Confusion reigns over school class size policy

Originally published in The Herald, 15/3/2010

Class size policies in Scottish schools have been thrown into further confusion because local authorities are abandoning one set of targets in order to deliver another.

Research by The Herald has revealed that at least four of Scotland’s 32 councils are no longer following guidelines introduced by the former Scottish Executive of capping pupil numbers at 20 in key subjects in secondary school.

East Ayrshire and Fife, which are both SNP-led, Argyll and Bute, which is ruled by a coalition of the SNP and independents, and Labour-run Midlothian, have all decided not to pursue the policy, brought in for English and mathematics classes as part of a drive to raise standards in basic skills.

Instead, the local authorities are concentrating on meeting new Scottish Government targets to reduce class sizes in the first three years of primary to just 18, where evidence shows teaching to smaller groups can be more effective.

Given the financial pressures currently facing local government, it is likely other councils will follow their lead by cutting back on teachers in secondary and targeting the resources in primary.

Last night, parents, academics and teachers’ leaders attacked the move, calling for greater long-term cohesion in educational policy.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said parents would find the quagmire of policy changes on class size highly confusing. “There are arguments that the reductions in class sizes in primary are valid, and parents would be sympathetic to the view that early intervention in a child’s life is important,” she said.

“However, parents who have children in secondary school will be wondering why this is being put to one side for progress on class sizes in primary.

“Those with a vulnerable youngster in S1 or S2 will be particularly concerned about the impact on their education.”

Brian Boyd, emeritus professor of education at Strathclyde University, said the changes would send out a confusing message to the public that smaller class sizes in secondary schools were a good thing one year, while smaller classes in primary were preferable the next.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest teaching union, blamed the discrepancies on the concordat – the mechanism set up by the Scottish Government to deliver policies through councils.

“Some local authorities, with the apparent approval of the Scottish Government, are choosing which particular class size reduction commitments – primary or secondary – they choose to work towards,” he said.

“Other local authorities are choosing to ignore national commitments to reduce class sizes completely, with the Scottish Government seemingly powerless to compel councils to work toward these commitments. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Scottish Government’s chosen method of delivering class size reductions just isn’t working.”

Political opponents also attacked the Government for praising councils which had reduced class sizes in primary while at the same time dropping the S1 and S2 commitments. Des McNulty, education spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, said: “Reductions in class sizes in primary in SNP-run East Ayrshire has been at the expense of pupils in S1 and S2.

“The First Minister himself has praised East Ayrshire, but was he aware that the shameful neglect of secondary pupils was prompted by the council’s efforts to deliver his scaled down pledge on primary class sizes?”

“Parents must be scratching their heads,” added Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservative Party.

However, Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, insisted the Government’s position on class sizes was very clear. “There is no confusion. The aim in lower class sizes is clear across the primary sector, especially in the first three years, and the target for maths and English in S1 and S2 is well understood,” he said.