education - pile 'em high, teach 'em cheap


A new government blueprint for "streamlining" the public sector (cutting jobs) has proposed that support staff could enable teachers to teach very large classes. £2.2 billion could be saved, suggests Sir Peter Gershon's review, by moving Department for Education and Skills civil servants into schools as classroom assistants, so that "good teachers are able to teach very large classes". This follows the DfES's "blue skies" paper by its workforce remodelling team, which last year outlined plans for schools where only the head would need to be a qualified teacher and children could be taught in groups of 80.

Government was quick to deny responsibility for the paper when it hit the education press headlines, but plans now being unveiled make the direction clear. One school praised by ministers as "pioneering", Kemnal technology college in Kent, already runs classes of up to 75, with teachers being helped by support staff.

Plans for a new generation of schools were announced last week by ministers. The Building Schools for the Future scheme will give more than £2 billion to 11 first-wave local authorities to modernise outdated buildings to designs already planned by architects. The emphasis is on flexibility of spaces, making it easier for schools to house classes of 60 to 90 pupils, tying in funding to councils pushing through "workforce reform" which uses classroom assistants in place of qualified teachers.

Education unions are divided over the workforce remodelling proposals, with only the biggest teaching union, the NUT, fiercely against, on the basis that it is an attack on working conditions in schools and teacher professionalism. The other unions signed up, falling for the government line that it will reduce teacher workload.

It seems that capital funding for the new schools is also closely tied in to the Private Finance Initiative. One of the first wave local authorities, Waltham Forest in north east London, is talking about knocking down perfectly good Victorian school buildings owned wholly by the council, in order to build new secondaries under PFI, which will put private companies in charge of new buildings and leave local council tax payers footing the bills for years to come.

Sir Peter Gershon, author of the review, is former chief operating officer for BAE Systems. He now heads the Office of Government Commerce. His review proposes slashing 80,000 civil service jobs, 800 of them at the DfES.