Local education authorities have until today to submit plans for reducing infant classes to the Department for Education and Employment.
Ministers want to fulfil their commitment of no class of more than 30 for every five, six and seven-year-old a year ahead of schedule by September 2000. They have allocated a total of Pounds 620 million until 2002 to make the pledge work and so far have handed out Pounds 62m to 65 LEAs for staff and accommodation.
More than 1,500 extra teachers have been recruited. Adam Coulter looks at what local authorities and schools are doing to get the numbers down.
It is costing an average of Pounds 171 per child to bring infant class sizes down to the Government's promised maximum of 30 - but what David Blunkett is actually getting for his money varies widely from council to council.
Lancashire is spending Pounds 1 million to take 8,900 children out of oversized classes by January, at a cost-per-pupil of Pounds 112. Sandwell, for the same amount of money, is helping 3,500 pupils at a cost of Pounds 286 each.
The grants are part of a Pounds 22 million boost which has seen an extra 1,527 teachers recruited nationwide in a bid to reduce infant class sizes in 65 authorities by January. A further Pounds 40m is being given out for buildings to accommodate the extra classes.
But each authority has tackled the problem in a different way. Lancashire, which has taken on 70 new infant teachers, says it has been helped by a reduction in the number of infant pupils this academic year, by schools' flexibility in grouping their infants and by employing part-time teachers to create extra classes.
Despite this, forecasts indicate that about 21 per cent of infants in the county will still be taught in classes of more than 30 in 19981999.
By contrast Sandwell has so far employed 77 new teachers, only about half of whom are infant-trained, to cut 30-plus classes.
Bill Thomas, chairman of education and community services, said just 4 per cent of children would now be in oversized infant classes, compared with 37.6 per cent last year. "The starting points (between local education authorities) are probably different in terms of number of classes and sizes of classes, so that needs to be looked at."
London demonstrates equally stark contrasts between inner-city and suburban boroughs.
Inner-city Haringey aims to remove 700 infants from 30-plus classes with Pounds 146,000. Suburban Bromley doubled that pupil figure with just Pounds 54,000 more.
But many inner-city authorities have had a long-term policy of smaller class sizes, in contrast to their suburban neighbours. Haringey has an average infant class size of 27.3. Alan Milstead, policy and planning co-ordinator, said: "The reason we have found it relatively easy is because we have run funding regimes and admissions arrangements on no classes in Haringey being more than 30 for some time. The reason some class sizes are over 30 is almost all as a result of appeals by parents, which have been rising."
In Bromley, 14 teachers have been employed at 14 different schools, to remove an estimated 1,000 children from large classes.
John Miller, manager of education planning and development, said that the task has been complicated by rising rolls, which led to more teachers being recruited by the authority as a matter of course.
Newham is at the other extreme: Pounds 257,000 has gone towards recruiting just 16 teachers (at an average salary of Pounds 27,500). An original projection of removing 600 infants from 30-plus classes has been revised down to just over 500, making it the second priciest authority in terms of cost-per-pupil, at Pounds 514 each.
Deputy director of education, Andrew Panton, is quick to point out that although the salary level is high, it has allowed the 13 schools extra flexibility in choosing newly-qualified for more experienced teachers.
Dr David Sanders, director of education at Blackpool - where 60 per cent of infant classes are oversized - said: "In the long term this (policy) will be a real godsend, but in the short term it's a real headache because if you don't have the additional classrooms it's impossible."
In Warrington, 40 per cent of infants were in large classes last year. Education director Martin Roxburgh estimates they will be able to remove 600 children from such classes at a cost of Pounds 98.30 each.
"It was quite a deliberate targeting of schools in order to achieve the biggest effect," he said. It was achieved by employing just four extra teachers, all trained to key stage 1, at four different schools.
"We have made some major moves with a small amount of funding, but it will be increasingly difficult to target all children in class sizes of more than 30."
HALVING THE RATIO
Anchorsholme primary, a beacon school in Blackpool, has 217 infants split into six classes, an average of 37-plus per class.
With Pounds 28,000, headteacher Mike Bryan has employed 1.5 extra teachers and three part-timers, giving him the flexibility to have two teachers per class for part of the week, effectively reducing the pupil:teacher ratio to 18:1. One teacher is returning to education and two others are newly qualified.
The OFSTED report on the school describes the pupils' ability range as "average and above average". Less than 1 per cent of pupils have special educational needs, very few are from ethnic-minority backgrounds and just 17 per cent qualify for free school meals. The high demand for places means that the admission of 70 per year is often exceeded.
Mr Bryan said: "The way I see it, it's a temporary measure. This money goes with the capital grant to build three classrooms. As soon as they are ready we'll be looking at nine classes of 24 pupils.
"The money has been a tremendous help and and at last we have been able to give children individual attention and release pressure from staff and hopefully improve education."
He said that the most noticeable change was among children who did not flourish in large classes: "One little girl had been very unsettled at first and her parents came to me and said that since the classes became smaller she had been very happy because she was given more attention."
OUT OF THEIR SHELLS
Barrow Hall, in Great Sankey, Warrington, amalgamated with another primary five years ago and has grown since then from 225 to 450 pupils.
The rise led to all six classes in reception and Years 1 and 2 breaking the 30 barrier and left headteacher Geoff Bowles with no room for any more pupils.
"The situation as it was would have left me with real problems. The growth is still continuing and I had nowhere else to go," said Mr Bowles.
The school was assigned enough money for just one extra teacher, but according to Mr Bowles "it has made all the difference".
He has been able to create seven classes, all of which are under 30 pupils, giving him room for growth for the first time in years. One of these is a mixed-age class, which, he admits, is not ideal, but does allow for continuous teaching and "the flexibility to match ability with needs".
The effects have been swift and dramatic; for Mr Bowles, the key benefit is the fact that teachers and pupils are able to get to know each other better, quicker: "The governors are delighted, the teachers are relieved and a lot of children have come out of their shells. One little boy, Thomas, who really wasn't settled at all, a real attention seeker, is already much more settled. "
In March, the Government's capital grant will see the creation of a new classroom at the school, "Now all we need is some money for a new playground, " said Mr Bowles.