BRITAIN'S primary pupil-teacher ratios may have improved but they are still way behind the international average, according to an authoritative new report.
The United Kingdom is now ranked 18th out of 21 developed nations in this respect - and even Japanese schools are now said to be more generously staffed.
The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has reported that the UK had a primary pupil-teacher ratio of 22:1 in 1998, compared with Japan's 21.4. The only primaries that were less well staffed were in Ireland (22.6), New Zealand (24.7) and Korea (31).
At the other end of the scale were Hungary (11), Norway (12.6) and Austria (12.7).
School standards minister Estelle Morris played down the significance of the UK's ranking. In a statement released to coincide with the publication of the OECD's statistics, she said: "The picture on class sizes and child-adult ratios has improved greatly since the OECD snapshot, when both had been rising for a decade."
Ms Morris said that the number of infants in classes of more than 30 had halved from 356,586 in January 1999 to 177,020 in January 2000 - a fall of nearly 308,000 since January 1998. Only 11 per cent of infants were in classes of 30-plus, compared with 22 per cet a year ago.
She also defended the Government's education spending record. The report notes that the UK spent less per secondary pupil (US$ 4,609) in 1997 than the OECD average (US$ 5,273) and almost half the Swiss figure (US$ 9,045). But Ms Morris said these figures simply showed the scale of the challenge the Government inherited. "We are addressing this with an average increase in spending of over 5 per cent a year from 1999-2002," she said.
The OECD also points to the relatively small proportion of UK adults who have "graduated" from upper secondary education (by achieving five or more GCSEs A C or the vocational equivalent). Only 63 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds had reached this standard, compared with an OECD average of 72 per cent.
But the OECD has better news for the Government on higher education. An exceptionally high proportion of young people in the UK now gain a first degree (35.2 per cent). Ten years ago the UK graduation rate was under 20 per cent, but it has now overtaken the US (33 per cent) and is second only to Norway (38.3 per cent).
'Education at a Glance - - OECD Indicators 2000' is available from OECD Paris Centre, 2 rue Andre Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France, price pound;26. Further information www.oecd.org