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Pressure builds for smaller classes

David Henderson and John Cairney report from the EIS conference in Perth

THE slogan "20's plenty" could emerge as the Educational Institute of Scotland's new weapon to win over politicians and the public to the need for smaller class sizes.

Class cuts have become the union's prime priority as it at last senses significant movement on an issue it has long argued would make the biggest difference to classroom practice, attainment and teachers' working conditions.

Senior members reminded last weekend's annual conference in Perth of politicians jumping over themselves prior to the recent elections to deliver smaller classes, not to argue about the principle. Jack McConnell, the First Minister, led the way with a commitment to cut classes in S1 and S2 to 20 in mathematics and English and to have a maximum of 25 in P1.

Malcolm Maciver, chief negotiator on conditions and salaries, described the union's policy of holding all classes at 20 as "attainable, affordable and achievable". There was a consensus among parents and in the Scottish Executive.

However, Mr Maciver said that it was "a bit absurd" to propose cuts in classes in maths and English while leaving other non-practical subjects such as modern languages at the maximum. If small classes were good enough for the independent sector, they were good enough for the public sector.

Delegates overwhelmingly dismissed a left-wing call for industrial action on class sizes as untimely and counter-productive when the political tide was running in the union's favour.

Action would have forced members to refuse to teach pupils when numbers crept over 20.

George MacBride, education convener, said the national debate on education confirmed that parents, teachers and young people wanted smaller classes.

"They know that at the heart of teaching is the dialogue between teacher and learner and that dialogue is of little use if you are working with a very large group of youngsters," Mr MacBride said.

"What matters is that the teacher knows the youngster, works with the youngster and most importantly of all takes the youngster's understanding forward."

If the public wanted more creative and flexible schools that was only possible through smaller classes where teachers could spend more time with individuals. Pupils' motivation, self-confidence and interpersonal skills would improve.

Reductions from 33 to 30 were welcome but not significant and only substantial cuts to 20 would make a difference, as international studies had shown.

Ian McCrone, Renfrewshire local secretary, said that smaller classes were backed by Bill Clinton when he was President and if classes of 20 were "good enough for Tennessee, why were they not good enough for Paisley or Glasgow?"

Ronnie Alexander, local secretary in West Dunbartonshire, proposing industrial action, said that incremental change over the past 30 years had produced little progress for teachers. Some 52,000 primary children in Scotland were still taught in classes of more than 30 and average sizes were among the largest in the western world.

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