The Scottish Government finally laid regulations before Parliament this week giving legal backing to a ceiling of 25 pupils in P1.
There has been considerable delay in implementing the move, which was announced by former Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop last September. The new P1 maximum failed to make it for the current session and will not now apply until the school year beginning in August 2011.
She was forced to act after parents had successfully mounted legal challenges when their placing requests had been turned down by education authorities. Councils had argued they could not admit pupils to primary schools if it breached the 25-pupil limit, but the courts ruled this had no legislative standing.
Education Secretary Michael Russell inevitably had to spend part of this week explaining away his apparent departure from the SNP's manifesto commitment to a class size limit of 18 in P1-3. He said he had to accept the economic reality that enshrining his party's pledge in legislation at this stage would be a step too far for cash-strapped education authorities.
But Mr Russell insisted he remained committed to the target of 18 in the first three primary years, and said the voluntary agreement he struck with the local authorities when he took up his post last December - to have 20 per cent of P1-3 pupils in classes of 18 or fewer - would be delivered.
Mr Russell reacted cautiously to the findings of the Cameron review of class size mechanisms set up by his predecessor, rejecting suggestions that it was recommending he should abandon his 18-pupil policy (TESS, August 27).
He said the review, chaired by David Cameron, a former president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, had merely pointed out that the policy "was not the only tool".
Mr Russell added: "I agree it's not the only tool, but I think it's a useful tool and it will remain in our toolbox."
The Educational Institute of Scotland, whose policy is for class sizes of 20 across the board, characterised its response as "a guarded welcome".
While it would bring certainty and avoid the "postcode lottery" in class sizes, Drew Morrice, the union's assistant secretary, commented: "This should not be a one-step solution. Provision must be extended to P2 and P3 as soon as practicable, and thereafter to all stages of education to provide coherent provision which will be understood, and welcomed, by parents. Otherwise, the momentum of this regulation will be lost."
Donald Gillies, a lecturer in Strathclyde University's education faculty, pointed out that legislating for P1 alone could mean "an undignified scramble for places in P2, if popular schools were then to revert to sizes of 30 for that year group".
Mr Russell's attempt to regain the initiative on class sizes took place at Letham Primary in Livingston, which has had class sizes of 18 in P1-3 for the past three years. In P1, there is a class of 11 and a class of 13; in P2, two classes of 15; in P3, a class of 18 and a class of 13. In P4 and P5, however, classes number 28 (although they are lower than that in P6 and P7).
Headteacher Valerie Brodie acknowledged the benefits of smaller classes in the early years, but said she would appreciate flexibility to introduce a smaller class wherever she saw the need.