HL Deb 05 April 2001 vol 624 cc909-11

3.24 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to recent figures from local education authorities revealing that in many areas secondary school class sizes are at their highest for 10 years.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, new figures for the average class size in secondary schools will be published tomorrow. In January 2000, the average size of a secondary class was 22. That is, on average, around five fewer pupils than in primary school classes. Increases in the average size of secondary school class sizes are not new. The average secondary class size rose by 1.4 between 1991 and 1997 and has risen by only 0.3 between 1997 and 2000. Some 193,000 secondary school teachers were employed in schools in England in January 2000, which was 3,800 more than in 1997.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she share the concerns expressed by many schools and reported in the press that the changes in A and AS-levels have resulted in more subjects being taken? That has led to larger sets for A-level teaching, in one case of some 20 pupils, which the noble Baroness will know is far too many? Furthermore, is the noble Baroness aware that there is a shortage of teachers in many specialist subjects, in particular the scarce subjects such as physics and mathematics? Will the noble Baroness be able to issue advice to schools as to how to cope with this problem?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I believe that the changes which have been made to the sixth form curriculum have been widely welcomed by schools, teachers, employers, parents and, indeed, by students themselves. I should point out that, prior to those changes, many sixth-form classes were extremely small. They were far smaller than classes lower down in the school, reflecting the fact that not all pupils stay on at school to take A and AS-levels, as well as GNVQs. For that reason, I do not believe that there is any evidence of a serious deterioration in sixth form class sizes. Some classes may be a little larger, but I do not believe that that slight increase would in any way affect the quality of teaching offered in sixth forms.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in his last annual report, the Chief Inspector of Schools reported that the percentage of schools in which the teaching of science, maths and modern languages was unsatisfactory had doubled at key stage 3 when compared to the figures for the previous year? The figures for key stage 4 were almost as bad. Does the Minister think that large class sizes, along with the shortage of specialist teachers, might have something to do with those findings?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course it is extremely important to tackle the shortage of specialist teachers. That is exactly what the Government are doing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, knows, the Government have introduced a training salary for potential teachers undertaking their PGCE courses, as well as offering golden hellos for those teachers who will work in disciplines where there are shortages. As a result, we have already seen a substantial increase in the numbers of young people applying to train for teaching. The application rate for PGCE courses has risen by 24 per cent, with particularly large increases in applications for those specialist subjects mentioned by the noble Baroness. Most science teaching is now being undertaken in our secondary schools by teachers who are qualified in science; that is as it should be.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if we are to have a mature debate on the development of secondary education, we shall have to navigate our way past the simplistic notion that class size is the fundamental criterion here? Any number of other factors need to be taken into consideration. Over the past three years I have spoken to literally hundreds of teachers. The overwhelming response from them has been that, given a straight choice between taking larger classes with the support of classroom assistants or being left on their own to teach smaller classes, they would always prefer the support component. What progress have the Government made as regards recruitment levels for teaching support?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend when he stated that many factors determine the performance of pupils in our schools. Class size is only one of those factors. It is wrong to become too hung up as regards whether there are only 21 children in a secondary school class or whether there are 22. I think that it was right for the Government to place particular emphasis on reducing class sizes in infant schools because all the research demonstrated that very young children do benefit from being taught in smaller classes.

To return to my noble friend's points about secondary schools, over the past couple of years we have increased the number of teaching assistants working in secondary schools by some 3,000. I think that the adult/pupil ratio is as important as the teacher/ pupil ratio. Many teachers have said that they want us to provide such extra support in the classroom in order to free them to attend to their specialist tasks.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the pupil/teacher ratio is not necessarily a guide to how many children there are in a class? While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that there is a more mature debate to be had, it was the Government who chose smaller classes as their target when they came to office. Does the noble Baroness further agree that the department's own figures as of April last year, after three years in office, show that the number of children in classes of 31 and more had increased and that the number of children in classes of 36 or more had increased by 50 per cent? After listening to governors and teachers, there is no reason to believe that the situation has improved after four years in office.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am not sure what the noble Baroness's reference to pupil/teacher ratios was about. Of course pupil/teacher ratios are different to class sizes. The pupil/teacher ratio in secondary schools is approximately 17.2 pupils to every one teacher. As I have said, it was right for the Government to focus on class sizes so far as concerns infant school children because the previous government, of which the noble Baroness was a member, left literally hundreds of thousands of infant school children in classes of more than 30. The Government have now virtually achieved their pledge; some 98 per cent of infant school children are in classes of less than 30. There are also fewer pupils among the older age group in classes of more than 30 in primary schools and, indeed, in secondary schools. I simply do not recognise the noble Baroness's figures.

Back to