Opinion: is the infant class size limit of thirty too inflexible?

The Chief Executive of the Lib Dem-controlled London Borough of Sutton, Mr Niall Bolger, has been in the news recently, flying a kite on the possible relaxation in the current statutory limit of 30 on class size for Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, i.e. Key Stage 1 within primary schools.

Mr Bolger has subsequently clarified the situation by saying: “Increasing class sizes is not a Sutton Council policy or something that has been discussed at a political level.”. However, this recent report has reinforced my own personal doubts about the unintended consequences of the limit of thirty in infant classes.

I have been a primary school governor for over twenty-five years, and, in principle, the thirty class size limit is an excellent thing. However, I cannot help feeling that some limited flexibility might be helpful.

I want to highlight one of the little-known consequences of the class size limit. The specifics I describe relate to my own authority, Sefton MBC, but will apply to a greater or lesser extent in many parts of the country.

In the 2010/11 academic year Sefton Council had to allocate £156,000 to employ an extra teacher in each of four primary schools. The reason was that there were a total of just five children spread across those four schools which took a Key Stage 1 class over the national limit of 30 children per infant class teacher.

In the current academic year, 2011/12, the Council is allocating £118,000 to employ an extra teacher in each of three primary schools, each with just one pupil more than the thirty class size limit.

Accordingly, over two years, a staggering £274,000 has had to be found to employ seven teachers for twelve months so that just 8 infant pupils can be taught “legally”. But that money hasn’t come from the Council, or from the Government, it has come from reducing the funding to every other primary school pupil in Sefton.

So what is the solution I would like to see? The slight relaxation I suggest would be achieved by taking account of the use of teaching assistants. It seems to me to be bizarre that, while it is perfectly legal to have an infant class of thirty with one teacher who has little or no teaching assistant support, to have thirty-one or thirty-two pupils in a class is illegal no matter how much extra teaching assistant support there is.

Surely a common-sense solution is to change the law so that schools have the flexibility to go up to thirty-two children in an infant class, if they wish, but only so long as they have a qualified, full-time teaching assistant as well as a teacher.

Pressure on Reception class places (already strong in many parts of the country) is expected to increase further in the next few years. Without measures such as I suggest we are increasingly likely to see three problems:

• More parents failing to get their first preference of school.
• Councils and central government having to find significant sums of money to build extra classrooms – apparently Sutton Council has needed to spend £7 million in one year.
• Money being taken away from other primary school children (£274,000 over two years in Sefton Council) to enable what are often literally a handful of infant children to be taught legally.

Could a little common sense prevail?

Simon Shaw is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Birkdale Ward, Southport. He is Cabinet Member Environmental on Sefton MBC

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  • Callum Morton 10th Jan '12 - 1:31pm

    Totally agree with this. Flexibilty is much needed – particularly like the idea of linking the law to teaching assistants, as it makes a lot of sense!

  • Surely if you increase the limit classes will expand to that limit and at some point a school will have to pay an extra teacher’s salary to stay within that limit, and then you’re back to square one, only your classes are bigger.

  • No – 30 is too many, especially for small children and where abilities are mixed – you have to have a hard limit somewhere. Even with assistants 30 is wrong. Children have the right to be taught by proper qualified teachers. I know that the process to qualify as a teacher puts many people off, but I’m not happy with my 4 year old being in a class so huge that nearly all his time is with a teaching assistant rather than a teacher.

    There has been a baby boom – we need to build more classrooms. Lets just get on with it rather than trying to shoehorn more people into inadequate facilities. Given that the birthrate may drop later, lets expand schools intelligently with buildings that can be reconfigured say from 4 classrooms to 1 hall in the future at a low cost.

    I pay a lot of money in taxes and I expect my kids to be educated by real trained teachers. If that means taking some teaching assistants out of schools and having them formalise their experience into a qualification – so be it.

    Its interesting that the first problem on your list is parents not getting their first choice of school. The choice agenda has failed. Compare and contrast the UK education system with somewhere like Finland.

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Jan '12 - 2:08pm

    What Rankersbo said.
    If you increase the limit to 32, within a couple of years, you’ll get complaints about having to spend £XX,000 to stop half a dozen kids taking these schools over the limit, and wouldn’t it make more sense to increase the limit to 33…?

    You describe the figure of £274,000 (over two years) as “staggering”; but the total expenditure of Sefton’s Children’s Services department over the last two years is about £643 million (about half of which is school expenditure: see pages 15 and 44 of this report).
    Context is all.

  • Malcom Todd….I agree

    Also, if the problem is just one ‘extra’ child per school, why not ensure that a pupil from the affected schools wil, instead,l attend a school where the class number is below 30 or, create an extra class for the surplus at just one school (reducing the overall numbers in the other classes and making the school more attractive to parents). a far more cost effective method?

  • Tony Dawson 10th Jan '12 - 2:38pm

    @Malcolm Todd:

    “You describe the figure of £274,000 (over two years) as “staggering”; but the total expenditure of Sefton’s Children’s Services department over the last two years is about £643 million (about half of which is school expenditure”

    Malcolm, that sort of attitude just cannot be afforded right now. Quarter of a million pounds saved which is otherwise spent unnecessarily is quarter of a million pounds not wasted. There are issues to address which might obviate the need to spend this way: set individual school admission ceilings lower initially, perhaps and plan better across the borough for the real numbers of 4-5 year olds. But, unfortunately, a few dozen Polish or Latvian families suddenly moving into an area with kids of this age can throw all prior calculations out of the window. As would, of course, be the case with a similar number of native (generally less mobile, however) families with kids.

  • James Hardy 10th Jan '12 - 2:48pm

    you can say, well one more in a class wont hurt, but that is just drawing another line, which will be pushed and surpassed in time. It seems like they are treating 30 as a target rather than a maximum, surely the target should be a lower number (say 25) and 30 should be the exception rather than the rule

  • From my direct experience the fundamental issues are pupil/’teacher’ ratio and number of people physically in a classroom, and year groups.

    Based on the available research, I would like to see a ‘teacher’ to pupil’s ratio of 1:8 or better in state primary schools . I use ‘teacher’ as from my experience good classroom assistants who can do small group teaching (and on occassions take the entire class), my children certainly benefit from the attentions of several adults with differing approaches and strengths and the continuity it brings.

    Overall class size is more problemmatic as this is largely dependent upon the building, modern schools have tended to be designed for 30 pupils per class but my local school can only have 24 per class (it’s a very old school building but with the assistance of the school association fund raising they maintain a 1:8 ratio). Attention also needs to be given to class size at this level can also give rise to staffing problems as the year group rises through a school.

    Yes reception and primary are relatively expensive as the schools tend to be small and local (single year class and part of the community), but the available research clearly indicates that small group working and low ratios of pupils to ‘teachers’ at this developmental stage, gives greater payback than small class sizes at secondary school.

    Personally, I would of liked it better if the previous government had fully committed to funding and improving early years (expectant mother through to Key stage 1) education, when the research evidence is so clear about the impact good education has at this key development phase of a persons life.

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Jan '12 - 5:05pm

    @Tony Dawson
    “Malcolm, that sort of attitude just cannot be afforded right now.”

    Excuse me — what sort of “attitude”? The attitude that it’s important to put things in context? Don’t be ridiculous. Context is–always–vital to understanding.
    “Quarter of a million pounds saved which is otherwise spent unnecessarily is quarter of a million pounds not wasted.”
    Who says it’s unnecessary? If you think it’s okay to have any size of class in primary school, say so. If you think state education isn’t important enough to spend money on, say so. But the fact that the law sometimes forces you to spend a little* more doesn’t prove that that spending is wasted.

    *Yes, a little. In the context of education spending in that borough, it’s a little. In the context of one normal household’s income and wealth, of course it’s a lot; but that’s simply irrelevant, since it’s not coming from one household. Look at it this way: the population of Sefton in 2001 was 282,958. So the sum we’re talking about is less than £1 each, over 2 years. In other words, you want to abolish a policy that is designed to improve the education of millions of children over many years, for the sake of saving the people of Sefton 1p a week each.

  • “My own primary school built 7 extra classrooms around the turn of the millennium in order to accommodate a “boom” in Southport … They were only needed for about 4 years as the boom then passed.”

    Picking up on this point.

    A key policy consideration is to determine what is the desired relationship between a primary school and it’s catchment area/community, followed by how fluctuating birth rates aand hence demand is handled. This is important as due to their typically small size (one class per year) and few year groups (3 in primary and 4 in junior) mean they are at the sharp end of fluctuations in the birth rate and housing development.

    In my area the local authority have chosen the strategy to maintain existing schools, even though many are operating below capacity with smaller class sizes (several have two year groups in one class) because this maintains capacity to support both an upcoming local baby boom (based on recorded births) and forseen new ‘family’ housing development, it also creates a stable schools environment – these schools know that they will not be threatened with closure within the next 5 years.

    Hence the ‘problem’ being seen (in Sefton and Sutton) could be just a consequence of a particular schools provisioning strategy.

    Personally, spending a little more on early years education is a no brainer; unlike some other aspects of government spend …

  • If we believe in localism, surely this article is self-evidently correct?

    I was part of a bulge year throughout my schooling – something it makes sense to tolerate slightly bigger classes than to have to take money from other parts of the school budget to hit a target.

  • “I suppose I am arguing for Localism within a flexible framework, i.e. Infant Classes limited to 30 to 32 with strict conditions.” – comment, 2012

    I suppose I am arguing for Localism within a flexible framework, i.e. Infant Classes limited to 32 to 34 with strict conditions – money’s tight so that’s the way it is, 2015

    I suppose I am arguing for Localism within a flexible framework, i.e. Infant Classes limited to 34 to 36 with strict conditions – logical progression, 2018

    I suppose I am arguing for Localism within a flexible framework, i.e. Infant Classes limited to 36 to 38 with strict conditions – well why not?, 2021

    I suppose I am arguing for Localism within a flexible framework, i.e. Infant Classes of 40 or whatever the local authority decide because ultimately, I don’t think quality of education matters enough to expect some minimum standards across the country – end result.

    Maybe I’m being too cynical, (although I think tuition fees give a good example of an education policy spiralling: £1000, 1998; £3000, 2005; £9000, 2012). I’m not sure why increasing class sizes is something to aim for in political life though?

    I’ve yet to hear a good argument about the impact one way or the other – this whole article is simply about how to make a cut in the budget without any discussion about whether it’s right or not. I’d love to say that wasn’t becoming a bit of party theme…

  • Simon, perhaps if you have more kids you need to raise more taxes and expand the schools budget accordingly. This idea of diluting standards illustrates to me quite clearly the limitations of localism.

  • We have had this problem locally and according to those that teach my (newly key stage 2 and very proud of the fact!) daughter limiting the number in a class is not the only measure that should be used. It is the time the qualified teacher gets to spend with each child that they feel is most important. In a class where there are a number of children with special needs this may mean that further qualified support is required below the magical 30 and in classes where the converse is true it would do no harm to allow some flex. Those with statements may attract additional TA resource but there is still a potentially negative effect on Teacher / Pupil time across the class. This may be of lesser importance as children get older. Clearly my knowledge of this is second-hand and from teachers so it may be biased but it sounded a reasonable point to me….

    The only sensible approach is to allow local decisions to be made with appropriate oversight. A good head and governing body are best placed to decide.

    There is a caveat to this and that is that numbers must not be allowed to be consistently high in a single school or area. Also if standards are felt to be dropping below the expectations of a class a review must be instigated to assess whether more support is needed. Labour’s over use of targets was I am sure felt to be a noose around the neck of many public services. But having a 20 year old son whose primary education started in 1996 and a daughter that started in 2009 I can honestly say that the rise in standards was hugely noticeable. I fear the fight to allow freedom to achieve a good balance may be counter productive where good governors and a supportive local authority are not in place but localism comes with warts an all….

    I don’t think this is about a cut in budget as I believe school finance is mainly linked to pupil numbers not teacher numbers…

  • “Perhaps you would care to explain why penalising other primary school children (to the extent of £274,000 in the last 2 years in the case of my own authority, Sefton MBC) helps achieve “some minimum standards across the country”?”

    I suppose by stopping some 125 pupils in Sefton being taught in classes above 30, which if replicated across the country would mean thousands of pupils in classes above 30. Perhaps there’s nothing to suggest that smaller class sizes make a difference to the quality of education – it would have been interesting to see some evidence one way or the other – but without that discussion, it feels like no one is a position to know whether its reasonable.

    The point I was making, probably clumsily, is that without such a discussion there’s no reason not to say class sizes of 34 or 44, or any other number should be allowed if it makes sense for the budget (which it always will). And that if the limit becomes ideally 30, but 32 if its felt appropriate for financial reasons, then in a few years there may well be pressure – using the same logic – for it to increase further.

    Finally, my comment about “moneys tight so that’s the way it is” is precisely the argument that has been used over the last two years to justify a large number of reducations to services or benefits, and there’s no reason why a cash-strapped LEA might not use it (possibly with justification) to increase class sizes should they be allowed to do so.

  • * reductions, not “reducations”

  • “school finance is mainly linked to pupil numbers ”
    That is broadly correct.

    The annual budget is in the main linked to the actual number of pupils in a school on specific day. Also additional funding is provided for children with special/statemented needs. However, it should be noted that the budget runs from the 1st-April and not for the school year starting September. So if a school has budget for a class of 30, it is not in it’s interest to admit extra pupils unless the authority provides additional funding outside of the budget formula!

    I do recommend having a dig around your authoriy’s website as all the budget planning information should be publicly available including the individual school’s budget plans.

    A savvy head, with supportive governors, parents and school association, will use everything within their power to maximise the budget they can obtain from the authority for their school and combine it with other funding sources to address the needs of the children in their care.

    Simon Shaw’s problem is that he has a conflict of interest ! he is both a Governor and a local Councillor. Hence what Simon saying is he wants the authority to be able to force schools to take on extra pupils without increasing budgets accordingly. In this context what @ChrisW says is valid.

    For localism to work in this instance, the school needs to make the decision (not the authority) and automatically get the additional funding (from the authority). I expect many head’s would take a class of 31 if it meant they got funding for an additional teacher per class!

  • MacK (Not a Lib Dem) 11th Jan '12 - 1:16pm

    I can see that you’ve never taught a class of 30 plus children in which each child receives the Teachers’ (Not the class room assistant’s) undevided personal attention for less than two minutes in every hour. If huge classes were a good thing you’d find the Private Sector clamouring for them. As it is, a pupil-teacher ratio of between 10 and 15 to one with a couple of T.A.’s included is usual in the private sector. This thread shows where your sympathies lie.

  • Sorry Simon but there is a conflict of interest or lack of clarity in the views you are putting forward, apologies for not being totally clear on this point.

    As a Governor, your remit is the care of the children within your school.
    As a Councillor, your remit is the care of all children in your area.

    In your article you argue from the council’s viewpoint, that it would helpful to be able have some flexibility in the class size without the need to find extra funding. The individual schools and their governors don’t really care about the authority’s funding difficulties unless it results in them receiving less money than prescribed by the formula.

    For a school to have a “qualified, full-time teaching assistant” on the staff and hence be able to take two extra children, the position will need to be funded from out of the pre-existing funding pot for 30 pupils. If the existing funding pot allows schools to have for each class: a teacher and 1~2 full-time qualified teaching assistants (to maintain a ratio of staff to pupils of 1:8~10), then I can understand the authority’s funding frustration you describe in your article. In your article I do not see you arguing this point nor putting forward any arguments as why individual schools would find this flexibility beneficial.

    Hence I do not see the value of your statement of “I have been a primary school governor for over twenty-five years” other than to emphasis that it is the authority viewpoint you support, rather than that of the governors. This is then reflect again in some of your comments specifically “If you had ever been a school governor in a primary school”. I would appreciate it if you would put on your ‘governors’ hat and explain why governors should be concerned with the authority’s funding and provisioning problem.

    In this context I take your use of the word ‘schools’ to mean local authority education department rather than the individual schools and their governors. Particularly as the article implies no additional monies would go with these additional pupils, and so I see no reason for schools and their governors to voluntarily take additional pupils.

    In general whilst this article could of been better written, it is drawing attention to a real problem in early years school funding and provision which can only get worse as authorities find their budgets increasingly constrained.

  • @Simon

    Thankyou for your feedback and additional information clarifying your governor’s viewpoint. I think part of my placing a differing interpretation on your words is due to my differing experience with budgets and associated dealings.

    With the budget running from April, adjusting it becomes problemmatic, because depending on when the problem arises it may or may not be possible to help the authority out. In my area unless there is significant change a school gets to use the budget as allocated. So over the year if numbers drop, the school can gain, if numbers increase then things can get tight. Given that a pupil in my area is worth just under £2000 in the formula, I suspect the authority may have retained some monies to cover unforeseen events. The only time I can remember having to ‘give’ budget back part way through a year was when a child with statemented needs gained a place at a more appropriate school and as part of the deal their support worker was transferred.

    However, I’m still a little unsure of how your proposed scheme for 32 pupils would work in practise. I fully understand how things would work if the school is able to start a year with budget for 32 pupils. However, I’m not so sure about what you envisage happening when a school gets a budget for 30 pupils in April and staff’s accordingly, and in September or January it is given the option of a further 2 pupils. My reading of your proposal implies that the school can only take those extra pupils if it has a “qualified, full-time teaching assistant” already in place (paid fully out of the existing budget for 30 pupils – hence my point in a previous comment). There being two constraints here firstly appointment takes time and secondly available unallocated budget (even after allowing for the per pupil funding) to fund the new appointment. Assuming the state of 32 pupils to be temporary then there is the issue of reversion to more normal pupil numbers and the funding of staff now engaged.

    The next question is would you expect these pupils to have additional funding for the initial part year attached to them? and where would this unplanned funding come from? In my area the main reason we get additional pupils is due to either families moving into the area or children dropping out of private education, hence forecasting is problemmatic.

    My final question is what happens when the school says no, the authority will still need to make provision for these children’s education. I suspect this is likely to happen as a school that has invested in qualified teaching assistants has done so to improve standards and their Ofsted standing and hence would not be willing to compromise these objectives.

    As I think you can gather, I do not find your proposal abhorent and in fact find that it has some merits in increasing the worth of a “qualified, full-time teaching assistant”. However, we do need to be sure and clear about the benefits to schools and that this is about the more effective use of the schools funding pot so as to give schools more certainty over their budget. Additionally, it is important that small fluctuations in pupil numbers don’t negatively impact stability of employment of qualified teaching assistants (another reason why the required staffing needs to be met from the budget for 30 pupils).


  • if the water company has to put in new pipes to serve some extra houses it has to be paid for, they don’t say ‘oh sorry, everyone will have to have less water’. We should set our educational standards for educational reasons not financial or political ones.

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