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Lib Dems must do better on their education sums

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Tim Donovan | 11:21 UK time, Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Nick Clegg with young people

The Liberal Democrats have enjoyed a campaign beyond their - and our - wildest expectations.

An interesting question arises about the range and depth of their manifesto promises.

And whether anything pledged on the big policy areas of the moment would have been honed or toned down if they had known the scrutiny that was coming.

We know the pressure on the third party to muscle in on the big debate means that there may be a tendency to err slightly on the side of the eye-catching rather than the credible.

What, for instance, to make of their promises on schools?

Their manifesto says there would be money available to reduce the average primary school class to 20, so by a quarter in London where it's currently 27.

There's no equivalent pledge in the manifesto for secondary classes but Nick Clegg has said during the campaign that they could come down from 20 to 16.

By any stretch of the imagination, this is a tough ask.

To assess exactly how tough, we draw on help from our crack squad of fact-checkers, number-crunchers and data monkeys.

Their complexions may be waxen from lack of exposure to sunlight. But they do have calculators.

The Lib Dems have ear-marked £350 million for London's boroughs.

Reducing class sizes to the Lib Dems' promised level would require the creation of about 11,850 extra classes in London.

Extra classes need extra teachers, paid on average £30,000 a year in London. So total cost: £355m. Already exceeding the Lib Dem budget.

But, of course, these 11,000 or so extra classes of pupils also need to be found somewhere warm and dry to function.

Space permitting, the minimum cost of creating a new classroom is about £150,000. But space often doesn't permit. And unless the demand for Portakabins is about to receive a huge boost, there will need to be a considerable number of new schools, costing many hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Lib Dems insist that the class reduction plan is notional - it assumes that every headteacher chooses to spend the extra money on cutting class sizes rather than, for instance, providing more one-to-one tuition or special needs support or broader curriculum choices.

But our sunlight-starved stat-munchers don't feel it adds up.

UPDATE: 19:14

The Lib Dems have responded to this post. This is what they've said:

"You are absolutely right that we're not pumping in enough money to pay to cut every class size down. But we never said we were.

"The manifesto states 'the extra money could be used to cut class sizes, attract the best teachers, offer extra one-to-one tuition and provide for after-school and holiday support.' This is something you have only acknowledged in the penultimate paragraph, leading those who read the first few pars of your article to reach an unfair conclusion.

"You also fail to understand how the pupil premium works when making your calculations. Your assumption appears to be that there's a uniform grant to every school. There isn't - it is entirely dependent on how many poorer pupils (those eligible for free school meals) they have.

"The more of these pupils they take, the more money they have. It is those schools that take the most of these pupils, such as those in deprived areas, that will be given enough money to slash class sizes - the areas where large numbers of pupils fall behind early and need the extra investment.

"Take, for example, The Stonebridge School in the London Borough of Brent. There, 58.3% of pupils receive free school meals. The school currently has 276 pupils on its roll, of which 161 receive FSM. This academic year it would have received £257,278 extra under our plans.

"The average class size for Brent primary schools is currently 30. With 276 pupils, that suggests there are currently nine classes in Stonebridge. To get that down to an average of 20 it would need 14 class rooms. Five teacher salaries (at £30,000 each) equal £150,000. Leaving more than £100,000 extra to be spent on bricks and mortar. And if it retains roughly the same number of pupils on FSM each year, that's a spare £100,000 each and every year."

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