Marked fall in junior class sizes is best for decade

Overcrowding among infants shows steep decline as £620m programme starts to bring rewards at little cost to secondary schools
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The Independent Online

The number of infants in classes of more than 30 halved last year, according to official figures released yesterday.

Ministers, who say the figures are the best for a decade, are on course to banish class sizes of more than 30 for pupils aged five, six or seven by September next year and have confounded critics who said smaller infant classes would mean bigger ones for juniors.

Average class sizes for juniors have fallen slightly, for the first time since Labour came to power, from 28.4 to 28.3. Only average secondary school class sizes have risen marginally, up from 21.9 to 22. Teachers pointed out that more than 800,000 junior pupils remain in classes of more than 30.

Estelle Morris, the Schools minister, said: "For the first time in a decade we are seeing real progress at all ages in the primary sector. There are more places in our more popular primary schools. There are fewer children in overcrowded classrooms, and teachers are having more time to teach." Fewer than 177,000 pupils aged five, six or seven are in classes of more than 30, compared with 500,000 in January two years ago. The cost of the reduction has been £620m. Originally the Government promised that the policy would be funded out of £297m saved by the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme.

Ms Morris said the extra money had been needed to allow popular schools to expand rather than forcing parents to send children to half-empty unpopular schools.

But Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the money spent "pandering to parental choice" had been wasted. Money should have been spent instead on teachers' salaries and more sin bins for unruly pupils.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, congratulated the Government on its success in reducing infant class sizes. "It must now take the same direct action against oversize classes for junior and secondary pupils as it has for infants. Their position is worse than when the Government came to power."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Over the last ten years we have seen a worsening of class sizes, particularly for pupils aged between 11 and 14."

"Next year, the average class size in sixth forms will rise dramatically because of the new A-level exams."

Ms Morris said that the extra cash grants of up to £50,000, which will go directly to secondary schools, announced in last month's Budget, could be used to pay for more teachers if heads wished.

Mr Blunkett said parents who were worried that seven-year-olds were being put under too much pressure by national tests should complain to headteachers. If they were not satisfied, his department would intervene. He pointed out that seven-year-olds' tests were taken in the course of the normal working day and not under exam conditions. They were marked by teachers. He was responding on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to parents' concerns that the tests caused stress and too much time was spent in preparing pupils for them.

He would be anxious, he said, if "any adult's anxiety" was being transferred to children.

Last year, parents bought so many sample test books to prepare children that the books went into the bestseller lists.

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