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.


PTR Rankings remain surprisingly constant

In my previous post I used Pupil Teacher Ratios (PTRs) as a measure that is largely consistent over time in the manner in which it has been calculated to discuss overall changes in the staffing levels of schools. One slight change in how PTRs have been calculated has been the classification of unqualified teachers and instructors within PTRs and the increase in school-based preparation courses. This may have caused some PTRs to look better than they actually are in reality.

For around 70 local authorities, a time series of overall PTRs can be constructed stretching from 1974 to 2017. These include the Outer London boroughs; the metropolitan district (forming the main conurbations outside London) and a number of shire counties where a unitary council has not yet been abstracted from within the 1974 boundaries created when the former county boroughs were changed to two tier County and District councils.  There aren’t any PTRS for the inner London boroughs, because in 1974 these boroughs were part of the ILEA and reported as a single unit until the ILEA was broken up into its constituent boroughs.

Although the time series could be traced back until 1974, I have only been able to find Statistical Bulletins on PTRs back until 1979; the last year of funding decided by the Labour government that was defeated later that year by Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives.

Looking at the PTRS for the 71 mainland authorities, one is struck by the fact more than a third of local authorities retain a similar ranking position at the start and end of the 38 year period (with change of +/- 10 places in each list). This is especially trueof six local authorities with the most favourable overall PTRS in 1979. Two of them still occupy places in the six local authorities with the most favourable PTRS in 2017. All six are in the top 11 authorities with the best PTRS in 2017.

At the other end of the table, the two worst shire counties in 1979 have improved their positions slightly, but Oxfordshire remains in 17th worst place in the list – exactly where it was in this list of local authorities in 1979. In 1979, some local authorities still had three tier systems and those with Sixth Form Colleges had their staff included in the PTR tables as part of the secondary sector. Changes to one or other of these systems may account for some of the large movements within the ranking.

Overall the worst PTR in 1979 was 21.1, whereas in 2017 it is 19.8; an improvement of 1.3 pupils per teacher. This may have been partly paid for by a deterioration of the best placed authority in the list. The best PTR in 1979 was 15.1 – leaving aside the Isles of Scilly as a special case. In 2017, the best placed PTR was 16.1: one pupil per teacher worse than in 1979.

If PTRS continue to deteriorate over the next few years, as seems likely at present with increasing pupil numbers not fully providing for additional costs, then may be by the end of 2019 PTRs will be the same as they were in 1979 across a larger number of local authorities whether they have academies; free schools or retain maintained schools.



Class sizes and PTRs

How do you measure the utilisation rate of the teaching workforce? The two traditional measures have been class sizes and pupil teacher ratios or PTRs. More recently, a new measure of Pupil Adult Ratios or PARs has been introduced in order to incorporate the growing important of support staff in the life and work of schools.

For the lifetime of the Statistics of Education volumes based upon the census of the workforce taken each January, the PTRs were published by local authority for nursery, primary, secondary, special school sectors and an overall figure. This allow meaningful comparison between primary sectors in LAs with 11-16 secondary schools and those with Sixth Form Colleges. Small rural primary schools also didn’t affect the comparisons between schools.

With the coming of the School Workforce Census, in 2010, in what was a sensible move overall in terms of data collection, more data became available at the level of the individual school, but less by local authority. Since 2010, only overall PTRs for each local authority have been easy to abstract from the datasets. This has not been as useful as the former more nuanced datasets.

In passing, it is worth recalling that dealing with PTRs for more than 150 local authority areas can lead to mistakes, even if the data provided at the local authority level is 100% accurate, which it isn’t always. My first interaction with Hansard in the early 1980s was when a national list of PTRs appeared in answer to a written PQ with a mistake in the first local authority in the list, thus making all other figures wrong. These days it would be an easy talk to rectify the error. Then it wasn’t and I am sure that bound copies of Hansard still remain with the wrong data to trip up some future researchers, especially if the errata slip has become detached.

I think there was a mistake in Telford and Wrekin PTR in the 2010 first run of the School Workforce Census where a PTR of 25.0 was apparently recorded. Logic suggests it ought to have been somewhere in the range of 17.6-17.9.

In a later post I will discuss the differences in PTRs between different types of local authority; London; urban areas outside of London; the unitary authorities and the remaining shire counties. However, it is generally clear that across England the pressure of rising pupil numbers and the cash they bring through the funding model has not been able to offset the falls in pupil numbers in the secondary sector and the other pressures on school funding over the past few years.

Only 15 of the 154 local authorities don’t have a worse PTRS in the 2017 School Workforce Census than they recorded in the last of the former series collected in January 2010. Seven of those local authorities are in London and most of the remainder are authorities with significant areas of deprivation where the Pupil Premium may have helped funding in their schools.

Overall PTRS are still much better than a generation ago across much of England, but will that trend be reversed as secondary pupil numbers grow if demands on funding, and especially gross salary costs, outstrip funding increases?

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.

Are secondary school PTRs really improving in England?

Earlier today the government, through the DfE, issued the latest UK Education and Training Statistics for 2016/17 in Statistical Release SR64/2017 and its associated tables.

Now, in recent weeks we have often been hearing how secondary schools in England are strapped for cash and also often do not find it easy to recruit teachers. Thus the information contained in Table 1.4 comes as something of a shock.

Pupil Teacher Ratio within Secondary Schools

2012/13                15.5

2013/14                15.7

2014/15                15.8

2015/16                16.1

2016/17                15.6

After four years of steadily worsening ratios there appears to have been a sudden turnaround in 2016/17 and the overall position is back to almost where it was in 2012/13. Curious, to say the least. Footnote 1 explains that Pupil Teacher ratios are calculated by dividing the total full-time equivalent number of pupils on rolls in schools by the total FTE number of qualified teachers. It excludes centrally employed teachers regularly employed in schools. However, another footnote (footnote 13) adds that in England unqualified teachers are included in the figures. The figures for England include free schools and all types of academies.

Had the 2016/17 figure been 16.6, I might have thought it a significant deterioration, but in line with the mood music. An improvement of this magnitude needs some form of explanation. However, the Release confines its text just to changes in the data and offers no analysis as to why any changes might have occurred.

Could the inclusion of unqualified teachers be the answer? It might be if they hadn’t been included in previous releases on this topic. Certainly, there is no mention in the footnotes of the 2015/16 Release of unqualified teachers; indeed, the key footnote refers to ‘qualified’ teachers. So, is this the answer? If so, then the 2016/17 Release ought to make clear the change in methodology especially as the footnote on page 5 of the main release specifically mentions ‘qualified’ teachers and thus might be read as inferring that the improvement in the PTR is due to more qualified teachers being employed in England.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t like the term ‘unqualified’ teacher, as it can cover both trainee teachers and those that used, in former days, to be called Instructors. I think some degree of distinction between those being prepared for QTS by schools and on their staffing list at the time of the census and those filling gaps, either because no teacher with QTS was available or because the school had decided to employ someone without QTS because of their other skills, ought to be made.

If the answer isn’t the inclusion this year of unqualified teachers – a factor that makes comparison with the other home nations impossible on this indicator – then I am at something of a loss to identify why such a large change in the direction of better PTRs has taken place over the past year. Could it be to do with the different financial years of maintained schools and academies and hence the budgetary cycles? I doubt it, but would be interested to hear from readers?


Can you trust the data?

How often do government departments have to reissue press notices? Following intervention from the Office for Statistics Regulation, the DfE have been placed in that position. The OSR letter can be read at The revised press notice and the other issue about MAT transfers raised by OSR concern matters dear to the policy objectives of Ministers, so any potentially misleading data are of concern.

However, the DfE statisticians also have to battle with others that don’t always provide data that is of top quality. As reported in an earlier post, about local authority expenditure per pupil, there are a couple of local authorities in one table in that Statistical First Release where the data must be suspect because of the reported level: it both cases, way too low.

Then there is the case of under-reporting by schools in areas such as fixed term exclusions and more specifically for the number of pupils placed on reduced timetables, but not excluded. This is an area where more work is needed to discover what is actually happening, not least in the academy sector. This work is important because of the potential safeguarding aspect.

Local authorities and the local Safeguarding Board may not be in full possession of the facts if academies do not fully report to the DfE. It would be a simple change to add to the funding letter that academies are required to report all statistics via the local authority where they are located unless the Regional School Commissioner has explicitly provided for an alternative system that is as rigorous. At present, this is an issue with one part of the dual system not working as well as the other and creating potential risks for young people.

At least these days, as with the re-issued DfE Press notice mistakes can be rectified when noticed. In the former days before the internet such mistakes could become set in stone. One of my first communications with government was to point out that pupil teacher ratios provided in a written parliamentary answer and reported in Hansard were wrong. I think the first local authority in the list missed the PTR and was allocated that of the next by mistake. It wasn’t picked up before printing and went into the record. An error notice appeared later, but who checks written PQs for later revisions? Nobody, I would hazard a guess. As a result, anyone using that data source would have inaccurate data. It doesn’t matter now, but might have then. One year, the Department had to re-issue a whole Statistical Volume because of the number of printer’s errors.

Today, the record can be set straight quickly and easily, even if the original error is retained as well.

Statistics are important as a source of information under-pinning decision making and debate, hence the need for accuracy. The question of management information that is separate from statistics is one that has always interested me. In some areas, such as the labour market for teachers, I have always believed up to the minute information is important to spot changes in trends as early as possible. However, this data is often in a raw state and not 100% accurate. Where to draw the line between management information and statistics is an interesting and ever changing debate as technology provides ever more exciting tools for data collection and analysis.

PTRs worsen in 2016

The DfE has today published its first results from last November’s School Workforce Census With an ever changing landscape across the school sector, it is sometimes difficult to discern the longer-term trends. However, it does seem as if the years of plenty are being replaced by more challenging times as the head teachers across southern England told the parents at many primary schools yesterday.

It is worth recalling the current environment. Pupil numbers have been rising for some years now in primary schools but falling in secondary schools. September 2016 market the first school year where the number of pupils in secondary schools started increasing. The DfE analysis comments that

The nursery & primary school population has been rising since 2009 and reached 4.50 million children in 2016. Based on 2016’s pupil projections the rate of increase is forecast to slow and the population is projected to stabilise in 2020 at 5 4.68 million children. The secondary school population rose to 2.76 million in 2016 (the first rise since 2005) as the increased births from 2002 reached secondary school age. The secondary school population is projected to continue increasing to 3.04 million by 2020 and further until 2025 when it is expected to peak at 3.33 million.

If pupil funding remains constant and there are no additional cost pressures, pupil teacher ratios should remain stable. Worsening, PTRs i.e. higher numbers of pupils per teacher, often indicate cost pressures on schools, although not always if a school has spare capacity and fills up existing spaces without the need to create new classes.

The best PTRs in recent years for all primary state funded schools in England were recorded in 2014 in at 20.9, while rolls were rising. By 2016, the primary PTR for qualified teachers was 21.3, a deterioration of 0.4 pupils per teacher. However, some of this difference may have been made up by unqualified teachers on School Direct and Teach First salaried schemes. The PTR is still far better than the 23.3 recorded in 2000, when schools were still suffering from the funding crisis of the 1990s.

In the secondary sector, the best year for PTRs was 2013, when it reached 15.5. It has always been better in the secondary sector than in the primary sector. By 2016, secondary PTRs had reached 16.4, a deterioration of 1.1 pupils per teacher despite the falling rolls during this period. I suspect that the change may have been greater in 11-18 schools because of the driving down of funding for the post-16 sector during the period since 2010 and the relative difference between Pupil Premium funding in the primary and secondary sectors.

Looking further ahead, it seem difficult to see the increase in pupil numbers helping the PTR to improve in the secondary sector in many schools; indeed, the prediction may be for the rate to continue to worsen back towards the 17.2 recorded across maintained secondary schools in 2000.

State funded special schools also recorded their first pressure on PTRs for many years, although their overall pupil adult ratio remained constant for the third year running.

Of course, as the mix of staffing changes in schools the use of a single ratio such as a PTR may become less significant than the wider pupil adult ratio.