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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 11:42 GMT
Schools breaking law on class sizes
Labour's pledge has almost been met
New official figures show that hundreds of infants in England are being taught, illegally, in classes of more than 30 pupils.

The government's drive to cut sizes - one of the great pledges of the 1997 election - has been 99% successful.

It seems likely that the actual pledge - to have no five, six or seven year olds in classes of more than 30 by 2002 - will be met.

But the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 specified that the limit should apply from the current school year which began in September.

At this time last year, 30,000 children - 2% - were in classes of more than 30.

Teacher shortages

Figures on class sizes for September, released 15 November, show that the percentage of children in 30-plus classes has fallen from 22% in September 1998 to less than 1%.

The shortage of teachers in some areas, notably in the South East, has caused problems for some schools in complying with the law.

The Department for Education said there would be no automatic prosecution.

The Education Secretary Estelle Morris said the department would work with local education authorities which were breaching the legal limit to find ways they could meet it.

We have seen a remarkable improvement over the last few years

Estelle Morris, Education Secretary
She described the latest figures as "excellent news".

"Reducing class sizes has been a key priority for this government," she said.

"We have seen a remarkable improvement over the last few years.

"Infants are also benefitting from smaller average classes - the average size of an infant class is now 24.4 compared to 25.7 in September 1998."

Ms Morris said the government had spent 620m in trying to reach the target - enough to pay for up to 6,000 extra teachers and 2,000 new classrooms.

"It is absolutely right that the limit is flexible, allowing the entry of additional children in certain circumstances," she said

"The alternative would be to require schools to reorganise their classes each time an additional pupil was admitted which would be unwelcome and disruptive."

Opposition parties

The Liberal Democrats say the government's pledge on infant classes has acted as "a smokescreen" for the largest secondary school class sizes for 20 years.

The party's education spokesman, Phil Willis said: "Labour's pre-election claim that the class size pledge would be met rings hollow for the 8,000 children still in large classes.

"There has been an increase in mixed aged classes as headteachers have had been forced to apply the '30 or bust' rule to their classes.

"Whilst the general movement towards smaller infant classes is to be welcomed, the government must tackle the largest second class sizes for a twenty years."

The shadow education secretary Damian Green said: "These figures disguise a severe crisis in some infant classrooms.

"Only last week it was revealed that seven local authorities reported classes of over 30.

"With the problem of teacher shortages getting worse, they will find that the strain on infant classes is likely to increase in the year ahead."

Breaking the law

Where schools are breaking the law by having classes of more than 30 pupils, the department for education says if a parent complained it would up to the school to resolve the issue in the first instance.

If the school did nothing the parent could go to the local education authority and ultimately to the Education Secretary Estelle Morris.

But there have been more complaints from parents about the side effect of reducing classes - that they cannot get their children into an infant school because it is "full".

Ministers say they have tried to create as many extra places as possible in popular schools, and deliberately not expanded places in schools where parents do not want to send their children.

See also:

15 May 01 | Vote2001
Lib Dems 'teachers' friend'
06 Apr 01 | Education
Labour trumpets class size 'success'
21 Dec 00 | Education
Infants 'in smaller classes'
01 Nov 00 | Education
Fall in infant class sizes
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