Sizing up a big, big problem;Briefing;Document of the week

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Sarah Cassidy explains Labour's draft guidelines to councils on its 30-limit pledge for infant classes.

By 2001 all five to seven-year-olds should be in classes of no more than 30. Local authorities, given this mammoth task, last week received the draft document telling them how it should be done.

Just four clauses of the School Standards and Framework Bill, currently nearing the end of its process through Parliament, cover the pound;100 million proposals that form one of the Government's flagship education policies.

But while the new draft regulations flesh out the scheme, they have been criticised for applying political rather than technical criteria in places, while making strict rulings elsewhere. Some say schools will face serious problems.

The first class-size cuts come into effect in September, with 100,000 children benefiting from a pound;22m award for extra infant teachers paid for by phasing out assisted places in independent schools. The abolition of the scheme will eventually free around pound;100m to cut class sizes. In March, authorities were also invited to bid for pound;40m for extra classrooms.

Bidding rounds are to be a feature of the scheme. Under the draft regulations, every local authority must submit an in-depth class-size strategy statement each year and apply for grants to support its plans.

But the document's critics also believe the Government has missed an important chance to allow the scheme's easy extension to other age groups. A new Act will be required if, as many hope, classes for eight to 11-year-olds are soon to be brought below 30.

While most praise the sentiments of the initiative, some critics believe the Government would be wiser to tackle class size in tandem with the problems of admissions and parental preference.

Although standards minister Stephen Byers said regulations would ensure any changes reflected local needs and parental preferences, those who will implement the class size reductions are uncertain how this will work. For example, will parents be able to demand that a popular primary school whose classes are full employ an extra teacher? And what if the school physically has no room for another class?

The draft regulations say local authorities' class-size plans must enhance parental choice, and that surplus places in "poor" schools must not be filled by keeping children out of schools that offer a "better quality of education".

But many take issue with these definitions. "How do you define a 'poor' school?" asked John Fowler, of the Local Government Association. "There will be many difficulties in working out the quality test. These things may seem simple, but we still have to see how it will work in practice. It's like motherhood and apple pie: no one would disagree with the sentiments, but this is not workable guidance."

Others believe the effectiveness of the draft document cannot be assessed until problems with school admissions and parental preference are addressed.

Jack Morrish, of the National Governors' Association, said: "The consultation document implies a recognition of the clash between parental preference and maintaining a class limit of 30, but does not propose any action. The class-size problem can only be solved if its parallel problems are also tackled."

Local authorities are concerned about exceptions in the regulations that will allow classes of more than 30 to accommodate children accepted on appeal, those with statements of special needs or those who apply to join mid-year.

John Bangs, the National Union of Teachers' head of education, believes the special needs exception is misguided. "Any teacher with a statemented child in their class will tell you that the class needs to be smaller rather than larger," he said.

But many believe all temporary exceptions will create unacceptable upheaval for many schools.

One director of education said: "Because the regulations allow a class of more than 30 for that year only, schools will have to completely reorganise the following year to ensure there will be no classes of more than 30 - all to accommodate one youngster. These are strict regulations which will create a lot of difficulties."

Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, agreed: "The Government must be careful not to cause planning gridlock through unfettered open enrolment."

Class-size reductions could create planning difficulties for local authorities. In Kingston upon Thames, where 69 per cent of key stage 1 pupils are in classes of more than 30 - the highest in Britain - education officers welcome the policy's sentiments but question how the spirit of increasing parental choice can be embraced.

Education director John Braithwaite said: "A lot of our popular schools have no room to expand. We are an urban authority with some very tight sites. Some have standard numbers of 70 and admit two classes of 35. In some this standard number will have to come down to 60. This doesn't mean those extra children will have to go to poor schools because we will try to expand other popular schools, but it is an example of where parents may be disappointed."

Levels of capital and revenue funding have worried authorities anticipating problems in deciding future distribution of school places. Some would have liked the regulations to cover adapting the policy to suit large, small, urban and rural schools.

The DFEE refused to comment on the potential problems with the proposal to cut class sizes.

'Reducing Infant Class Sizes: Outline Regulations April 1998' is available from the DFEE on 0171 925 6008. Comments must be made by June 12.

Reducing infant class sizes: outline regulations

The Government's commitment

All infant classes of five, six and seven-year-olds must meet a limit of a maximum of 30 pupils by September 2001.

What LEAs must do: Each local education authority must submit a statement to the Secretary of State by October 16 explaining how it proposes to meet its class size limits. Statements must include: * An overview of the authority and forecast numbers for infant pupils for each year from 199899 to 200102; * An estimate of the number of extra teachers needed to reduce infant class sizes; * Details of the consultation undertaken, including how the authority intends to address any concerns; * Explanation of proposed changes to standard numbers with reference to the standards of the schools concerned and past parental preferences; * Capital implications - details of any new schools proposed, or schools which will receive new classrooms; * Measures taken to ensure key stage 2 pupils do not suffer because of the changes; * Details of how the plan will enhance parental preference and arrangements for accommodating children when there is no suitable school within a reasonable distance.

Exceptions: Pupils can be admitted into an infant class of more than 30 if they: * receive a statement of special needs naming a specific school outside the normal admissions round, or hold a statement and move into the area; * move into the area in the middle of the school year and there is no other suitable school within a reasonable distance; * are admitted on appeal.

These exceptions apply only for the remainder of the academic year. Classes must be rearranged the following year to ensure the limits are met.

If pupils from a special needs unit attached to a mainstream school attend some classes in the main school, more than 30 pupils may be present in such classes but there must not be more than 30 from the mainstream school.

Consultation process: LEAs must consult: The headteacher and chair of governors of all schools with infant classes, representatives of all denomination schools for example diocesan boards, neighbouring authorities, parents, and - where there are grant-maintained schools within the authority - the Funding Agency for Schools.

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