Classroom pupil limits to be scrapped

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS are proposing that schools should be allowed to sell their playing fields and that limits on how many pupils can be taught in a classroom should be abolished - breaking the link with guidelines that have been in force for nearly 50 years ago.

In a letter leaked to the Labour Party, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, admits that it is virtually impossible to meet even the minumum standards laid down for school buildings and grounds in the present economic climate.

Mr Patten says in the letter, copied to seven Cabinet ministers, that he proposes to lift all regulations on the minimum teaching areas and outside space allowed to pupils. These School Premises Regulations were introduced in 1981. The regulations - the latest version of rules governing school premises emanating from the 1944 Education Act - were put on ice in 1990, when it was announced that they were to be 'reviewed'.

Mr Patten admits the issue is sensitive and that almost any outcome will become controversial. He asks for comments by 18 May with a view to implementing proposals in January.

Ann Taylor, Labour education spokesman, accused Mr Patten of 'an obvious and reckless disregard for standards'. She added: 'He is actually volunteering to cut standards and to cram ever larger classes into ever smaller rooms. School playgrounds and sports fields must also now be under serious threat.'

A complicated set of tables lays down the minimum space required depending on the age of pupils and numbers on the roll. But the Government wants to allow governors and parents more control of premises. Mr Patten says there are other ways of measuring performance and it is up to schools to choose how to meet such targets.

There is no central register of playing fields, nor is it known how many are under threat. The Government recently funded a national register of playing fields in England which is not due for publication for a couple of months. But the introduction in 1981 of the regulations led to many authorities selling playing fields considered surplus.

In a recent Lords debate, Lord Dean of Beswick said education authorities had received nearly pounds 65m in 1990-91 for the sale of playing fields and other facilities: 40,000 playing fields and 70,000 sports fixtures had been disposed of in a 'massacre of facilities'.

The Central Council of Physical Recreation believes that every day for the past two years pounds 100,000 of sports fields have been sold for development. Since school rolls are set to increase by 800,000 over the next decade, many schools might fall below minimum requirements for recreational facilities.