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Tuesday, 8 June, 1999, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Warning over school class sizes
David Hart
David Hart: "Class sizes for junior children remain a national disgrace"
By Gary Eason at the NAHT conference in Cardiff

Oversize primary school classes and the "scandal" of unequal funding are threatening the government's drive to improve England's education system, according to the leader of the biggest headteachers' union.

David Hart, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, also complains that the government's "obsession" with the three Rs is in danger of creating "literate and numerate" philistines.

He told delegates at his union's annual conference, in Cardiff, that they were the people who would largely determine whether the government's policies succeeded or failed.

In his speech to the final session of the conference on Friday, he said that they were entitled to point out the obstacles in their way.

The main obstacle he identified was over-large classes. The government is on track to achieve its promise that infant classes will have no more than 30 pupils by next year - a year earlier than it promised during the election. Mr Hart was not over-impressed, however.

'National disgrace'

"It is all very well cutting class sizes for infant children," he said. "What good does this do if class sizes for junior children remain a national disgrace?

Delegates heard that there was still a "mountain to climb" for the government's plans for raise standards in schools
"I know that Rome was not built in a day. But the nearly one million seven to 11-year-olds in grossly oversize classes are not only a memorial to the iniquities of the previous administration. They are a reminder of the mountain this government has to climb."

What good does it do to cut infant class sizes if nearly a million children aged seven to 11 are in classes of more than 30, he will ask, calling it "a national disgrace" and a reminder of the "mountain" the government has to climb.

Figures released by the Department for Education showed that 356,388 pupils aged five to seven were in classes of 31 or more in January - a fall of nearly 130,000 on a year earlier.

But the number of eight to 11-year-olds being taught in classes of more than 30 had risen, to 835,175.

Mr Hart drew an unfavourable comparison with independent schools, which he said had pupil-teacher ratios "light years" away from those in the state sector.

Assistants 'no substitute'

The government is attempting to ease the workload on teachers struggling with such large classes by recruiting some 20,000 extra classroom assistants - the first of whom are being trained this summer.

Unions 99
But Mr Hart gave a warning to politicians that assistants were no substitute for teachers, and that they should not confuse adult-pupil ratios with teacher-pupil ratios.

He also complained about the need to reform the "ramshackle" funding of schools via local education authorities.

"Widespread funding disparities are an absolute scandal," he said.

"How anybody in their right mind thinks that a national education service, which is now so centrally driven, can survive very much longer in the face of such inequalities of funding, is beyond belief."

He believed one answer could be to abolish the education authorities, handing over any functions that needed to be retained to regional government. But he predicted that education action zones could "blow local authorities out of the water" if they were to multiply significantly.

Curriculum 'overload'

Mr Hart said it was understandable that the drive to raise standards of literacy and numeracy was an essential part of the government's education programme. But he accused ministers of having rushed into it without having thought it through - ignoring the needs of mixed-year classes, small schools, and children with English as a second language, among others.

"The impact on the rest of the curriculum is a matter of real concern," he said. Physical education, sport, art, music and drama were under threat from an overcrowded timetable.

Add to that citizenship and "the expectation that teachers can remedy all the ills of an increasingly sick society" and the result "must not lead to schools being forced to produce literate and numerate but unfit philistines," he said.

"It is time that government, and its advisory quangos, understood that success in sport and the arts leads to increased self confidence, enhanced self esteem and creativity, which in turn lift pupils' overall standards," he argued.

See also:

09 Sep 98 | UK Education
12 Apr 99 | UK Education
02 Dec 98 | UK Education
08 May 99 | UK Education
19 May 99 | UK Education
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