Where hopefuls are still shown the door

Michael Prestage

Two sets of hopeful parents contacted Topsham first school this week hoping to secure a place for their child. They will be disappointed, as were a dozen others over the summer. With one class of 40 children, the school suffers a seemingly intractable overcrowding problem.

Topsham is an attractive community within Exeter. New starter homes and its increasing popularity as a residential area have attracted more and more families.

The quality of the local schools is a key factor for many parents, but for the first time Topsham first can no longer guarantee a place for local children.

Headteacher Margaret Butt said: "This is a community school, and traditionally we have always taken children living in Topsham. Now we are having to turn children away and parents are devastated when they find there is no place. "

Three cases went to appeal this summer, but the school's decision was upheld. One difficult case for Mrs Butt was a family living within yards of the school, for whom there was a place for an older child, but not the younger sibling.

"It is very distressing for me to make these decisions," she said. "But it is in nobody's interest for children to be educated in class sizes of more than 32. It is not in the interest of children, parents or teaching staff."

Coping with such large classes takes its toll on staff. Teacher Pam Sedge said: "Large classes create quite severe problems. Obviously the amount of attention you can give to children is affected. I find I am rapidly shuttling from one child to another when I should be spending more detailed time with them."

Her colleague Sarah MacKay said it was distressing for teachers to be unable to give sufficient time. "It's an impossible job from 9.15 onwards. Everything from taking registers to giving out books becomes more difficult."

The Victorian building is on a cramped site and there is no space for extra classrooms. PE and drama are taught at a hall along the main street, creating further problems. Financial constraints that saw Devon County Council's budget capped by the Government and savings of Pounds 8 million made in education means no money for extra staff.

The school, which takes children aged 5-8, would ideally admit 120 pupils. This year there will be 138, with the largest class having 40, though redistribution is planned to lower that. There are 4.6 full-time equivalent teaching staff and 1.5 classroom assistants.

The chair of governors, Chris Williams, said it was outrageous that local children could not get into the school, but there appeared to be no solution. The situation was creating ill feeling in the community, with some parents desperately wanting their children to go to the school and others concerned that too large classes would affect their child's education.

"People expect this sort of thing in inner London, but nobody believes we can have these problems in rural Devon. The teachers do a marvellous job, but our children have suffered. Every time we can scratch enough money together we hire another assistant."

He blames the Government for failing to provide sufficient resources for education. A new school has been promised, but no date fixed. With their second child, Simon, they paid for private tuition to improve his reading and writing, but that was not an option available to all parents, said Mr Williams.

His daughter Charlotte, aged 11, and Simon, 10, have now left the first school. Charlotte was self-motivated and did reasonably well, but Simon suffered because he had mild learning difficulties and needed extra help.

Pippa Warin, the children's mother, said: "We have been very supportive of the teachers, but they cannot give individual attention when there are so many children. The ones who are disruptive or can't cope will get the attention, while others can get away with doing very little."

Their youngest child Edward, 6, is still at the school. He has done a project about what he did in the holidays but is worried there will not be enough time to tell the teacher.

Charlotte recalls: "In one class it was hard to concentrate because there were a lot of people and a lot of noise. People did not get on with their work. Teacher used to say we could have a treat like painting or papier mache if other work was done, but there was never time."

Tony Smith, assistant chief education officer for Devon, said the overcrowding varied across the county, but Topsham first particularly suffered because of its idiosyncratic design.

Cuts forced on the county by the Government had clearly taken their toll. He said: "We estimate we are 300 teachers lighter than we might otherwise have been this September. That is bound to have an effect on class size."

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