Quality matters more than quantity
At Hillbourne First School in Poole, staff found that children who had been in reception classes of 15 performed better at national curriculum tests, particularly in literacy skills, than those who had been in reception classes of 30. Overall, test results improved by around 4 per cent, with all the pupils achieving at least Level 1 in everything, despite Hillbourne's very mixed catchment area.
Previously, there had always been several pupils classified as "working towards Level 1". Meanwhile, the number of children registered as slow learners has dropped by 7 per cent.
Smaller classes also mean that the school has been able to develop a curriculum appropriate for four- year-olds; Hillbourne uses High Scope, an approach which encourages choice and independent learning.
But improved behaviour has been the most dramatic result, according to Julia Williams, Hillbourne's head. "Everyone says how much calmer the school seems. Playground behaviour is less aggressive and suddenly, we haven't got so many children with asthma. Of course, there are no measures for this sort of thing."
Teachers at Upton Infants' School have noticed similar changes. Now that the children are in smaller groups, they find it easier to work quietly on their own, says the headteacher, Val Arbon. Their general behaviour is better, too.
Admitting rising fives into classes of 30 and more can only cause them stress, particularly in open-plan areas where there may be 90 pupils all working in the same space, insists Miss Deann Weeks. She is head of Ad Astra in Canford Heath, a large first school which has four-form entry. Miss Weeks believes that a secure atmosphere and plenty of one-to-one attention in reception will set the tone for a child's whole educational career, she says.
"American research shows that if you are prepared to spend money on four year-olds, you will save thousands on special education and remand homes later. How can small children develop a good self-image if they're thrust into a group of 120 of their peers?" With class sizes rising inexorably everywhere and Dorset primary classes among the largest in the country, how have these schools achieved reception classes of 15? The answer is simple but controversial; they have refused to give children full-time places until after their fifth birthdays, although county policy is to admit all children born between January and August full-time before they are five.
Dorset provides no nursery education, so the education authority is keen to offer school places to rising fives. Education officers are also considering admitting all four-year-olds to school in September; at present, summer-born children must wait until January before they can start school. But most heads are adamant that school is not necessarily the best place for four year-olds. "Rising fives are not articulate enough to tell you that they can't cope. They just show you by their behaviour, wetting themselves or falling asleep in class," said Miss Weeks.
"The Rumbold report says loud and clear that nursery-age children should not be thrown in without proper staffing and resources," says Mrs Arbon of the Government-commissioned Starting with Quality document, published in 1990. "Let me at least give them the right pupil-teacher ratio."
Surprisingly, most parents have not seen a later start as a disadvantage for their children. When Deann Weeks consulted Ad Astra parents on the issue, they decided that smaller classes more than compensated for a delay in starting full time. "They can see that we're offering quality, not quantity," explains Mrs Arbon. "In some cases, the children who are coming part-time are making more progress with their reading than full-time pupils, because they're getting far more individual attention."
The three schools have also found that even summer-born children are actually benefiting from part-time education in small groups, instead of full-time teaching in large classes. Usually, a disproportionate number of summer-born infants need extra help, but the schools are noticing that this is no longer the case.
Their experiences are bearing out a country-wide study by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which indicated that extra time in school does nothing to compensate for the "summer-born effect".
Unfortunately, two of the Dorset schools are no longer able to continue their highly successful policy. Hillbourne and Ad Astra have now reluctantly decided to toe the county line, and Hillbourne has also been forced to increase class sizes because of its budget deficit; the school had to make two teachers redundant last term. "The sad thing is, all the improvements we have seen will start to turn back again," said one head.
Upton has been told that the LEA, which calls itself "the Dorset education partnership", is consulting with local heads' associations to look at "possible agreed exceptions" to its admissions policy.
Meanwhile, Upton is being allowed to continue with the experiment for another year.