Minister jeered by teachers over tests & class sizes

The Schools minister, Jim Knight, was given a public dressing down by teachers yesterday as he sought to defend large class sizes and the Government’s testing regime.

He was jeered by delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ conference after being asked if a class of 38 pupils for eight and nine-year-olds in a primary school was acceptable. Mr Knight replied such class sizes were “manageable” if the teacher was supported by classroom assistants. Then, in what was supposed to be a vote of thanks to Mr Knight for his speech, one of the ATL’s executive members, Phil Jacques, tore into the Government’s education policies — criticising ministers for their lack of trust in teachers.

Mr Jacques, a science teacher from Mr Knight’s constituency in Dorset, was cheered by teachers at the conference in Torquay when he said: “Class sizes of 38 shouldn’t be made more manageable. They simply shouldn’t exist.”

He won further applause as he attacked “the ridiculous amount of over-testing of English schoolchildren” and told the minister that the national curriculum was “dismal, tedious and over-prescriptive” and “of very little value”.

Mr Jacques, from Shaftesbury school, Wiltshire, said: “It’s no wonder there are large numbers of disaffected children in these schools. In some schools, disaffection results in violence.”

He went on to attack the Government for its lack of trust in the teaching profession, saying: “How can you speak of trust when you tell us what to teach, how to teach it and when to teach it? Then you tell us how to assess it.”

Mr Knight, who described his reception as a “friendly disagreement”, later told journalists he had recently visited a school in Telford where there were 70 pupils in class with a teacher and three other adults which was “perfectly manageable”.

He said that Mr Jacques “may have had a point” about the over-prescriptive curriculum and said that a new secondary school curriculum to be introduced in September would give teachers more freedom. He said the Government had also initiated a review of the primary school curriculum, which was being carried out by Sir Jim Rose, former head of inspections at Ofsted, the education standards watchdog.

However, he made it clear that national curriculum tests for 11 and 14-year-olds were here to stay.

Mr Knight also attacked the British culture whereby it was “acceptable, fashionable even, to declare that you are useless at maths”.

He was speaking as the Government published the interim report of an inquiry into primary school maths, which suggested parents should be encouraged to join in lessons with their toddlers at nursery school so they could learn alongside their children. The report called for a maths specialist to be appointed to every primary school so that struggling children could be given tuition to help them catch up.

Richard Garner