The findings, based on the Government's own statistics, are a blow to the Labour administration, which has made reducing class sizes a key policy goal.
Labour made a manifesto pledge to cut class sizes to under 30 for all five- to seven-year-olds. This commitment is on course, with classes of more than 30 for this age group more than halved to 200,000. But average numbers of students in higher age groups has increased since Labour came to power.
"By focusing on infant classes they have made the situation for other children worse," said Theresa May, Conservative education spokesman. "Labour's interest is not in [children's] education but in trying to meet a headline pledge. Children outside this group are suffering."
Accountants Chantrey Vellacott found that 22 per cent of pupils under the Tories were in classes of 31 or more; since Labour was elected this has risen to 23.9 per cent. The numbers in classes of 36 or more rose from 147,182 before the last election to 149,754 in 1999.
For Labour to equal the Conservative record on class sizes in its first term of office, primary and secondary classes would have to be slashed by 19 per cent in 2001.
Secondary pupils returning from their holidays are also facing hardship. There are shortages of books and equipment, despite government grants supporting National Year of Reading.
According to the latest figures from the Educational Publishers' Council, local authority secondary schools in England and Wales increased spending on books last year by 8 per cent per pupil, while expenditure fell in the independent sector by 6 per cent. But the small increase in the state schools will do little to ease the crisis in provision, highlighted by Keele University research, which shows that half of secondary school pupils share books and two-thirds do not have books for homework.
The director of the EPC, John Davies, said that the one-off grants of between pounds 1,000 and pounds 2,000 per school translated to only an extra pounds 1 or pounds 2 for each pupil at secondary level.
Britain still spends less on textbooks per pupil than the United States and most other countries in western Europe. Research for the Library Association has shown that many books in British schools are now more than 20 years old.
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