Sunday, January 11, 2009

British Private schools urged to accept bigger classes to keep fees down

An eminently sensible suggestion. The desirability of small classes is a shibboleth in modern education but the evidence says that they just encourage the hiring of incompetent teachers. See here

Private schools should consider increasing class sizes to keep fees down as the credit crisis bites, the head of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) has said. Smaller class sizes have long been the selling point of independent schools, and are frequently cited by parents as the main reason for educating their children privately. Typical class sizes in prep schools range from 8 to 16, while secondary schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council boast a pupil-teacher ratio of 10-1, against an average of 26 and 21 pupils per teacher in state primary and secondary schools.

David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, whose members educate 130,000 children aged 3 to 13, said the sector's obsession with keeping class sizes small represented a "self-inflicted wound". "We need to abandon ship on the idea of small classes and focus instead on the quality of teaching and learning. The answer is quality, quality, quality. Small classes are not the answer. Many of our schools could transform their situation by increasing class size. "There is no magic number. You can have schools that are too small. Eight or ten children to a class can be too small. It's too intensive," he told The Times. "For the children it can be like having an intensive tutorial all the time."

John Tranmer, headmaster of the Froebelian School in Leeds and chairman designate of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, said that, at 24, the average class size at his school was well above the average for the independent sector. But the school was nevertheless among the top 100 in the country (out of more than 20,000) in the performance tables for 11-year-olds. "There are some schools that still think that trading on class size is the key thing. They are missing the point," he said.

What mattered more was to attract the best teachers. Rather than have two classes of 12, each with a fully qualified teacher, schools should consider merging the two classes under a single teacher and a classroom assistant. "You save on staffing costs, but the teaching quality is the same," he said. "It's all about the quality of staff and the effective use of teaching assistants - they are of incredible support to teachers." Mr Tranmer, who used to teach in a school in Surrey with classes of eight pupils, said that the social dynamics in such small classes could be very difficult to manage.

The IAPS's change in position on class sizes is unlikely to be universally welcomed by many parents, who remain firmly attached to the notion of small classes.

On the wider issue of how private schools would weather the recession, Mr Hanson said that while some parents would struggle to pay school fees, the most vulnerable schools were likely to be very small, family-owned institutions that did not have the backing of a professional association such as the IAPS. Within the association's 560 member schools, he predicted that at least three schools may be forced to merge to save costs. In other cases, schools were achieving savings by forming informal federations to do bulk ordering on equipment or by sharing specialist teachers.


Half-empty government schools in Britain

No mystery why in most cases. Demographic changes are part of the story but low standards and bureaucratic inertia also figure

Tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money are being wasted each year on nearly 800,000 "empty desks" in schools. According to government figures, nearly one in seven primary schools and one in 10 secondaries are at least a quarter empty, their pupil rolls slashed by falling local birth rates or parents choosing better schools further away. Areas with the most surplus school places range from rural counties such as Kent and Norfolk to inner-city areas such as Knowsley on Merseyside.

With government spending on schools likely to be reined in after the recession, pressure is likely to grow for a "cull" of empty places in primary schools in sparsely populated areas and in unpopular comprehensives. "Many areas are going to be facing some very difficult decisions as primary school numbers continue to fall," said David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, who obtained the figures in a Commons written answer. They cover the period 2001-7. "With this number of secondary school surplus places, it is also clear many parents are rejecting their most local school."

Alan Smithers, education professor at Buckingham University, said politicians were reluctant to reduce surplus school places, despite the expense of keeping them open. "The corollary of parental choice is supposed to be that parents move their children away from poorly performing schools and that those schools eventually go out of business, raising standards across the system," said Smithers. "At the same time local communities are very attached to their schools and politicians are after their votes." The area with the highest proportion of empty secondary school places is Hackney, east London, where 22% are surplus to requirements. In Wakefield, West Yorkshire, 21% of primary places are unfilled.

Another badly affected area is Kent, where the number of primary schools at least a quarter empty nearly doubled from 44 to 80 between 2004 and 2007. In the past year, the council has closed about five schools and amalgamated others.

Those whose pupil rolls have been falling include Cranbrook Church of England primary school near Tunbridge Wells, the register has dwindled from about 400 six years ago to just 215 today. Peter Wibroe, 52, the headteacher, said: "In times of financial uncertainty I believe people will be less inclined than ever to have children, or move to areas like this with their families and boost the intake at small schools. "We have had to adapt very quickly. When I started two years ago, there were 10 classes. Now we have just eight." [i.e. In a private school, changes have been made which eliminate "empty desks"]

Local authorities contacted over the figures said they were keen to avert school closures wherever possible. Some pointed out that it was advisable to retain surplus places because pupil numbers were set to begin rising again after years of decline.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said funding announced in November's pre-budget report by Alistair Darling, the chancellor, for building new schools could be used to reduce surplus places, for example by removing temporary accommodation in cabins. She added: "Closing schools is a drastic last resort."


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