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Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 11:38 GMT
Class sizes and exclusions

Class sizes have remained high on the political agenda

Education is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies - and Westminster MPs have little influence over education policy in these parts of the United Kingdom. For more information see our full guide to devolution.


BACKGROUND

Class sizes are an emotive issue - research and common sense suggest that smaller classes offer teachers the chance to devote more time to each pupil, in turn improving their level of education.

Politicians know that concerned parents do not want their child taught in a class where the teacher has no time to attend to each pupil individually.

And so election pledges on reducing class sizes are thought to be a potential vote winner.

In 1997, Labour made cutting class sizes one of its key pledges of the general election campaign.

It took this into government and promised to cut class sizes for under five, six and seven-year-olds to no more than 30 pupils.

Proportion of infants in classes over 30
Jan 1997: 29%
Jan 1998: 29%
Jan 2000: 11%
Jan 2001: 2%
Source: Government figures
So confident was Education Secretary David Blunkett of success, that he revised the deadline for this target from September 2002 to 2001.

Labour is on track to realise this pledge, with only 36,000 children in classes of more than 30 in January 2001, compared with 485,000 in 1998.

But, according to the other main parties, this has been at the expense of secondary school classes where statistics suggest an increase in the average class size.

Labour disputes this, saying figures released in April show the ratio of teachers to pupils in secondaries fell slightly from one teacher for every 17.2 students last year to one for every 17.1 in January 2001.

In November, the Liberal Democrats produced figures which suggested that pupil/teacher ratios were at their worst level for 25 years.

OPPOSITION ATTACKS

The Lib Dems described the figures as "shocking", with secondary schools having an average of 17.1 pupils per teacher, compared with 16.7 when Labour took office in 1997.

The Conservatives have also sought to score political points by hitting out at the government repeatedly in the past few months over teacher shortages.

Teacher-pupil ratio
1975 17.2
1980 16.5
1985 16
1990 15
1995 16.3
2000 17.1
Figures compiled by Liberal Democrats
The opposition says that a paucity of classroom teachers has led to an increase in individual class sizes.

They support the Liberal Democrat accusations that Labour's has cut infant classes at the expense of secondary school pupils.

Labour has sought to defend itself with the latest figures showing the first fall in secondary class sizes after a decade of increases.

Yet despite their criticisms of Labour, neither opposition party has committed itself to a target for secondary school class sizes.

But politicians may take some comfort from research carried out at London University's Institute of Education, which suggests that smaller class sizes do not develop a child's social skills in the way larger classes do.

Nevertheless, the research - published in September - did confirm that smaller classes aided academic development.

In their election manifesto, the Liberal Democrats commit themselves to introducing a maximum average class size of 25 pupils in primary schools.

EXCLUSIONS

Labour promised to get tough with school exclusions and pledged to see them fall in schools in England by a third - to 8,400 - by 2002.

Official figures, published in May, showed the government has now all but achieved this aim, with exclusions falling from 10,400 in 1998/9 to 8,600 in 1999/2000.

And the targets for reducing the number of pupils permanently excluded will now be dropped.

By 2002 local education authorities must offer suitable full-time education for excluded youngsters.

Labour has also set up Learning Support Units (or "sin bins" as they are dubbed) in schools in inner-city areas, where unruly youngsters are taken out of the classroom, rather than the school.

Critics say keeping unruly pupils in the classroom is at the expense of teachers and other pupils.

The Conservatives would have disruptive pupils sent to external "Progress Centres".

The Liberal Democrats would also abolish the cataloguing of school exclusions.

Schools should have the freedom to discipline individual pupils as they see fit, the party says.

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