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New statistics showing a rise in Northern Ireland pupil-teacher ratios mask the seriousness of the situation regarding class sizes.
The overall Pupil: Teacher Ratio (PTR) here – already one of the highest in the UK - is now almost 17, an increase of 0.2 from 16.7 in 2008/09, according to the Department of Education today. (THURSDAY JUNE 10)
However, the UTU, Northern Ireland’s only locally-based teachers’ union, said the overall average fell far short of the reality where some class sizes numbered over 35.
“This average takes in nursery, primary and secondary schools – but the ‘grim reality’ is that many teachers are coping with much larger classes,” said UTU officer and former special needs teacher Jacquie Reid.
“The fact that this overall average has risen suggests that classes which were already large may now be even bigger.”
The UTU, in conjunction with the INTO launched its Crowded Out campaign this year to highlight the issue of pupil teacher ratios.
“These latest figures are not good news and suggest that our concerns have been addressed,” continued Ms Reid.
“The findings from studies are clear about the immediate effects of small classes on student achievement.
“Effective use of formative assessment has been shown to provide up to eight extra months of educational development per classroom per year, according to research conducted by the Institute of Education, University of London.
“It means that, with a smaller class size, if children are having problems the teacher can spot this earlier and provide the necessary support earlier which can boost their development by up to eight months in an academic year.
“Class size is surely one of the most straightforward ways in which to improve achievement because it’s relatively easy to implement and does not require changes in teaching or curricula.”
While UTU support of the Revised Curriculum now taught in schools, they suggested it was disingenuous to expect improved exam outcomes while large class sizes undermined one its central tenets.
“The Revised Curriculum’s emphasis on active participation by the pupils in their own learning and on individualised learning cannot be adequately achieved in many instances because of class size,” said Ms Reid.
“In order to fulfil the requirements of this curriculum there must be an urgent review. Currently some children are being taught in classes of 35 or more, with one child in eight in a class of over 30.”
Ms Reid also said that the Cambridge Review, the most up-to-date and independent review of primary education, called for a full review of current and projected primary school staffing.
“It also makes a plea for fairer funding and the elimination of the primary / secondary differential which can be well over £1,000 and obviously affects the number of teachers a school can afford,” she said.
The UTU wants to see class sizes in the Foundation and Key Stage One no greater than 18 and in Key Stage Two, 24.
Such a policy, they believe, would also solve the problem faced by newly-qualified teachers who can’t get jobs here.
Ms Reid highlighted the fact that, according to the General Teaching Council, the UK has around 7,000 registered teachers who are not in full-time employment.
“This is a very valuable resource. The skills of these mainly young teachers should be utilised to improve the quality of education in our schools,” she said.
“The employment of more teachers in order to reduce class size should be a priority of the Education Workforce Review which is due to begin soon.”