Labour conference 2013: child poverty, nursery costs and class sizes

24 September 2013

With nineteen months to go before the general election, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg pledged to help "hard pressed families" take hold of rising childcare costs in his speech to the party faithful in Brighton.

What evidence underpins the announcements he made?

Child poverty: "One in six children in the UK lives in poverty"

This is accurate. 17% of children live in poverty, roughly one in six, according to the DWP's latest Households Below Average Income release. This means that approximately 2.3 million children live in households with incomes below 60% of the median household income of £427 per week before housing costs are deducted.

This isn't the only measure of poverty, however, and whether 'relative' metrics such as this which measure the number of households receiving an income significantly lower than their peers, are preferable to 'absolute' measures - which look at the proportion of families able to pay for essential items - has proven controversial in the past. As the graph below shows, different measures do show different things when it comes to the proportion of children living in poverty.

The cost of childcare: "Last year nursery costs rose six times faster than wages"

The Childcare Costs Survey 2013, which is run by the Family and Childcare Trust (previously the Daycare Trust) annually reviews the costs for after-school clubs, nursery and childminder places in England. Depending on the region, the child's age, and the type of childcare, the change in costs from 2011 to 2012 can vary from a 5% fall to a 38% increase.

We were told by Stephen Twigg's team that what they were specifically looking at was nursery costs in England for children aged 2 and over for 25 hours childcare per week. This form of childcare rose by 7.9% in price between December 2011 and December 2012.

So how do this compare to average wages?

There are different measures of earnings and Mr Twigg didn't specify in his speech which one he was thinking of. Information on wages is published by the ONS both in the form of the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) and the Average Weekly Earnings (AWE).

According to the most recent ASHE, median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees were up 1.5% over this period. Average weekly wages increased by 1.3% between December 2011 and December 2012 according ONS statistics on average weekly earnings (AWE).

While Stephen Twigg's maths adds up, this specifically applies to the costs of 25 hours of childcare for children aged 2 or over. Childcare costs for under twos haven't grown by quite as much (5.2%), although they are still growing faster than the average wage.

Overcrowded classrooms: "Class sizes of more than 30 have doubled in the last year"

If we look at all schools, this isn't quite right.

The percentage of primary school classes with 31 or more pupils has increased from 9.4% in 2012 to 9.7% in 2013. In the case of secondary schools, they've actually fallen from 6.5% in 2012 to 6.2% in 2013.

Although in his speech Stephen Twigg didn't clarify this, it's likely he was referring to Key Stage 1 classes, given that statutory requirements are in place to regulate class sizes for this age group. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 limits the size of infant classes - reception and KS1 classes - to no more than 30 pupils to a school teacher. The legislation does allow for sensible exceptions, such as when a child moves into an area during the school year and there is no other school within a reasonable distance of their home with availability.

A total 2,299 KS1 classes had more 30 pupils (this includes lawful and unlawful classes) in January 2013. This is 4.1% of all KS1 classes, up from 2.7% in January 2012. 

Read more in our factcheck on overcrowded classrooms.

Overcrowded schools: "Children in primary schools with more than 800 pupils - trebled since 2010."

Since 1950 the average size of a primary school has oscillated between 180 to 220 pupils, according to a Commons Library note on school and class sizes. But there are also some schools known as 'titans' which have over 800 pupils.

In 2010, there were 16 'titan' schools - out of a total 17,000 primary schools - covering 13,700 pupils. 

In January 2013 the number of 'titans' rose to 42. These schools now count 36,655 pupils, an increase by 167%, not quite a third but not far off. 


Flickr image courtesy of The Edge Foundation

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