Data journalism investigation reveals scale of over-sized primary school classses

Thousands of children around the country are being taught in class sizes which exceed government rules, an investigation by Reach’s data unit has revealed.

Across England, there were 494,675 pupils in primary schools being taught in classes of 31 or more in January 2022. This was up 2.6 per cent from 494,675 pupils in January 2021. There were also 438,101 secondary school pupils in classes of 31 or more. That was up by 4.7 per cent from 418,353.

Legislation prohibiting classes over 30 in size only applies to infants.

In 2022, there were 55,851 infants in class with more than 30 pupils in January this year, compared with 54,225 in 2021, although that does compare to 65,365 in 2020. However, in 2020, there were 139 unlawfully large classes across England, with a total of 4,445 pupils.

That fell to 120 in 2021, with 3,787 pupils affected. However, the number has since risen to 166 in January 2022, with 5,269, the highest number since January 2016.

The investigation, by Data Unit editor Claire Miller, led to MyLondon reporting on the 15 London schools with class sizes so big they could be breaking the law.

Legislation states that Key Stage 1 classes, for Year 1 and 2 with pupils aged between five and seven years old, must not exceed 30 pupils — unless there are valid exceptions. In London, the number of schools with unlawful class sizes reached 16 in January, with 21 unlawful classes in total. One has since said it has re-balanced class sizes.

DerbyshireLive, also a Reach local news site, revealed that 16.4% of primary children are being taught in a large class, slightly down than the year before.

HertfordshireLive reported that 6,000 children were being taught in classes of more than 30 children.

However, while legislation aims to prevent infant classes from exceeding 30 pupils, schools can get exceptions for some pupils.

These include children admitted on appeal, twins and children admitted outside of the normal admission process, including those with special needs, children of service personnel or those where there are no places at any other schools nearby. There were three unlawful classes in Hertfordshire in 2022, with 97 pupils.

Nationally, the number of primary school pupils in large classes rose in 2022 compared to the year before after a general downward trend in recent years. Education unions said more Government investment is needed, “so that every family can be certain of a great education, in a great school, with great teachers”.

Commenting on national figures, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary, National Education Union, said: “The number of pupils in oversized classes, more than 30 pupils, has risen this year to 933,000. The number of secondary pupils has hit a forty year high at 438,000. The pupil: teacher ratio has risen again.

“This inevitably puts a squeeze on individual attention for pupils. It is also further evidence that school funding is too low and some schools are having to teach their pupils in unacceptably large classes.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the Government has provided capital funding through the Basic Need grant to support local authorities provide school places, based on their own forecast data and in March 2022, announced additional funding for places in September 2024 and 2025.

  • In 2022, Behind Local News aims to celebrate local journalism in all its forms through our 365 Acts of Local Journalism Project. Lets us know what you think should be included. You can email us here or contact us via Twitter on BehindLocalNews or on Facebook here.

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