Class sizes on the increase

Increasing pupil numbers and pressure on funding , it seems, having an effect on class sizes in the secondary sector. Last week’s DfE data revealed that the percentage of classes in the secondary sector with more than 30 pupils in them was, at 8.4% of classes, at its highest percentage since before 2006 and the fifth straight year to have recorded an increase. Some 13% of pupils were being taught in classes of more than 30 in January 2019. By comparison, in 2014 it was just 9.4% of pupils.

With more increases in pupil number over the next few years, this percentage of pupils in classes of over 30 pupils seems destined to increase even further, unless more funding can be found from the magic money tree called The Tresury.

Almost the same percentage of pupils in the primary sector were also being taught in these ‘large’ classes. The classes are mostly at Key Stage 2. This is because of the Blunkett limit of 30 pupils that applies to most Key Stage 1 classes. Indeed, the 18.1% of Key Stage 2 pupils in classes of more than 30 is a record percentage since at least 2010 and probably for a longer period as well. Hopefully, these children will find themselves in smaller classes when they move on to a secondary school.

Large numbers of pupils in classes means more time is required for assessment and preparation by teachers if the different needs of every child are to be adequately catered for. This may well be adding to the pressure teachers’ face from workload that must be undertaken during term-time.

The average Key Stage 2 class in England has some 27.9 pupils in it. The range is from Trafford, in Greater Manchester, where the average is 29.7 to Redcar & Cleveland in the North East, where the average is some 5.2 pupils per teacher fewer at 24.2 pupils in the average Key Stage 2 class.

Four of the lowest five areas with the best averages for Key Stage 2 class size are in the North East and the fifth, Cumbria is also in the North of England. Some boroughs in Inner London also manage to achieve among the lowest average class sizes at Key Stage2. By contrast, urban authorities in the North West and the Midlands feature among authorities with the highest average class sizes at Key Stage 2.

Some local authority areas in the North West have always had large classes and some of the worst pupil teacher ratios in the primary sector ever since I first started looking at such statistics in the mid-1970s, when the present pattern of local government in the urban areas outside of London was established. Hopefully, the new funding formula will help to further reduce the disparity between the best and the worst authorities, although other factors may intervene to prevent an entirely level playing field, such as the age and experience of the teaching staff.


As predicted: more pupils than last year

Over 2.3 million pupils are in being taught in academies or one type of another (72.3% of all secondary school pupils) along with over 1.4 million in primary schools (29.7% of all primary school pupils). These numbers were released yesterday by the DfE as part of their annual assessment of schools ad their pupils. This information has appeared somewhat earlier than expect; it was scheduled to appear in June.

The trend towards declining pupil numbers  at the lower end of the primary age range, and growing numbers at Year 7 in the secondary sector, is now clear to see from these figures and will come as no surprise to those that follow the data about schools and their pupils.

Overall, however, the number of pupils in state funded primary schools rose – as it has since 2009 – although at a slower rate than in recent years. There are 26,600 more pupils than in 2017, and 101,100 more since the 2016 census. The number of pupils in state funded secondary schools rose for the fourth year in a row by around 35,000, and in 2018 had a greater increase in population than primary schools.

There was some consolidation in the primary sector resulting in a net decrease of 20 state-funded primary schools, whereas in the secondary sector there was a net increase of 28 state-funded schools.

All-age schools once looked on askance, not least by the 1944 Education Act that outlawed them by requiring a break at eleven, are still on the increase, albeit perhaps at a slower rate than previously. In January 2017 there were 150 such schools, but this figure has increased to 163 state-funded schools in January 2018. Some of these are ‘free schools’, the most misnamed designation ever invented for a type of school.

As the economy has continued to create more jobs, especially for women, the continued fall in the number of registered pupils for free school meals is not a complete surprise. However, there is still anxiety that the universal free school meals policy for infants is affecting registration for free school meals, causing some schools to lose funding through the Pupil Premium. The issue of funding for deprivation and how it is used by schools is now overdue for a review as all schools will shortly feel the full effect of FSM+6 on their budgets. Perhaps the Social Mobility Commission might like to consider this issue.

A third of all pupils in the primary sector now come from what is classified as an ethnic background, although that includes nearly eight per cent from White non-British backgrounds. Just over one in ten pupils are from Asian background, and one in twenty from ‘Black’ backgrounds.  Slightly more than one in twenty are described as, of ‘mixed’ backgrounds, and this category is likely to increase over the coming years.

Fewer than one in twenty infants were in over-size classes of more than 30, with the majority being in classes of 31. As intakes have reduced in size, so has the issue of over-size classes for infants. Over the next few years, large classes are more likely to be a growing problem for secondary schools unless funding, especially for 16-18 improves.


Productivity gain or worsening working conditions?

Ahead of the ASCL Conference in Birmingham this weekend, there is a report in the press today about rising class sizes in secondary schools.

An analysis by teaching unions has suggested 62% of secondary schools have had to expand class sizes between 2014/15 and 2016/17. The study, conducted by the NEU, NAHT and ASCL – as well as non-teaching unions Unison, GMB and Unite – showed that of 150 local authorities, 83% saw a rise in average class sizes across their secondary schools, while 14% have seen a fall and 3% saw no change.

This report should come as no surprise to anyone connected with education. Indeed, I would predict that class sizes will continue to increase in size over the next few years as the secondary school population expands from its low point reached in 2014 and budgets also come under pressure.

However, there is an argument to be had about the usefulness of class sizes as a measure. They can be affected by factors such as the degree of non-contact time allowed to staff; policy over options at GCSE and for post-16 courses as well as space considerations.

An alternative measure is the Pupil Teacher Ratio. Even here there are now problems: how do you define a teacher. Do you only include those with QTS and exclude Teach First and School Direct trainees, as well as any other unqualified teachers or cover supervisors?

Anyway, I have included the changes in PTRs across different types of secondary schools since the School Workforce Census was introduced. The result confirms the findings from the unions and could have been researched without the need to waste valuable time in hard-pressed local authorities. As an added bonus, these are DfE approved numbers, so the government cannot quibble about them.

Changes in Pupil Teacher Ratios in secondary schools
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
All State funded Secondary schools 14.9 14.9 15 15 15.3 15.6
Converter academies 15.2 15.8
Sponsored academies 13.6 15.3
All academies 14.8 15.6
UTCs/Studio Schools 12.9 13.8
Free Schools 12.6 15.3
LA maintained 15 14.9 14.8 14.9 15.1 15.4

The big change has come since 2015 and probably reflects the loss of extra funding academies received in the early days of the Gove period at the DfE. The effect the loss of that extra cash has had on the funding of these schools is now obvious: sadly, once becoming an academy there is normally no way back. For that reason, heads gathering in Birmingham might want to examine the value for money of back offices at MATs.Source DfE SFR 25/2017 Table 17a

After all, it was the heads that complained for decades about the dead hand of local authority expenditure. Having been released from the frying pan of Local Authority spending patterns they must not fall straight into the fire of MATs with high relative overheads.

There are many other issues that secondary heads will need to consider at their conference. Perhaps one of the most pressing is finding the teachers to fill these classes that now have more pupils in them. It may be a productivity gain, but it does impose a greater workload on teachers and may the class size and PTR changes partly explain the growing loss of teachers with 3-5 years’ experience previously discussed on this blog.

In passing, the head teachers might also want to reflect upon the changing nature of the teacher vacancy market that helps provide the teachers. With the TES group reporting a loss of 2016-17 and the DfE working on a new vacancy platform, how teachers are recruited could become an important area for discussion over the next few years.

As one of the instigators of TeachVac, the free platform for vacancies, I am, of course, not an idle by-stander in this debate.

Larger class for London schools

I guess the Chancellor wanted some good news to announce ahead of his Autumn Statement this week where the accepted mood music is of a round of cuts to department’s budgets. Is that the reason he leaked a reminder of the review of school funding and the creation of a national funding formula for schools to the BBC yesterday.

This news no doubt helps keep the f40 Group of largely Conservative shire counties happy and hopefully distracts them from the fact that they won’t benefit as much from the council tax increase allowed this year to pay for growing social care budgets as unitary authorities and London boroughs will because their council tax is split with district councils.

There didn’t seem to be anything radically new in the Chancellor’s announcement on school funding, but it is interesting to speculate how Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate for London mayor, reacted to the news. As the BBC report noted, London boroughs will be the main losers in any redistribution of cash to schools, assuming there is insufficient cash to allow everyone to be a winner, as might have been the case if Labour had grasped this nettle before the 2008 recession. Will Conservative voters in the capital accept the news with equanimity or, like most losers in these situations, feel hard done by?

Now I suppose that the Chancellor is gambling that part of any loss through the change in the formula that will adversely affect London, where the funding per pupil is greatest, will be mitigated by the increase in pupil numbers which will bring more cash overall, if less per pupil.

A 100 pupils bringing £5,000 each generates half a million pounds for a school. If that was reduced to £4,500 the school would need to recruit 111 pupils to generate roughly the same amount. This would inevitably mean larger classes. While that might be possible in the secondary sector, where pupil teacher ratios have improved in recent years, it would be a real challenge for the primary sector where many schools are already running at capacity because of the extra pupil numbers that have been enrolled during the past few years as the baby boom generation entered schooling.

The other group that may be worried by the announcement are school leaders and governors. This blog has already shown that staffing schools in London is a real challenge. Any reduction in funding may make it more difficult to offer competitive salaries compared with schools in the Home Counties. Now schools in London with large numbers of pupils receiving the Pupil Premium will be protected against the change to some extent, but less so in the secondary sector than in the primary schools.

Of course, the Chancellor may also be going to announce backing for the third runway at Heathrow. In which case he may have calculated that the Conservatives have already lost the South and West London vote next May so he might as well announce all the pain at the same time and have done with it. Losing the London mayoral race might be small price to pay for winning the Conservative leadership race by pleasing the Tory shires. But, surely, I am just being an old cynic.


Labour backs Free Schools

Far more important than Labour’s reiterated pledge announced today to adhere to a watered down class size policy they first introduced in 1997 was the fact that at the same time they seemingly conceded that Labour now no longer universally opposes Free Schools as a concept; they just oppose them where they aren’t needed. Others will know whether this is a major concession or just a bit of real politick. Perhaps such schools might have been more acceptable if they had been branded as ‘voluntary academies’ to sit alongside converter and sponsored academies in the family of schools. After all, there has been a long tradition of voluntary schools in the state system and by no means are all of them faith schools.

Sadly, Labour seems to have ducked the issue of who will enforce class size controls. I assume it will be regional commissioners in academies, but will it still be local authorities in other schools and how will they be funded for such a duty?

The allowance of a year with an oversize class muddies the water since if on day one of the second year the school creates two classes but on day two reverts to one over-sized class for financial reasons will the clock start again providing another year of grace for the school? Realistically, as Labour understood in 1997, but doesn’t seem to now, if press reports are correct, an over-size class needs to be dealt with when it arises and either reduced in size or a dispensation granted because there is no other solution possible. There is also no pledge to extend the limit to the junior age pupils. They can still legally be taught in a class of any size.

I welcome the acceptance that teachers need to be trained and the work that Chris Waterman is doing with SATTAG and the manifesto on teacher education should help make clear to all where the Parties stand on this issue during the general election. Every MP seeking re-election will have received a copy of the manifesto in the post and as a contributor I hope that they read it and make their position clear.

There are big risks for education in England after the election as any coalition propped up by Scottish Nationalist MPs wouldn’t have a majority on education issues in England since it seems unlikely many Scottish Nationalist MPs would want to hang around Westminster to vote or even speak in debates about schooling in England; not a topic they know much about anyway. In that respect, education in England could be the big loser of a hung parliament with the Secretary of State having to be mindful of what might be voted down in parliament. This is an issue that no doubt will be discussed further between now and the 7th May.

550 more primary school teachers needed for London in a few years time

Mid-year estimates from the Office of National Statistics released today* show around 9,000 more children in London in the under-one age category compared with the number of one year olds. That’s a big jump, and more than 20,000 greater than the number of five year olds. If these children stay in the capital then the pressure on services, and not least on schools, is going to remain intense. At least 500 extra teachers will be needed when those born since the last figures were published reach school-age.

Although the present supply of teachers for the primary sector is adequate, the government will need to watch for any decline in interest in teaching the early years, and be prepared to improve the limited funding to encourage training and working in London if such a decline occurs. Fortunately, there is some, but not much, relief from the figures for the South East where there is a slight drop in the totals, but it is only just over a thousand. Elsewhere across the regions of England there don’t seem to be any dramatic changes in the number of under-ones compared with the total of one year-olds.

Pressure on childcare and nursery places is going to be felt ahead of the problems facing the school but at least the government and local authorities have time to respond to the population growth. I personally doubt whether ‘free school’ will be the answer and however much Mr Gove may not like local authorities he would be well advised to ensure that they have sufficient funds left for planning how to handle this increase. No doubt the Mayor of London will also have something to say about the issue since strategic planning for the whole of London is one of his concerns.

Funding these extra pupil numbers is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing education planners over the next decade, especially as class sizes are fixed at a maximum of thirty for the under-7s. Finding space for all the new classrooms is going to almost as big a challenge.


Baby boom now affecting schools, especially in London

Between January 2012 and January 2013 primary schools across England added nearly 2,000 extra classes in order to teach some 64,000 additional pupils. By contrast, their secondary colleagues educated some 23,000 fewer pupils in January 2013 than in the previous year, and saw the number of classes on census day drop by 85 compared with the previous year to a number around 1,500 less than in the peak year of 2011.

None of these statistics contained in a new Statistical Release released by the DfE (SFFR 21/2013) are very surprising to followers of trends in pupil numbers. Secondary schools are approaching the lowest point in the current demographic cycle, and primary schools in some parts of the country are already experiencing significant growth among the younger age children entering primary schools. This pressure can be seen by the fact that the average class size in primary schools has increased from 26.2 pupils per teacher in 2009 to 26.8 in 2013. At Key Stage 1 the increase has been even more dramatic, from 26.2 in 2009 to 27.3 in 2103. The number of KS1 pupils has increased by nearly 150,000 in the period between 2009 and 2013; an increase of more than 10%, with more yet to come over the next few years.

As has been predicted, the largest KS1 average class sizes are to be found in the outer London boroughs.  Twenty of the top 26 authorities with the largest average KS1 class sizes are London boroughs, and only two – The City of London and Lewisham are what might be considered Inner London boroughs in historical terms. Interestingly, two traditional inner London boroughs, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea have the lowest average KS1 class sizes in the capital, on a par with class sizes in Sunderland and Buckinghamshire. In Harrow, the average KS1 class was 29.5 in January 2013, only 0.5 of a pupil below the legal maximum of 30 for KS1 classes, although this was exceed by the one school in the city of London where the average was shown as 30 pupils per teacher. In Sutton, where the Chief Executive last year spoke of a need to increase the legal limit, the average is a relatively unproblematic 28.7; slightly better than the average for schools across Birmingham.

Authorities in the North East took five of the lowest ten positions in 2013, although the authority with the overall lowest KS1 average class size was Cumbria, with its many small rural village schools. Here the average KS1 class was 23.9, some 5.6 pupils fewer than in Harrow.

If the success of London secondary schools achieved over the past few years is to be maintained, it will be essential to monitor the performance of the pupils in these increasingly large classes in order to avert any decline in standards at an early stage. If there is no decline in achievements, it will no doubt further add to the debate about class sizes and pupil performance.

Oxfordshire, where I am a county councillor, is in the third of authorities with the lowest KS1 class sizes, so it will be interesting to see how our KS1 results fare this summer after the scrutiny they have come under during recent years.