The claims

“Class sizes are rising. When the Labour government came to office, the number of infants being taught in class sizes over 30 was a quarter. When we left it was just 1.8 per cent. It’s doubled on his watch.”
Ed Miliband, Prime Minister’s Questions, 3 July 2013

“The fact is the last Labour government cut primary school places.”
David Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions, 3 July 2013

The background

England needs to provide and extra 240,000 primary school places by 2014/15, the National Audit Office warned in March.

Challenging David Cameron in Prime Minister’s Questions today, Ed Miliband said that the government won’t be able to cover the extra primary places without class sizes ballooning.

He said the situation’s got worse under the Mr Cameron. But the PM hit back, blaming Labour for cutting places when it was in power.

Hands up who knows the answer?

The analysis

In January 1998, the year after New Labour came to power, 29 per cent of primary school classes in England had more than 30 pupils. That’s according to archived statistics – and it’s even worse than the “quarter of schools” Mr Miliband quoted.

The party scaled that back to just 1.9 per cent in January 2010.  So Mr Miliband was right (ok, he was 0.1 per cent off the actual figure, but we’ll give him that).

The average primary school class in 1998 contained 27.7 pupils. By the time Labour left office in 2010, the average class size was down to 26.6.

And Mr Miliband’s also right that the situation has got worse under the current government – the number of primary school classes with more than 30 pupils has in fact more than doubled – to 4.1 per cent in January 2013.

But is it fair to blame the current government for the deteriorating situation?

Labour successfully reigned in bulging class sizes, but while they were in office there was an explosion in the birth rate.

Between 2001 and 2011, there was the largest 10-year increase in the number of children born in England since the 1950s.

That’s what’s led to the huge demand for school places now.

A cross-party Public Accounts Committee report, led by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, said last week that the response to this population rise wasn’t quick enough under Labour.

The Department for Education (DfE) – responsible for planning school classes – relies on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for population projections.

Despite the fact birth rates began to climb from 2001, the PAC report found that “it was not until 2008 that the ONS reflected the rising birth rate in its population projections”.

In the meantime, the report found, empty places in primary schools were being cut back by Labour.

Between 2004 and 2010, local authorities in England cut the number of primary school places by 5 per cent. During that time, funding for schools was cut by £150m, from £566m in the year 2004-05 to £416m in 2009-10.

“Once the Department and others recognised the rise in demand, it still took too long for the Department to adapt its funding approach to target the areas that were most in need of additional funding,” the report concluded.

The verdict

The squeeze on primary school places has risen under the current government. Granted, the number of classes with more than 30 pupils is nowhere near the 29 per cent it was back in 1998, but it has more than doubled to 4.1 per cent under the current government.

So Mr Miliband is right, but he failed to mention that the reason why there is such a squeeze on school places.

Under the Labour government, babies were being born at the fastest rate since the 1950s. The population explosion began in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the Office for National Statistics flagged it up to the Department for Education and the local authorities – those responsible for planning ahead for schools.

Meanwhile, between 2004 and 2010, Labour cut the number of primary school places by 5 per cent – wiping out any extra spaces that might have absorbed the population growth. And during that period, Labour cut school funding by £150m.

When the DfE was finally warned about the population rise by the ONS in 2008, it reacted “too slowly”, a cross-party committee of MPs found.

Blame who you like, but Labour left a ticking time bomb.

By Emma Thelwell