The National Association of Head Teachers wrote to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, saying that the deterioration in pupil-teacher ratios was placing an 'unacceptable pressure on heads, deputies and teachers' who are already working harder to implement the national curriculum and other government reforms.
Ministers proclaimed considerable success in cutting pupil-teacher ratios during the late Eighties but the shift was partly the consequence of a fall in the number of pupils. The issue provoked controversy during last year's general election campaign, when both Labour and the Liberal Democrats attempted to win support from concerned parents by promising a legal maximum on class sizes.
The overall pupil-teacher ratio has risen for the second year running, to 17.44, bringing it close to the figure for 1986. At 22.2, the ratio is now at its highest since 1983 in primary schools.
Pupil-teacher ratios are an important indicator, but they take into account time which teachers do not spend with a class. Parents are usually more concerned about class sizes.
The Government's statistics show that the average class size has risen to 26.4 in primaries, and 20.6 in secondary schools. But 19 per cent of primary classes have more than 30 pupils, the highest figure for 10 years.
David Hart, general secretary of the association, said the trend towards larger classes and higher pupil-teacher ratios was 'very disturbing'. The Government appeared to have no coherent policy on the need for teachers over the next decade, and had decided to reduce the number taken on for primary training by 24 per cent.
He added that many schools were facing 'extreme difficulties' with their budgets this year, and were struggling to keep staff numbers up. Prospects for the future looked bad, because the Government had made clear its intention to tighten spending.
'Parents, governors and teachers must view the deteriorating position on pupil-teacher ratios and class sizes with dismay,' Mr Hart said. 'Many parents who choose independent education point to class sizes as a key factor. Certainly they would reject any argument that class size has no impact on education standards.'