Free schools leaving thousands of pupils to be taught in oversize classes, claims MP

Labour MP Ian Mearns blames "free schools" for dramatic increase in North East primary pupils in oversize classes

A picture of school children in a classroom
A picture of school children in a classroom

The Government’s decision to spend £1.5bn building new “free schools” is condemning hundreds of pupils to oversized classes, a North East MP has warned.

Gateshead MP Ian Mearns attacked Ministers for diverting funds away from existing schools as Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, said the party would end the free schools programme.

Official figures show that the number of primary school pupils taught in classes larger than 30 pupils has more than doubled in the North East in the past four years.

But Ministers said they had provided extra funding for councils to provide new school places, while Labour had cut funding during a baby boom.

Figures published by the Department for Education show that 3,035 key stage 1 pupils in the North East are taught in classes larger than 30 pupils - up from 1,230 in 2010.

The last Labour government introduced a legal limit of 30 pupils for infant classes, except in exceptional circumstances such as a child being admitted on appeal.

But the Coalition has relaxed the rules, allowing a school to breach the limit for 12 months if it is working to ensure numbers are brought down the following year.

The number of Key Stage 1 pupils in classes with 31 or more pupils this year was 343 in Durham, 312 in Gateshead, 596 in Newcastle upon Tyne, 156 in North Tyneside, 125 in Northumberland, 283 in South Tyneside and 469 in Sunderland.

Simon Hobson Ian Mearns MP for Gateshead
Ian Mearns MP for Gateshead

The Government has budgeted to spend £1.5 billion on capital costs for building new free schools by the end of 2015.

Mr Mearns said: “There are some free schools which have been set up as a result of local demand but there are others where there is no demand for them whatsoever.

“One thing that parents should be concerned about is the enormous amount of money spent on establishing these schools. The capital cost per pupil is absolutely astronomical in comparison to the cost of providing more places where they are needed in existing schools.”

Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “Labour will end the Free Schools programme and instead focus spending on areas in need of extra school places.

“The choice on education is clear: the threat of ever more children crammed in to large class sizes under the Tories or a Labour future where we transform standards.”

Young people today are “more creative, enquiring, ambitious, entrepreneurial and community spirited than ever before,” he said.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “Tristram Hunt seems to have forgotten that it was Labour who cut 200,000 primary school places in the middle of a baby boom - at the same time as letting immigration get out of control.

“As part of our long-term economic plan, the difficult decisions we’ve taken have meant we’ve been able to double the funding to local authorities for school places to £5 billion creating 260,000 new places.

“But Labour haven’t learnt their lesson. Their policy of not trusting headteachers would create more bureaucrats, meaning more resources are spent on paperwork - not places. Children would have a worse future under Labour.”

Almost 4,500 infant classes have been added since 2010, officials said.

Looking for a school for your child? See searchable secondary school ratings across the North East here.

Table of class sizes in 2010 compared with 2014

Key stage 1 classses with 31 or more pupils
Local Authority 2010 2014
Durham 186 343
Gateshead 93 312
Newcastle upon Tyne 318 596
North Tyneside 93 156
Northumberland 93 125
South Tyneside 126 283
Sunderland 31 468


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