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Waiting to be rescued by the chief inspector

With Section 11 funding on the way out, Anne Sofer looks to new evidence on class size for salvation

A crisis in education funding confronts my authority, the London borough of Tower Hamlets, at the moment, but I am pinning my hopes on Chris Woodhead. Yes, I have got the right person, and that is what I mean. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, teacher basher extraordinaire, the man the education establishment loves to hate. I have come to the conclusion that he has been the victim of selective quotation.

The issue at stake is the funding for new speakers of English, and the relationship of this to class size. The 1995 Office for Standards in Education report (Class size and the quality of education) came to the conclusion that, in general, "reductions in class size do not necessarily lead to better teaching and higher standards", a verdict seized on, naturally enough, by those in Government responsible for reducing school budgets and steadily increasing class sizes, but also seized on by those of an entirely opposite view as confirmation that OFSTED, and in particular Woodhead himself, represent The Enemy.

The caveats in the report, however, have been virtually ignored. Though brief they are there for all to read. Let me quote the concluding summary again: "the inspection evidence shows that younger pupils, less able pupils in secondary schools and pupils who are learning English as a second language benefit from being taught in smaller classes" (Paragraph 90).

The first two categories are each worthy of a campaign in themselves. But it was the third of these propositions that particularly caught my eye, given that some 60 per cent of pupils in Tower Hamlets are learning English as a second language, and the bulk of the additional support we have for them, in the form of Home Office-funded Section 11 projects, comes to an end in March 1997. I combed through the report for supporting detail for the conclusion but couldn't find it so I wrote to Chris Woodhead.

I think his reply is worth quoting in full: "Thank you for your letter of December 18. During the OFSTED study of the effect of class size we analysed the graded information provided on the lesson observations forms that are completed during an inspection. On these forms inspectors are not asked to grade specifically the provision for those pupils for whom English is not the first language. . . [Questions from AS: Why not?] I was therefore unable to quote figures in the class size report.

"However, my colleagues recognised that this issue needed to be covered so they undertook a text search of the inspection evidence from some 500 school inspections, primary and secondary. We found that, where inspectors made reference to class size in relation to new learners of English, they commented that "ideal" class sizes for such pupils were in the range five to 10 pupils. In classes in this size range, inspectors considered that the best conditions were present to encourage high achievement. It is not possible to give an indication of the extent of this evidence because it is essentially opportunistic in nature, neither is it possible to be specific about the stages of English learning best suited to classes of this size. I did however consider it to be an area where important exceptions had to be made to the report's general conclusion that the effect of class size appears to be smaller than that of teaching quality and support in the classroom. I hope this is helpful. "

Well, it is helpful. Astonishingly helpful. Or, at least, it would be if one could have any confidence that the Government would listen to this piece of evidence as avidly as they listened to that which, it is claimed, justified larger classes for the majority. For the sort of level of provision Her Majesty's Chief Inspector is recommending here - one teacher for every five or 10 children - is many times more generous than what we are provided with at present, under the Section 11 programme.

So you will understand why I am hoping passionately that Chris Woodhead is being involved in discussions about the future of the Section 11 programme.

But is he being involved? Indeed, are the discussions taking place? Do the Government realise that their programme for supporting new learners of English is in danger of collapse through confusion and uncertainty?

We are now only 12 months away from the expiry of the bulk of the present Section 11 programme. In Tower Hamlets this programme of support for new learners of English costs Pounds 8million, of which Pounds 5m is contributed direct from the Home Office. This sum represents some 10 per cent of the total local education authority expenditure on schools. While our programme is both proportionately, and in actual amount, the largest in England, it is by no means the only substantial one. Many other authorities with large proportions of new learners of English - Birmingham, Bradford, Oldham and many others - have significant Section 11 programmes and are similarly in the dark.

We do not know which Government ministry will be responsible. Will it be the Home Office (holders of Section 11 funds at present and traditionally the lead department on immigrants and ethnic minorities), the Department for Education and Employment (the logical location given the crucial connection with other issues associated with literacy), or the Department of the Environment (which has already through the Single Regeneration Budget taken over some projects previously funded through Section 11)? How much money will be available? Will it be earmarked? What are the criteria against which we must develop our bids?

Meanwhile hundreds of individual teachers whose skills and expertise lie in this area are assessing their own future career prospects and deciding they would be safer outside this area of work. Every day we are losing momentum.

Government ministers, the media, and OFSTED, all are loud in their criticism of the alleged failures of inner-city schools and education authorities. Part of that failure (though by no means the only part) has been the lagging performance - falling below the national average for two or more generations - of immigrant communities.

And that is why I pin my hopes on Chris Woodhead. If such a hard-nosed, and well-placed, observer feels that we need greater resources to do the job, then maybe there is a hope that the Government will listen.

Anne Sofer is director of education for the London borough of Tower Hamlets

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