Cut down to size

June 9, 1995

The World Bank's report, Priorities and Strategies for Education, published this week, repeats a theme that has become increasingly familiar from the Bank: that opportunities in higher education are widest where there is an influx of private resources and that priority in terms of public spending on education should go to the youngest pupils. Though their report has most to say about eastern Europe, their prescription is not confined to any geographical area.

11 = /Next week Britain's National Commission on Education will publish its valedictory report. This will no doubt say much the same, reiterating the views put forward in its first report, Learning to Succeed - priority for the youngest, particularly nursery-age children, and more private money for higher education from student contributions.

This is not a message higher education wants to hear. Redistributive policies are tough on those whose resources are targeted for giving to others. Since British students are more generously subsidised from public funds than students in other countries, and the gap between per capita spending on them and on the youngest age groups is wider, they have much to lose.

Evidence is now, however, stacking up behind the Bank and the commission's recommendations, evidence which makes it ever harder for students to argue that life chances depend crucially on free higher education. That evidence comes particularly from work being done on the emotive issue of class sizes. Long-term studies in Tennessee show that class size makes a significant difference at primary-school level.

In this country the school inspectors and the London University Institute of Education have concluded that class size only makes a difference to children's success in the early years, when children are learning to master the basic skills needed to study on their own. If this is so, priority should be given to dramatically reducing class sizes for the youngest children as the necessary foundation for better educational achievement at all later levels.

Sir Christopher Ball has long argued that class sizes should be set at double the age of the children concerned. This would give groups of eight at four years old, 24 at 12 years old and well over 30 for higher education, by which time students have learned to cope for themselves.

People tend to think this is a joke. We all "know" that small classes are better and we have somehow assumed that the more advanced pupils are the more important small groups become. Parents are persuaded to dig deep in their pockets for private schools which make small classes a selling point. Oxbridge's tutorial exclusiveness is widely regarded as the ideal.

But could it be that parents are being parted from their money under false pretences? Do the children who clock up impressive results in small-class private secondary schools and win disproportionate numbers of university places really owe their success to privileged education at young ages? The sort of parents who strive to get their children into popular state schools are apparently undeterred by classes much larger than those in mouldering inner-city schools. They are also the sort of parents who run playgroups and pay private nursery-school fees.

Could it be that, after the early years, those who benefit most from small classes are teachers, while in higher education those who gain most from subsidies are young people who had favourable educational experiences early on?

Honest appraisal of the information now available leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the World Bank and the National Commission are on to something: greater national achievement depends on priority for the youngest who currently get least.

Higher education should prepare itself for the possibility that a political party which retains some belief in redistributive policies may act on this conclusion.

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