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Primary Education News
News Primary school pupils face rise in large classes
Government has relaxed rules so that class sizes can be above 30 for several years, amid growth in pupil numbers
Record numbers of children will be taught in classes of 31 or more from this September as primary schools struggle to cope with the biggest growth in pupil numbers for decades.
In 1998 Labour made it illegal for class sizes to go beyond 30 for children aged four to seven unless there were exceptional circumstances. If a class did go over 30 it had to be brought back down the following year. However, the coalition has now relaxed these rules so that class sizes can be above 30 for several years.
Schools are poised to take advantage of this as a way of accommodating the 256,000 extra places needed by September next year. The rise in children born in England between 2001 and 2011 was the largest 10-year increase since the 1950s.
Families across England face an anxious few days before finding out which primary school their child will attend this September. In London and Liverpool, parents will be told which school has made them an offer on Wednesday and Thursday next week. Parents in Birmingham will have to wait until the following week. Those in Kent were told at the start of this month.
Barking and Dagenham council in east London told the Guardian that class sizes at a number of its primaries had already gone over 30, but it intended to reduce these when possible.
Colin Ross, Sheffield city council's Liberal Democrat spokesman for education, said he knew of a primary in the city where there were 32 pupils in a class.
In a report published last month, the National Audit Office found that the number of four- to seven-year-olds taught in classes of at least 31 pupils had more than doubled in five years, from 23,200 in 2007 to 47,300 in 2012.
Growing numbers of local politicians are coming out in favour of class sizes of more than 30.
They argue that building new schools would prove a waste of money if the birth rate falls again and there are no longer enough pupils to fill the classrooms.
Carol Runciman, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on York council, said she saw no problem with primaries having class sizes of 31 or 32 if they had an extra teaching assistant, while Nick Cott, Newcastle city council's Lib Dem spokesman for children's services, said schools should be allowed to raise the number of pupils in each class as they saw fit.
However, Peter Blatchford, professor of psychology and education at the University of London's Institute of Education, said teachers should resist larger class sizes. "It is worrying that there is this growing tide of opinion that class sizes aren't important," he said.
Blatchford said studies showed class sizes of more than 30 were particularly damaging for children of low ability or those who had special needs.
"If primary education is more than just presenting something to children, then class size is important. Smaller classes mean more attention per pupil and more opportunity for children to develop their analytical thinking skills."
The Guardian asked 28 councils how they were accommodating the extra demand and whether they expected class sizes to rise.
Brent council in north-west London said it had adjoined a former community centre to an existing primary school to create 180 extra places. Salford council said it expected class sizes to rise and that many of its schools were already full. Ealing council, in west London, said the coalition's changes to the benefits system added further uncertainty to the number of school places needed in coming years.
A spokeswoman for Barking and Dagenham council said the authority had already built temporary classrooms on car parks and green spaces and converted an office block into a school. Rocky Gill, the council's deputy leader, said the worst-case scenario was to consider schooling pupils in shifts.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said the government had allocated £5bn to creating new school places, which was "more than double the amount spent by the previous government in the same timeframe".
"By September, we expect 190,000 extra places will have been created, with many more still to come," she said. "We are confident that our huge investment will mean councils are able to deal with the extra demand for primary school places through building new schools and expanding existing good ones.
"We are working with local authorities to ensure funding is targeted where it is most needed."
Additional reporting by Judith Welikala