Sharp rise in 30-plus class sizes concerns teachers

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A sharp rise in class sizes since 2010 means that almost one million pupils are now being taught in classes of 31 or more across England.

An analysis of government data published by the National Education Union (NEU) shows that 961,127 primary and secondary students are in classes of 31 or more – up from 747,531 in 2010.

A survey of NEU members has revealed that reducing class sizes is the number one General Election priority for 34 per cent of the respondents.

The analysis also shows that the number of students in classes of 36 or more has now reached 63,566 – up from 44,093 in 2010.

The NEU says that while pupil numbers have risen since 2010, real-terms cuts to the education budget and subsequent cuts to the number of teachers and support staff have led to increased class sizes.

Government pupil and staff census figures for state-funded schools in England show that while we have 360,000 more pupils now than in 2015, we have 4,000 or so fewer full-time teachers. There are currently around 4,7 million primary school pupils, 3,3 million secondary pupils, and 453,000 full time teachers in England’s state system (DfE, 2019).

The most recent OECD Education at a Glance report (2019) found that the UK as a whole has the largest primary school classes in the developed world, averaging 27 pupils. The European average is 20.

At lower secondary level, the OECD records an average class size in the UK of 23, against a European average of 21.

Government class size figures for England, meanwhile, show an average primary school class size of 27.1, which has remained steady since 2016. However, at secondary level, class sizes have risen from an average of 20.1 in 2014 to 21.7 in 2019 reflecting the increasing pupil roll in the secondary phase.

When broken down by phase, the NEU analysis shows the following for England’s state-funded schools:

  • Primary pupils in classes of 31-35: 516,935 (up 31 per cent since 2011).
  • Primary pupils in classes of 36-plus: 41,723 (up 10 per cent).
  • Secondary pupils in classes of 31-35: 380,626 (up 23 per cent).
  • Secondary pupils in classes of 36-plus: 21,843 (up 258 per cent).

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said the rises are down to schools being “squeezed” by several government policies.

She continued: “The real-terms funding crisis has had catastrophic effects, including a direct impact on class size. This analysis will ring true for every parent who has witnessed their school cutting teaching assistant posts, reducing subject choice, or organising fundraiser events and begging letters. This is sadly all too common and a growing issue.

“In addition, teacher recruitment continues to lag behind the rise in pupil numbers, especially in secondary, with not enough done to attract subject specialists to the profession. A continued depression in teacher pay combined with high levels of workload, means the government has been vastly more effective at driving people out of teaching than in retaining them.”

The NEU has published its analysis by constituency in bid to give voters an idea of which areas have seen the largest rises in class sizes.

Dr Bousted added: “Voters will scrutinise manifestos closely, and it would be foolish of any party to underrate the impact of education pledges, not to mention legacy, on the result.”


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