The Government's pledge to reduce the size of infant classes is proving a headache for local authorities and risks more children being taught in mixed-age groups, according to a study carried out by Coopers and Lybrand.
The education consultants' survey suggests that local authorities have not made preparations for tackling large classes, but also that there is great confusion about the new restrictions on pupil numbers.
According to Elaine Simpson, from the Local Government Association which commissioned the research, local authorities have been given a huge task and little time in which to do it.
"As far as possible, children coming into reception next summer should arrive in classes of 30 or less if the Government is going to be able to redeem its pledge to the under-sevens. At it stands, many authorities have a long way to go," says Ms Simpson, who is deputy director of education in Sefton and a member of the LGA's class size steering group.
Labour's manifesto promised that five, six and seven-year-olds would be taught in classes of no more than 30 pupils by September 2001. The Government has already distributed pound;22 million among 65 authorities to reduce class sizes and pound;40m to build classrooms.
However, local authorities have been told that increasing the pupil:teacher ratio or the number of adults per class is not acceptable, unless it results in children being taught in groups of 30 or less by a teacher for the whole day. The use of extra teachers part-time or of qualified support staff will not be funded in the long term.
The task has been made harder, says Mrs Simpson, because of ministers' insistence that any parent turned away from a popular school in order to keep classes under 30 should have an alternative school that is "no less satisfactory".
"Just what does that mean? Does it rule out a school where scores at seven are a few points lower?" There is also concern that the policy will inevitably lead to more mixed-age classes as schools try to juggle pupil numbers between year groups.
"Some heads are reluctant to have mixed-age classes because they feel the national curriculum is designed for particular groups. Such groupings have become less common in recent years, but they remain in rural areas and this policy is bound to mean there will be an increase," says Mrs Simpson.
Of the 35 local authorities already surveyed by Coopers and Lybrand, six intended to deal with the problem by creating mixed-age classes and 13 may do so.
The survey shows six councils are to provide extra accomodation and 23 have it in mind.
Five local authorities intend to restrict the numbers entering at five and another 19 might do so. Thirteen councils are considering employing extra full-time teachers.
In Sefton, 41 per cent of infants are in classes over 30, but they tend to be in schools serving relatively affluent areas.
One problem, Mrs Simpson says, is ensuring that schools that have reduced class sizes by spending their own money are not put at a disadvantage.
"As long as this intitiative is funded from new money, it should bring relief to popular schools that are stuffed with pupils.
"There are no simple solutions. Local authorities have to tackle the problem school by school, looking at costs, space and the implications for neighbouring institutions."
The Government plans to send out guidance and will require authorities to produce costed plans for reducing classes in the autumn.
The biggest bids for cash are likely to come from the counties that have traditionally not seen class size as a priority.