Government feels the heat on class sizes

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The Government was yesterday warned of `storm clouds gathering' around its pledge to cut infant classes to 30 pupils as new figures revealed class sizes rose again last year. Lucy Ward, Education Correspondent, finds ministers insisting the promise will be honoured.

Pressure on the government to succeed in its drive to recruit more new teachers was underlined yesterday as statistics showed the number of pupils per teacher in state schools in England rose in 1996 to 18.6.

The number is up from 18.5 pupils per teacher the previous year, and 17.3 pupils per teacher 10 years ago.

As the figures were released, the Government announced it is to raise the provisional recruitment target for primary teaching courses for next academic year by 450 trainees to 11,500. The increase is designed to meet expected need for more primary teachers in order to fulfil the Government's manifesto commitment to cut class sizes for five-, six- and seven-year- olds to 30 or below by 2002.

There are now almost half a million infant pupils in oversized classes - approaching a quarter of all pupils in the age group - compared with 440,000 in 1996.

The school standards minister Stephen Byers yesterday said the Government was still on target to deliver its pledge on class sizes, beginning next September with pounds 22m released through the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. That money, expected to pay for an extra 1,000 teachers, will be followed by a further pounds 100m the following year.

Teachers' leaders and the Liberal Democrat education spokesman Don Foster acknowledged the class-size rise figures were the legacy of the previous government, but said more remedial action was needed. Mr Foster claimed the Government risked failing to meet its pledge on class sizes unless it took more robust and urgent action. "The storm clouds are gathering," he warned, claiming the Government was caught in "a pincer movement" with too little money to cut class sizes and too few willing recruits for teacher training.

The looming crisis in teacher supply was highlighted earlier this month when it emerged Tony Blair had brought in Alec Reed, the head of Britain's biggest employment agency, to seek out ways to tackle the problem.

At the same time, shortly after the launch of a pounds 10m recruitment drive by the Teacher Training Agency, the Commons education select committee pointed to an 11 per cent drop in the number of undergraduates studying teaching, and warned failure to tackle the crisis could jeopardise the Government's drive to raise standards.