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Schools: Class Sizes

Volume 756: debated on Wednesday 15 October 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to reduce class sizes, particularly in primary schools.

My Lords, we are making every effort and are investing heavily to address the unprecedented increase in pupil numbers. The average class size remains below the statutory limit, despite a massive population increase. We are investing £5 billion of capital funding, which has already enabled local authorities to create 260,000 additional pupil places between May 2010 and May 2013. This includes 212,000 primary places. There are 300,000 more places in the pipeline for September 2015.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply which, although welcome, strikes me as just a tiny bit complacent when we see that the figures for primary school children being taught in classes of more than 30 have gone up more than 200% between 2010 and 2014. Does he agree that most educationalists and teachers consider that, generally speaking, children do better in small classes? Indeed, that is what people who can afford to pay for their education are generally looking for. Will he say what he and the Government regard as the optimum primary school class size and on what evidence he bases his view?

I would be interested in the noble Baroness’s definition of complacency because, despite the massive population increase, the previous Government cut the number of primary school places by 200,000 and the money by 26%. We have more than doubled the amount of money invested in class sizes. The relevant figures are that the class size in key stage 1 is 27.4 this year as opposed to 27.3 last year, a tiny increase. The pupil-teacher ratio is 21 in primary schools. Of course we would all like smaller class sizes, although the OECD and the EEF toolkit tell us that a reduction in class size gives a very poor return on investment and that increasing teacher quality and training is much better. It is true that some private schools have very low class sizes, but generally they are not as low as people think.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware that the UK has bigger class sizes than most of its overseas competitors. He is also right to point out that the £5 billion being spent to reduce class sizes is more than the previous Government were able to provide. However, those resources take a long time to work through. Does he think that where class sizes exceed the so-called legal limit schools should be allowed to put extra resources in, or perhaps be given extra resources in terms of an extra teacher or a classroom assistant, or perhaps be able use the pupil premium in such cases?

In fact, the OECD tells us that our secondary class sizes are quite a bit below the average international size although our primaries are somewhat higher. However, we have no evidence for the high numbers in class sizes that some people refer to—I saw 70 in the paper the other day which is clearly misreporting. The statistics I have given give us great comfort that we have the right amount of investment in the sector.

How does this Government’s record in building new schools compare with that of their predecessor?

We are spending £18 billion on school buildings in this Parliament, which is more than the previous Government spent in their first two terms combined. We are building or improving the condition of 900 schools—double the previous Government’s performance in 13 years.

Does the Minister agree that an absolute priority, as my noble friend said, should be reducing class sizes where possible and not spending money on new free schools set up in areas where excess places exist already?

I cannot agree that an absolute priority should be reducing class sizes because I have already said that all the evidence is that that was a very poor return on investment. In fact, Andreas Schleicher tells us that there is no relation between class sizes and performance. I entirely agree that we should not be putting up schools in areas where there is no need and I can assure the noble Baroness that since I became a Minister, just over two years ago, virtually all the free schools we have approved have been in places of need.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me why it is that when I was at primary school a teacher could teach a class of 48 or 50 pupils to read adequately and in fact rather better than is done in classes of 30 these days? What has changed—the teachers or the children?

I suspect, sadly, the children. Certainly in primary schools in the early days I know that teachers have to spend a great deal of time getting pupils as they come into primary schools ready to learn.

My Lords, does the noble Lord not accept that all the evidence shows that smaller class sizes make a difference for younger children—for infants in particular—and actually that is one of the key markers of going on to have educational achievement. Does the noble Lord not recognise that the Government have now been missing their target for recruiting new teacher trainers for the last three sessions and that we are heading for the perfect storm where we do not have enough teachers and classes are getting bigger? That is inevitably going to damage children’s education.

I am not rushing to take lessons from the party opposite on pupil place planning. The ONS data which came out at the beginning of the last decade made it clear that there was a pupil place crisis looming and it was not until 2008 that the previous Government even managed to produce predictions for the size of the school population. As I say, they actually cut the number of primary school places by 200,000 and slashed the funding by 26%. We are the first Government for a long time actually to increase the amount of money available and we have also invested in new free schools in places where they are needed.