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The big picture has its flaws

Neil Munro reports on the statistical patterns traced by the latest Accounts Commission report

IT takes Shetland, heavily criticised in a recent HMI report, almost a year to complete a special needs assessment - compared to just 11 weeks in neighbouring Orkney.

This is among a raft of indicators the Accounts Commission publishes each year on the performance of Scottish councils. The evidence shows progress in pre-school, a mixed picture on class sizes and very little movement on reducing the number of empty school places.

Councils overall are doing better in reducing the waiting time for special needs assessments - to an average of 28 weeks in 2000-01, compared with 34 weeks two years previously. But, as Orkney and Shetland illustrate, performance is highly uneven: only Angus, Clackmannanshire, Highland, Orkney, Perth and Kinross and Stirling had an average assessment time of less than 20 weeks.

A total of 2,073 assessments were carried out last year, 200 more than in 1999-2000 when two to five-year-olds were not included.

The Accounts Commission said Shetland dealt with only six assessments last year and it is one of three authorities (the others are Moray and Scottish Borders) reporting that more than a quarter of assessments took longer than a year. The commission acknowledges that there may be good reasons for delays such as allowing for a change in the child's personal development or where parents ask for a longer time to complete an assessment.

Malcolm Payton, head of the education service in Shetland, said the islands council had only one psychologist and had been unable to recruit another two because of national shortages.

Other figures show the Scottish Executive is making progress towards its target of eliminating the number of P1-P3 classes with more than 30 pupils. But 4.6 per cent of the 7,812 classes in the early primary stages still have more than 30 pupils, although that is a reduction from 7.2 per cent in 1999-2000.

The picture throughout the country is variable. Only five authorities - Argyll and Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles - had no P1-P3 classes with more than 30 pupils, reflecting the very small schools and classes that are typical of sparsely populated areas.

At the other extreme, more than 15 per cent of P1-P3 classes in South Ayrshire and West Lothian had more than 30 pupils.

The Executive's failure to meet its pledge of cutting classes to below 30 by August last year was immediately seized on by the Tories. Murdo Fraser, the party's deputy education spokesman, said successive ministers had "wasted their time worshipping this false God".

Mr Fraser said: "Good discipline and having teachers available to teach are far more important than how many children happen to be in the classroom."

Overall primary class sizes averaged 24.5 pupils last session, against 24.6 the year before. The figures ranged from 16 in the Western Isles to 27.5 in East Renfrewshire. The maximum limits in primary schools are 33 pupils in single-year classes and 25 in composite classes.

The occupancy of schools also comes under the Audit Commission's spotlight and it has not found much change since it produced its influential report in 1995, Room for Learning. This urged councils to cut surplus capacity but acknowledged that it was a difficult task.

While there were 44 fewer primaries last year than four years previously, a third of schools were under 60 per cent full, a similar pattern to recent years. East Lothian was the only council to say it had no schools in this category. In Argyll and Bute, Glasgow, Shetland and the Western Isles at least four out of 10 desks empty.

More progress is evident in secondary schools where 16 per cent were under 60 per cent full compared with 21 per cent four years previously. Fourteen councils, three more than the year before, had no schools in that position.

On the pre-school front, 95.8 per cent of four-year-olds had a place which is the same as previously. But the number of three-year-olds with a place rose sharply from 74 per cent to 87 per cent. Most places for four-year-olds are provided by local authorities but they have just over half of places for three-year-olds.

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