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Party rivalries swell the debate over lower primary class sizes

ANOTHER skirmish in the class size war has broken out between the political parties following publication of last year's school census.

Jack McConnell, Education Minister, welcomed what he called "good progress" in meeting the Executive's pledge to reduce class sizes in primaries 1-3 to 30 or fewer.

The census was carried out last September when, Mr McConnell pointed out, the target did not extend to primary 3. The results therefore showed that only 1 per cent of P1 classes and 1.5 per cent in P2 had more than 30 pupils without an additional teacher being present.

Michael Russell, the SNP's education spokesperson, concentrated on pupil numbers rather than classes to reject Government claims that targets for P1 and P2 had already been achieved. These show that 3.5 per cent of P1 pupils and 5.2 per cent of P2 pupils were in classes of more than 30, as were 19.8 per cent of P3 pupil - a total of 9,000 children.

Mr Russell, whose party is committed to an eventual limit of 18 in the first three primary years, declared: "Jack McConnell must come clean and admit that new Labour have broken their class size pledge."

Brian Monteith, the Tories' spokesman, pointed to Labour's pledge to eliminate early years classes of more than 30 by August. "Now we find from the latest figures that 400 classes in this age group still have 31 or more pupils. Even worse, the number of classes with more than 33 pupils has hardly changed since last year. Jack McConnell is now trying to pull the wool over parents' eyes by insisting that things are better than they really are because some of these big classes have two teachers."

Mr Monteith seized on the figures to rehearse his familiar argument that centrally imposed targets and controls do not work and that responsibility should be handed to schools and local communities.

Mr McConnell said there would always be "practical exceptions" to class size targets while, for example, building work was being undertaken. But these exceptions would reduce further once school extensions have been completed.

Class size had to be taken in conjunction with other initiatives such as early intervention in assessing progress in the early years.

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