INFANTS across the county are being crammed into ‘supersized’ classes because of a growing shortage of places, new figures show.
The number of five to seven-year-olds in classes of more than 30 – the legal limit, except in exceptional circumstances – has almost trebled in just four years.
In January, the total stood at 2,113, up from 717 when the Coalition came to power – an increase of 1,396, or 195 per cent, according to figures uncovered by Labour.
The squeeze is affecting Southampton, where there are 219 pupils in plus-30 classes, a rise of 77 per cent since 2010.
But the problems are much greater across Hampshire, which has experienced a leap of 223 per cent, leaving 1,707 pupils in groups above the limit.
Labour claimed the figures showed limited money was being diverted from state primary schools to fund Education Secretary Michael Gove’s controversial ‘free school’ programme.
Very few free schools have opened in Hampshire compared with other areas, despite the county having one of fastest rises in pupil numbers.
David Cameron promised “small schools with smaller class sizes” before the last election, Labour pointed out.
Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesman, said: “Their decisions have meant thousands more children are being crammed into overcrowded classes, threatening school standards.
“They have created a crisis in school places, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on free schools in areas that already have enough school places – and children are paying the price.”
But the Department for Education (DfE) blamed increases in pupil numbers dating back a decade and said local authorities had been given £5bn to spend on new school places.
A limit on infant school class sizes was introduced by Labour in the late 1990s, after it made a ceiling of 30 pupils a key election issue.
More recently, Mr Gove has relaxed the regulations, allowing schools to breach the limit for 12 months in some cases, provided numbers are brought down the following year.
Some experts argue larger classes make it harder for infants to learn, particularly those that need extra help or find it harder to pay attention.
But Hampshire County Council executive member for education, Cllr Peter Edgar said the adoption of “flexible learning” is actually breaking down classes into smaller sessions.
He said the emphasis on group work, personalised plans for each youngster and the help from teaching assistants means the whole class is rarely taught by just one adult.
He said: “It’s much more flexible and it isn’t like the Victorian times where all the learning is in a big class.
“I don’t see evidence of high pupil teacher ratios when I go round schools.
“We will examine these new statistics very carefully and we will work with schools to make sure there are the best possible teacher pupil ratios.”