Maggie Jones on one of the saddest legacies of the Coalition government
Many analysts agree that one of the single most effective ways to raise school standards, particularly for primary age children, is smaller class sizes. It has been proven to make the biggest impact on academic achievement, and Labour’s ground-breaking pledge in 1997 to end class sizes of over 30 pupils was both spot on and transformative.
Since the Coalition came to power however, the policy has gone into reverse. The OECD recently reported that the UK has the sixth biggest classes in its primary schools out of 34 nations with, perversely, smaller classes at secondary level. Even though one to one support from a qualified teacher is known to make the biggest difference to younger children.
The latest statistics show a shocking trend. Over 460,000 primary school children are currently in classes of 30 or more, with 40,000 being taught in very large classes of 36 upwards. Some are even in classes of 50, 60 or 70.
Later today, Labour will raise this issue with Education Minister Lord Nash at Peers daily question time. In the past, when faced with this reality, the Coalition has sought to pass the buck. It has blamed everyone from the last Labour government to cash-strapped local authorities, as well as those parents who wanting to send their child to a local school rather than one several bus rides away where places may be available.
Such arguments don’t wash. The Coalition has been in government for well over four years now, during which time Ministers have been obsessed with spending on their Academy and Free School programme. Coming as it does at the expense of other priorities, we are continuing to see new Free Schools being opened in areas where they is already excess school places. Elsewhere meanwhile, children are being crammed into unsuitable, overcrowded temporary classrooms. Regrettably, tackling the educational impact of the latest baby boom just wasn’t a sufficient concern, and the money made available is too little, too late.
Alongside this, teacher recruitment is failing to keep up with demand. For the third year running, the government has missed their target for filling teacher training places, filling only 29,920 of an anticipated 34,890 places – a shortfall of almost 5,000. Combine this with the haemorrhaging of older teachers, disillusioned by the abuse and pressures on the profession which became the byword of the previous Secretary of State, and you can see that a perfect storm is brewing.
The education legacy of the Coalition will be its failure to get the basics right, and it will be interesting to see if Lord Nash finally takes responsibility for the mistakes made on his watch. Sadly, Labour is destined to inherit supersized classrooms, low levels of morale and staff shortages. As we did in 1997, we will need to put the UK’s education system back on course, to provide quality learning and drive up attainment levels for all young people. Too late sadly, for the cohort of young people let down by the current government.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of the Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 15th October 2014