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Doubts on class sizes cash

Scottish Office ministers have taken their first steps towards redeeming Labour's election pledge of reducing class sizes in the first three years of primary school to 30 pupils by August 2001 - despite HMI and education authority doubts that it will be money well spent.

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, has given details of how the first tranche of Pounds 4 million, announced in the March Budget, is to be distributed. All 32 authorities will benefit, with the lion's share going to the four largest - Edinburgh (Pounds 412,949), Glasgow (Pounds 409,016), North Lanarkshire and Fife (Pounds 259,568 each).

The Scottish Office says extra funds should be targeted "where class size problems are most pressing and spending will have the most immediate impact". Ministers will not interfere with local decisions about whether the cash goes on extra teachers or extra classrooms. But the money will not be released unless the Scottish Office is satisfied with the spending proposals.

A joint study by the Scottish Office and the local authorities, which is yet to be published, is understood to reveal that even minimum implementation would create another 328 classes in primaries 1-3, adding more than Pounds 7 million to the teacher pay bill and Pounds 9 million in accommodation costs.

This reinforces doubts in the Inspectorate and among directors that such heavy expenditure for what is a marginal improvement will make much difference in Scotland, where current limits are 33 for single-stage primary classes and 25 for composite classes. HMI has argued that the quality of teaching matters more than minor adjustments in class sizes.

The Government intends funding its key election pledge through a gradual rundown of the Pounds 14 million assisted places scheme. The Scottish Office gives an assurance that this will provide "funding of at least the order of magnitude of this year's provision in the next financial year and beyond".

The Government's policy will have to be given effect through a new national agreement between unions and education authorities in the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. But a Scottish Office letter to the authorities last week revealed that ministers will consider introducing regulations governing class size maxima. In either case, a planning and monitoring system is to be set up.

Noscap5txt Class downsized: staff and pupils plant a tree to mourn the passing of Kinlochard primary, closed last Friday by Stirling Council

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