Britain has biggest primary school classes in the developed world, report finds

Camilla Turner
The average class size for state primary schools in OECD countries is 21 children - Getty Images

Britain has the biggest primary school classes in the developed world, a new report has revealed.

State primary schools in the UK now have an average of 28 pupils, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) latest Education at a Glance study.

This is the first year that Britain has been ranked as having the highest number of pupils per class – joint with Chile – out of all the OECD countries.

The report, which looks at the state of education systems across 36 nations with developed economies, plus ten other partner countries, found that the average class size for state primary schools in OECD countries is 21 children. 

The UK is followed by Israel and Japan, which have an average primary school class size of 27 children. Meanwhile the countries with the smallest primary class size are Costa Rica and Luxembourg which have an average of 15 children.

Primary school class sizes  in the UK have been under pressure in recent years following a boom in pupil numbers caused in part by a rise in the birth rate in the early 2000s, which is now making its way through to secondary schools.

While direct immigration has little effect on pupil numbers, higher birth rates among immigrant communities has been a contributing factor, according to official forecasts.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, said: “When you compare between 2005 and 2017, you can see that the UK is one of the few countries which has seen an increase in class sizes.

“Some people criticise this, but if you look at what’s happened to overall spending there have been clear cuts. When you cut you have to make choices.”

 A report published by the Public Accounts Committee last year warned that there is a “growing sense of crisis” in teacher recruitment against  backdrop of soaring pupil numbers.

Ministers have failed to “get a grip” on teacher retention, MPs said, adding that it is “particularly worrying” that the number of secondary school teachers has been falling since 2010.

The OECD report also found that the UK has one of the youngest teaching workforces out of all the developed countries.

Almost one in three UK primary teachers (31 per cent) are 30 or younger, the study found, compared to 13 per cent on average across OECD countries. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the average age of the teaching profession is young because the nation is “losing far too many teachers from the profession”.  

He said: “The latest statistics show that a third of teachers in England leave within five years of qualifying.   “We then have to recruit new teachers on an industrial scale in order to replace them. This results in a haemorrhaging of experience and a younger workforce.”

The report found that British students pay among the highest tuition fees and rack up the most debt but have lower lifetime earnings than foreign graduates.  

Mr Schliecher said that the government should do far more to tackle poor quality degree courses and substandard universities that leave some graduates earning less than school-leavers.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “As the OECD’s findings show, we are top of the G7 for government spending on primary and secondary education, which we are boosting with an additional £14 billion in school spending between now and 2022/23.

“This is alongside the biggest reform to teacher pay in a generation, rewarding new teachers with one of the most competitive starting salaries in the graduate labour market.”