David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, announced pounds 22m for 65 local authorities. The money has been made available by the abolition of the assisted-places scheme which subsidised places at independent schools.
Council leaders said that the first stage in reducing class sizes would be easy, but the Government would later face difficulties if popular or isolated schools had to turn away children.
The money will be used to fund extra teachers and classroom space to ensure that no five-, six- or seven-year-old will be in a class of more than 30 by 2001. One-quarter of infants in classes over 30 will benefit from the first funding allocation, which will be ring-fenced so that it cannot be spent on other services.
The Prime Minister yesterday visited Rosetta primary school in Canning Town, east London, which will be able to employ another teacher and adapt its building to include an extra classroom to cut class numbers.
Authorities had to bid for the money which has been distributed to those which can show both that they need it and that they have a workable plan to solve problems - which has meant excluding some councils where pupils are in large classes. Senior government sources said the first councils were seen as pathfinders and the Government expected to learn from their experience. They include Bury which will employ 40 extra teachers to cut classes for 3000 pupils at a cost of pounds 584,000, and Derbyshire which will which take on another 104 teachers at a cost of pounds 1.6m.
Mr Blunkett said: "Reducing class sizes is essential if all children are to have access to the teaching support they need in their crucial early years when they master the basics of literacy and numeracy."
David Whitbread, head of education at the Local Government Association, said: "We believe it is possible to make substantial progress in reducing class sizes but a couple of years down the line the Government will be left with the difficult cases. There will be places where you need a new school and there is nowhere to build one. There will be classes of 31 where the alternative is to send the extra child to a school five miles down the road."
Both the authorities and the Campaign for State Education, a parents' pressure group, say that ministers should work towards a norm of 25, rather than 30 in a class to give schools enough elbow room.
The initiative may prove controversial with parents who want their children to attend popular schools. Legislation will restrict parents' right of appeal if it threatens to breach class size limits. Mr Blunkett said that authorities would bring forward proposals to resolve the problem.
Stephen Dorrell, the Tory education spokesman, told Radio 4's Today programme that the money was "a drop in the ocean" which would be outweighed by financial pressures on councils.Reuse content