HEADS can solve the problem of increasing secondary class sizes with the help of the extra cash from the Budget, ministers said this week.
New figures show more than one in 10 or around 335,000 secondary pupils are in classes of 31 or more. The numbers have more than doubled since 1990, and are up nearly a fifth since 1998.
But there are fewer pupils in over-sized classes in both infant and junior schools - leaving the Government well on target to meet its manifesto pledge that no five, six or seven-year-old will be taught in a class of 31 or more by September 2001.
Schools minister Estelle Morris said the class-size figures were the best in a decade. The number of infants in classes over 30 halved, from 356,586 in January 1999 to 177,020 this year. The figures for juniors are also down, with 22,000 fewer in over-size classes.
She said: "There are more primary teachers teaching in classrooms, more places in popular schools, fewer children in overcrowded classrooms, and teachers have more time to teach. The result is inevitably going to be higher standards and children more motivated to learn."
But Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said: "For all the Government's claims about primary schools, the average size of classes for eight to 11-year-olds is still higher than in 1997, when Labour came to power."
School got pound;300 million in the Budget, handed out directly to heads. Ms Morris said secondaries - who got the lion's share - would have enough to employ 3,500 extra teachers. "If heads choose to spend that money on teachers, it would reduce the pupil-teacher ratio by 0.4 per cent."
The teacher unions have said heads will be reluctant to make staffing decisions based on a one-off windfall. But Ms Morris said Education Secretary David Blunkett had pledged to build the extra pound;300m into future funding.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, welcomed that commitment but said there was no guarantee the extra money would reach schools in future years, if the money came via the traditional route of local authorities.
The Government's own figures confirm that secondary teacher recruitment is failing to keep pace with pupil numbers. The number of secondary teachers employed is up 1 per cent (1,800, to 185,400) on last year, but pupil numbers rose 1.9 per cent (up 57,000, to 3,179,800).
The secondary pupil-teacher ratio worsened slightly - but at 17.1 pupils per teacher remains much more favourable than in primary schools (23.3, down from 23.5 in 1999). Primary pupil numbers were down 0.5 per cent (22,300, to 4,278,300), while the number of teachers employed rose by 0.6 per cent (1,100, to 183,300).
For copies of the DFEE's statistical releases on class sizes (SFR152000) and teacher vacancies (SFR132000), telephone 01325 392626.