England & Wales Education and children's services

Sutton Council raising the cap on primary class sizes


The Guardian reports that Sutton Council is spoiling for a fight with Education Secretary Michael Gove over its plans to raise the cap on primary class sizes to more than 30 pupils.  The Chief Executive of Sutton Council Niall Bolger is reportedly contacting other local authorities to test support for raising primary school class sizes.  It’s been driven by the massive boom in demand for primary school places across London as the number of primary pupils soars by over half-a-million between 2010 and 2018.  Councils are already building mobile class rooms to cope with the squeeze.

The debate on the Today programme this morning focused on the impact that big classes have on standards and quality of education.  Small classes have been a political obsession for years as successive secretaries of state have sought to emulate typically smaller classes in the average private school.  For the record, the evidence that small class sizes have an impact on learning is tenuous at best.  Top performing South Korea has bumper-size classrooms that turn out hundreds and thousands of gifted engineers and mathematicians.

But whether or not increasing class sizes will lower standards or not is, in our view, almost a side issue.  What’s far more important about this story is that it demonstrates the need for a local authority to take systems-wide decisions about how the local education system as a whole should respond to societal change.  In this case, Sutton Council is seeking to share the pain of raising pressure on school places across the Borough to ensure that the most popular schools aren’t adversely impacted.  This, of course, will be impossible as more schools become academies independent of local government control.

Flash forward to 2015, when up to 80 per cent of schools have become academies, and it’s not difficult to imagine that Mr Gove will be in a tricky spot as he – rather than the unfortunate Mr Bolger – has to decide between letting classes expand and facing the opprobrium of parents outraged that their little Miles and Oliviers will have a few more classmates or else going cap-in-hand to Mr Cameron and asking for a wedge of cash that, on present form, seems highly unlikely to be forthcoming.  Not an appealing set of choices in an election year.

This article was first posted on the Children’s Services Network