Class sizes soar in infant schools despite pledge in 1997

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The number of infant school classes with more than 30 pupils has soared 25 per cent in the past year, figures have shown.

One of Labour's first acts on gaining power in 1997 was to declare that class sizes of more than 30 would be illegal for five- to seven-year-olds from 2001.

However, the statistics show more than 900 infant school classes (1.6 per cent) still have more than 30 pupils - up from 1.2 per cent, or 740, the previous year. This means 27,000 infants are being taught in classes of more than 30, a rise of 5,000 in a year.

The figures are three times higher than at the time of the ban in 2001 when the percentage stood at 0.5 per cent. They also show for the first time this century that some five- to seven-year-olds are being taught in classes of 36 or more, with more than 50 classes falling into this category.

The findings brought calls from teachers' leaders for ministers to give more cash to hard-pressed schools to allow them to split classes. However, the Department for Education and Skills sought to play down the rise last night, pointing out it was still possible for schools to claim exemption from the ban on classes of more than 30. This would happen if a family moved into the area mid-term and it was considered too costly to split a class of 30 into one of 15 and another of 16.

A spokesman for the DfES said the number of illegal classes of more than 30 had in fact gone down from 530 to 390. But he acknowledged: "It's something we're looking at. We will find out what is going on."

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "While we recognise children don't come in neat packages of 30, the Government should not allow this increase in the number of classes of more than 30 to rise year by year. It would be better if it invested in additional teachers where necessary, even if it means classes of 15 and 16. Children would benefit from smaller classes."

The figures take the gloss off an overall improvement in class sizes in secondary schools, where the average number of pupils has fallen from 21.7 to 21.5. Among seven- to 11-year-olds, class sizes have remained static at 27.3 pupils on average. The percentage in classes of more than 30 has fallen from 19.8 per cent to 19.4.

The figures also show a rise in the number of teachers employed - up 3,500 to 435,400 - and support staff - up 22,300 to 287,100.

The number of vacancies has also halved, with decreases noted in the core subjects of maths, science and English. The figures also showed that the percentage of teachers taking sick leave had risen from 55 per cent to 56 per cent, a week after a primary school head teacher and former NUT president, John Illingworth, told the union's conference the stress of work had caused him mental health problems and forced him to seek premature retirement.

Patrick Nash, the chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, said: "We know teaching is an increasingly challenging profession, with heavy workloads, pupil behaviour and malicious allegations all making a serious impact on the well-being of teachers."