David Forrester, an under- secretary at the department, told a conference in New Zealand that countries in the Far East achieved high standards with less money and classes of 40 to 50 pupils.
He said: 'That challenges us because most of us have got assumptions that small is beautiful in terms of classes.'
In the Far East teachers use more traditional methods, teaching pupils in whole groups. In Britain groups are often split up, with individual children working on different projects at different speeds.
Mr Forrester said: 'The way the budget is used is clearly significant as well. Schools, on the whole, will benefit if they carve out money to have slightly larger classes.' This would free money to be spent on books, equipment and maintenance.
The department yesterday denied there was any new strategy for bigger class sizes.
A spokeswoman said that the conference had been split into working parties and Mr Forrester was summarising the views of one particular group. 'We do not set any minimum or maximum for class sizes. It is up to each school to decide its own priorities,' she added.
Michael Barber, Professor of Education at the University of Keele, said he believed Mr Forrester 'was just trying to justify cuts in school budgets'.
He said there ought to be a debate about the grouping of pupils in rooms, 'but not in this half-baked way'.
The issue of class sizes is a controversial one. Earlier this year Eric Forth, now Minister of State at the department, insisted there was no proved connection between class size and quality of education. But head teachers and parents say small classes are one of the reasons parents choose fee- paying schools.
Nearly a quarter of England's 3.6 million primary children are in classes of more than 30, the highest for a decade. In 1984, 17.3 per cent of children were taught in classes of between 31 to 35 pupils. This year the corresponding figure is 21.4 per cent. In secondary schools 7.1 per cent of pupils were taught in classes of between 31 to 35 pupils, but this dropped to 5.2 per cent in 1994.
Recent research published by the National Commission on Education suggests that class size does matter. It quoted studies in the United States which showed that children in smaller classes regularly outperformed those in larger classes in both reading and mathematics.
Primary school children in Britain are in bigger classes than their counterparts in almost every other industrialised country, according to Peter Mortimore and Peter Blatchford, of the University of London's Institute of Education.
'Given that one important component of any learning situation is the time of the teacher available for individual pupils, it is hard to believe that smaller teaching units cannot promote better progress,' they stated.
Mr Forrester will not have to deal with any problems caused by his remarks. Today he starts a new job heading the department's further education branch.Reuse content