not with our schools," said Mrs Uren. "Our teachers do exceedingly well. We have asked Gillian Shephard to come and see our schools, but she hasn't yet."

Problems of large classes are not only caused by funding difficulties. Numbers are also being increased by parents winning places on appeal. In Solihull there have been an average 100 appeals annually since 1991 - a quarter of which have been successful.

Ian Morrey, education officer-schools, said parents sometimes brandished copies of the Parents' Charter or Citizen's Charter at appeals."Parents are being given false hopes about their rights."

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