Labour blames growing primary school classes on Tory free school policy
Ed Miliband has gone back to the future today, by reviving a New Labour pledge to cap class sizes for 5 to 7-year-olds at 30 pupils or fewer.
The pledge originally appeared on Labour’s 1997 pledge card as part of Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ agenda. It was paid for by the abolition of the assisted places scheme, a policy introduced by the Major government which subsidised private school attendance for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Miliband’s plan will cost £200m and will reportedly also be funded by scrapping a Tory policy – the Labour leader pledged to end the establishment of free schools in places were they are unnecessary.
In September 2014, an OECD report on class sizes in developed nations found that the average class size in the UK was 26, well above the OECD average of 21. Labour say that since 2010, the number of children being taught in classes of more than 30 has trebled to around 60,000.
There are a number of possible reasons for this. The 2011 census showed that birth rates for mothers in England and Wales had risen by 18 per cent in ten years.This has been attributed to a number of factors including an increase in the number of foreign-born women (who tend to have a higher fertility rate) giving birth in the UK, and more women having babies in their thirties and forties.
But Labour say that it is not simply a case of more children. They insist that class sizes have also been driven up by the Tories’ Free School programme, which has opened schools in areas that have a surplus of places, creating more than 30,000 places in areas where they were not needed over the course of the parliament.
If this policy were to be continued after the election, Miliband said today, the number of classes with over 30 students would hit 11,000. Speaking at Haverstock School in London, he said::
“Successful teaching and classroom discipline is made harder when classes are so much bigger.
“By ending the scandalous waste of money from building new schools in areas of surplus places, we will create more places where they are needed.
“This will allow us to cap class sizes for 5, 6, and 7 year olds at no more than 30 pupils.”
The NUT have welcomed Miliband’s announcement, and said that class sizes of twenty should be the right of all children in state schools; independent schools tend to have smaller classes.
But the education battle will not be won by class caps alone. The OECD study of last year found that smaller class sizes were not necessarily linked to better results, although they may encourage ‘innovative’ teaching practices.
The study also found that teachers’ job satisfaction is only slightly related to class size, except for in cases where classes had high proportions of children with behavioural problems. It also pointed out that smaller student-teacher ratios have to be weighed against higher salaries for teachers.
Under Labour’s plans, schools would be given twelve months to make classes smaller, with additional teachers being hired if neccessary. The Conservatives say that the move will be unfair for certain pupils, including children of armed forces personnel, care-leavers, and those with special needs who may require a place midway through the year.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.