Smaller class sizes for children in the first two years of schooling would be cost-effective, according to Peter Mortimore, director at London University's Institute of Education.
Wading into the class size controversy at a London conference last week, Professor Mortimore said: "For the youngest children there is clear evidence that smaller class size does make a difference." For older pupils, the evidence was less clear. The British system, however, works the opposite way. As children grow older they move into smaller classes. Pupils under the age of 16 are in classes which are twice the size of classes for the over-16s. That does not make any sense, he suggested.
Professor Mortimore told a conference on underachievement organized by Business in the Community that he had reviewed all the available research material, including surveys in America and Canada, before coming to these conclusions. "When children are very young and at their least independent, that's when it's best to help them," he said. The proud boast of private schools was that they had five pupils fewer than classes in state schools. That should tell us something, he suggested.But the cost of reducing class size was enormous and should not be undertaken lightly, he said. Research needed to be done in the area. "I keep asking the Department for Education and Employment to look at training, teacher assistance and appropriate class size in an experiment."
But his requests fall on stony ground. The reason the department was reluctant to commission research into the issue of class size was that the financial implications were so enormous, he said.
Professor Mortimore reckoned that a minimum of 100,000 youngsters a year were underachieving in school. Things had got better. The GCSE had helped to bring pupils on, but Sir Keith Joseph's figure of 40 per cent failing to make the grade was probably still a reasonable figure to use.
The United Kingdom had inherited an examination system which failed half the nation's children, labelling them as failures. It was time to take a look at it, he said. Although that would be "terribly difficult politically", he admitted, it was a system designed for a bygone age.
Far less than one-half the population were achieving five GCSE A to C grades at the age of 16.
"Does that really mean that one-half our population are failing or underachieving?" he asked.
Professor Mortimore was sad that the Government was no longer supporing the New Zealand Reading Recovery scheme. "I think this is a terrible mistake", he said.