Primary imperative

19th April 1996 at 01:00
By happy coincidence, Sir Claus Moser chose to highlight once again the importance of giving every child the best possible start in education (page 9) in the same week that the Government's nursery voucher experiment begins and The TES launches a new section designed for primary and pre-school teachers (TES2 page 9).

In a lecture aimed at a putative Labour Government, Sir Claus was right to assert the national priority of raising educational achievements and the fundamental part that universal nursery, improved primary schooling and better teaching must play in bringing this about. For the earliest years play a vital role in laying the cognitive basis for literacy and numeracy and in creating interest and enjoyment in successful learning.

Hence the top priority his National Commission gave to high quality nursery education for all three and four-year-olds. And hence his irritation that the best the Prime Minister's commitment to universal nursery education has been able to produce, two-and-a-half years later, is a pilot study in four areas, limited to four-year-olds and owing more to party dogma than to the need to target those children in greatest need.

Sir Claus is not alone, of course, in wanting to see a shift in funding towards primary and pre-schooling; he contrasted the four per cent of the education budget spent on nursery education with the 10 per cent in France. Though, as he pointed out, the share of public spending devoted to education has fallen since the mid-seventies by the equivalent of Pounds 3 billion a year.

In calling for greater priority for primary spending Sir Claus is pushing at a door that is at least ajar. Any suggestion that this should be achieved at the expense of secondary schools, in the absence of higher overall funding, is likely to provoke considerable opposition. But it deserves to be critically examined, not least because it has already begun to happen. Sir Claus's assertion that smaller classes are another absolute requirement for primary pupils also needs to be looked at more closely since this does not seem to wholly accord with the immediate priorities of primary schools.

As the House of Commons select committee on education recognised, the 40 to 50 per cent difference between what is spent on the average primary and secondary pupil is too large, especially at the juncture between Years 6 and 7 where the demands are hardly distinguishable. The broader national curriculum in primary schools and the requirement for subject coordinators means infant and junior teachers may now be just as much in need of non-contact time, subject expertise and recognition of their leadership responsibilities as their secondary colleagues.

Though the Government has declined to accept any responsibility for such needs, local authorities have begun to give greater priority to primary funding. It has grown by almost 10 per cent since local management of schools began whereas spending on secondaries has barely shown any rise in cash terms at all and in real terms has fallen. Of course, there have also been additional pupils over that time. But the latest DFEE figures show that funding per pupil has, in real terms, remained broadly the same in primary schools whereas in secondaries it has fallen.

Nevertheless, even in the apparently level-funded primary schools, class sizes have risen for a number of reasons. One is that, even if overall funding was sufficient to cover extra pupils, it has not been sufficient also to cover the additional curriculum and management burdens of primary schools. Faced with the choice of smaller classes or more non-contact time to enable teachers to do their new jobs, schools have chosen the latter. As a result primary class sizes have risen, though overall pupil:teacher ratios have remained relatively level and spending on ancillary help per pupil has increased by a third.

Given the extra demands on primary schools, non-contact time may well - initially at least - have been a more urgent priority than smaller classes. Even now the average primary teacher is still in front of a class for 86 per cent of the school day compared to the secondary teacher's 75 per cent.

At the very least, this means that Sir Claus's and the National Commission's aim that no primary child should be taught in a class of more than 30 may require more than simply putting more money into schools; there may also need to be some legislative or funding imperative or changes to teachers' conditions of service. But it raises much wider questions too about what the balance of funding should be, and how and by whom that should be decided; questions which Governments and education authorities have not particularly wanted asked in the past and upon which attempts to create a national funding formula are likely to founder.

If the case for robbing secondary to pay primary is to be made, it should not be based simply on appeals for parity or equity or unexamined assumptions about priorities, but on the argument that achievements overall will rise; that fewer children will transfer to secondary with a tenuous grasp on literacy and numeracy and that more will develop a zest for further learning.

And in line with Sir Claus's third absolute priority, a highly-skilled and well-motivated teaching profession, those arguing for the transfer of funds from secondary to primary need to be able to show how that can be achieved and at the same time ensure that the subject specialists required at that level can continue to be recruited, retained, and helped to feel more positive about their jobs than they or their primary colleagues now find imaginable. That is not a matter of funding alone, but it looks as if it may mean the extra Pounds 3 billion after all.

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