The Chief Executive of the Lib Dem-controlled London Borough of Sutton, Mr Niall Bolger, has been in the news recently, flying a kite on the possible relaxation in the current statutory limit of 30 on class size for Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, i.e. Key Stage 1 within primary schools.
Mr Bolger has subsequently clarified the situation by saying: “Increasing class sizes is not a Sutton Council policy or something that has been discussed at a political level.”. However, this recent report has reinforced my own personal doubts about the unintended consequences of the limit of thirty in infant classes.
I have been a primary school governor for over twenty-five years, and, in principle, the thirty class size limit is an excellent thing. However, I cannot help feeling that some limited flexibility might be helpful.
I want to highlight one of the little-known consequences of the class size limit. The specifics I describe relate to my own authority, Sefton MBC, but will apply to a greater or lesser extent in many parts of the country.
In the 2010/11 academic year Sefton Council had to allocate £156,000 to employ an extra teacher in each of four primary schools. The reason was that there were a total of just five children spread across those four schools which took a Key Stage 1 class over the national limit of 30 children per infant class teacher.
In the current academic year, 2011/12, the Council is allocating £118,000 to employ an extra teacher in each of three primary schools, each with just one pupil more than the thirty class size limit.
Accordingly, over two years, a staggering £274,000 has had to be found to employ seven teachers for twelve months so that just 8 infant pupils can be taught “legally”. But that money hasn’t come from the Council, or from the Government, it has come from reducing the funding to every other primary school pupil in Sefton.
So what is the solution I would like to see? The slight relaxation I suggest would be achieved by taking account of the use of teaching assistants. It seems to me to be bizarre that, while it is perfectly legal to have an infant class of thirty with one teacher who has little or no teaching assistant support, to have thirty-one or thirty-two pupils in a class is illegal no matter how much extra teaching assistant support there is.
Surely a common-sense solution is to change the law so that schools have the flexibility to go up to thirty-two children in an infant class, if they wish, but only so long as they have a qualified, full-time teaching assistant as well as a teacher.
Pressure on Reception class places (already strong in many parts of the country) is expected to increase further in the next few years. Without measures such as I suggest we are increasingly likely to see three problems:
• More parents failing to get their first preference of school.
• Councils and central government having to find significant sums of money to build extra classrooms – apparently Sutton Council has needed to spend £7 million in one year.
• Money being taken away from other primary school children (£274,000 over two years in Sefton Council) to enable what are often literally a handful of infant children to be taught legally.
Could a little common sense prevail?
Simon Shaw is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Birkdale Ward, Southport. He is Cabinet Member Environmental on Sefton MBC