School census has a little bit of spin for everyone

THERE were rich pickings for everyone in the plethora of school census data issued last week by the Scottish Executive.

Ministers preened themselves over achievements in cutting early years class sizes and overtaking targets for computers. The Opposition parties seized on the Executive's failure to meet its class size target, but did not comment on the computing figures which represent better news for ministers.

Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, got his retaliation in first by claiming success in cutting the number of P1-P3 classes with more than 30 pupils, which stood at 921 in 1998 and fell to 27 by the date of the census last September.

In fact, the news is better than the Executive trumpeted. A spokesman revealed this week that the figure had since fallen from 27 to nine - all in schools where class accommodation is being extended.

Although the target was to have eliminated all infant classes with 30 or more pupils by last August with the help of pound;47 million allocated to local authorities, there are exceptions. The 30-pupil restriction is for "ordinary teaching sessions" only and there are certain "excepted" categories of pupils.

Mr Stephen was careful not to claim victory in meeting the target, arguing that ministers "are delivering on the commitment" - although he tried to square the circle later by suggesting: "Most parents will consider that we have delivered on our pledge."

This was not enough for the SNP. Mike Russell, its spokesman, pointed out that, a month after the deadline, more than 3,500 P1-P3 pupils are still in classes of more than 30.

Brian Monteith for the Tories returned to a familiar theme and suggested that it should be left to schools to decide what sizes their classes should be. "Top-down solutions" should go, he said.

The census shows that the average class size in Scotland's 2,271 publicly funded primaries is 24, with 74 per cent averaging 21-30 pupils in non-composite classes.

There continues to be a significant difference between state-run and independent schools. The average of 24 pupils per primary class contrasts with 19 in the fee-paying sector.

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