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Chris McGovern: Good teachers not small classes determine educational success

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Labour is promising to ban class sizes of over 30 children for the 5- to 7-year-old infant age group. As with ‘motherhood and apple pie’ this is something that few people are going to oppose. With a general election just around the corner, it is intended to reassure parents that a vote for Labour is a vote for childhood and better schools. What’s not to like?

The class size cap, of course, is nothing new. It was introduced by the last Labour administration but the current Coalition Government has relaxed the rules in order to accommodate exceptional circumstances as the ‘intake’ of 5-7 year-olds rises. Infant classes of over 30 children have certainly increased under the Coalition but those that might be considered ‘unlawful’ represent less than one per cent of the total.

Ed Miliband says that Labour will fund his guarantee on class sizes by savings made from blocking new free schools if they create places surplus to demand.  Whilst this is currently the case for 20 per cent of free schools (around 65 schools out of 20,000 state schools), this percentage is likely to shrink dramatically as the primary age school population boom impacts. Many will consider that, temporarily, a small number of surplus places is a small price to pay for breaking the educational stranglehold of local authorities that have failed our children for so long.

“Education, education, education,” was Tony Blair’s winning general election mantra back in 1997. It was followed by a huge increase in expenditure on schools and massive grade inflation of public examinations. On international league tables of educational attainment, however, our country began to sink and has been sinking ever since.

Small class sizes are, of course, desirable but the Labour party’s latest promise is, in educational terms, out of focus. The key to raising educational standards is not, primarily, about class size. It is about teaching quality. However, I do not subscribe to Tristram Hunt’s simplistic notion that equates ‘qualified teacher status’ (QTS) with high quality teaching. On the contrary, QTS is more a certificate in politically correct ideology and failed teaching methodology than any guarantee of subject knowledge or of being able to teach effectively.

Most teachers today hold QTS but many are not well qualified in terms of subject knowledge. The bar may have been raised for teacher training but only around 50 per cent of science and of IT trainees hold a ‘good’ degree (2:1 or better). The figure is 60 per cent for maths teachers. In addition, there are many teachers in our classrooms who have no qualification, at all, beyond A-Level in a subject they are required to teach. At primary school a GCSE is often the extent of teacher knowledge in some areas.

In its most recent report on educational standards the OECD concluded that:

Class size is a hotly debated topic in many OECD countries and has a considerable impact on the level of current spending on education. While smaller classes are often perceived as enabling a higher quality of education, particularly among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, overall evidence of the effect of differences in class size on student performance is weak. 

The same report places Shanghai at the top of the world’s educational attainment league table. Shangahi also has the largest class sizes.

Given the choice between a very good teacher in class of 35 pupils or a very mediocre teacher in a class of 25 pupils, which would you chose for your child?

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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