It's offcial - size matters

The political parties launched their manifestos this week and the battle lines have been drawn

CLASS SIZES, investing in the early years and improving the quality of teachers emerged as key battleground areas for the political parties, as they issued their manifestos this week (page 6).

Whichever of the leading parties shares power - Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the SNP - it appears almost certain that class sizes will be reduced. This will be seen as a victory for the Educational Institute of Scotland, which has put the issue centre-stage in its election campaign.

The SNP has had a long-standing commitment to reduce class sizes to 18 in P1-3. Not to be outdone, the Liberal Democrats opted for a maximum of 25 pupils in those years rather than just in P1, which is current Scottish Executive policy.

But most dramatic has been Labour's conversion to the principle of cutting class sizes; previously, it had been content to rest on its record of making carefully targeted reductions and to argue that quality of teaching matters as much as quantity of pupils.

Labour's manifesto is still careful not to get caught up in a numbers game, and pledges only that it will agree early in the new parliament "a detailed plan to bring class sizes in Scottish schools below the OECD average and keep them there".

The latest figures for the 25 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show the average class size in primary schools was 21.5 in 2004, against a Scottish figure of 23.9.

Fifteen of the OECD countries were below the average. Secondary figures are more difficult to compare because of the different ways in which schools are organised, but it would be rare to find 12 year olds taught in classes of 33, the current limit in Scotland.

Labour's plan appears to be to reach a consensus on class sizes, building on what it hopes will be agreed recommendations from the working group the Scottish Executive has set up and on which the unions are represented.

The early years and continuing professional development also feature strongly in the manifestos. But Labour is alone in placing considerable emphasis on teacher and headteacher standards, where it wants the General Teaching Council for Scotland to have a stronger policing role as the "national teaching standards agency". This could mean teachers having to be relicensed to teach every few years and heads being separately registered before they can take up their posts.

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