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SNP has its collar felt as it tries to steal a march

David Henderson reports on Holyrood's war of words over reductions in primary class sizes.

FRANK McAVEETY put his digit on it. As former leader in Taggart-land, Labour's education hitman is not afraid to lay one or two verbal hands on opponents, mostly the SNP.

Taking the agony aunt line during last week's class sizes debate, Mr McAveety, a former teacher, looked across at the opposition frontbench. "I can say to Mike Russell: like his ego, size is not the only thing that matters."

Mrs McAveety was not in the public gallery to confirm or deny the statement as Mr Russell, married to a primary head, sought to launch a national debate on slashing class sizes in the early years to 18, not that anyone at the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory mikes was prepared to support him.

Mr Russell's ego was massaged by Ian Jenkins, a former PT English and Lib Dem inadvertent comedian, who praised his "urbanity and wit". His personal assistant had typed "vanity" but Jolly Jenks thought the better of it and stuck with urbanity. "Since he shaved off his moustache, I suppose I could use the word barefaced about him. However, I would not say he is a barefaced liar," he bumbled on. But somehow he did.

While Mr Russell is without, Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, is with and a bit more, bringing him a remarkable resemblance to Lenin, not renowned for his clear blue thinking. Labour's commitment to reduce class sizes between P1 and P3 was nothing more than a "political gesture" prior to the 1997 election and alone did little to improve the quality of education, the sometimes styled Blue Trot declared.

"Parents would rather send their children to schools with classes of 30 or even more if that school had a good reputation than send them to a school with a poor or bad reputation with class sizes of 15 or 18," the recently self-outed Mason on the Mound added.

The 1980 Education Act was more important to parents than the class sizes legislation and choice of school was vital. Apparently it was the Tories who introduced it. The man with the white and grey beard and baldie head continued: "Mike Russell is the gesture politician par excellence and his gestures (in demanding classes of 18) are all empty. His soundbites are as lasting as his erstwhile moustache and they have about as much attraction."

"Hair, hair," MSPs mouthed in mock confirmation. Or might.

Compliments one moment, condemnation the next, as Mr Jenkins rubbished Mr Russell's figures on class sizes. It was actually a good news story - and provision for the youngest children was better than it had ever been with nursery education, early intervention, Sure Start programmes, classroom assistants, rising attainment and cuts in class sizes. In 1998, there were 1,000 classes with 30 or more pupils: now there were only 13 (since revised to nine).

Deputy presiding officer Murray Tosh, another former teacher, reminded him he was in his last minute. "Am I? Crikey!"

Labour's Johann Lamont admitted to 20 years at the chalkface before becoming an MSP and still carried the demeanour. "If Mike Russell had been in my class for the past 20 years he would not have got away with the behaviour he has today," she chided.

The poor man was shipping flak. Not that Mr Russell needs defenders. He has savaged many an administration member and more before shaving in the morning. "To judge from the evidence of the past three and a half years, Labour could not deliver a pizza," he retorted.

Ms Lamont, however, confessed to teaching classes of 30, 20, 15 and even five, depending on the complex needs of the students. "In certain circumstances the group of five could be the most troublesome," she said, fearing that the SNP's blanket policy would only reinforce magnet schools in middle class areas. A cut across the board in class sizes was only a single lever.

The SNP's Colin Campbell, a former Glasgow secondary head - no tash or beard - replied that a primary head recently told him that teachers found it difficult to retain academic control when classes were over 26. "Being in academic control - and indeed in discipline control - is the acid test," he said.

Control was not a quality associated with the Lib Dems' Jamie Stone who brought the debate nicely back to digits. "I would have paid more attention to the speeches had it not been for the fact that Mr Jenkins trapped my digit in his collapsible lectern," he choked.

There was no mention of its size.

CASE FOR THE OPPOSITION

To give a real boost, classes should be no more than 18 in the early years. Some 55 per cent of parents want smaller classes and there is no evidence small reductions so far have any significant benefit.

The policy would need an extra 3,115 teachers at pound;105 million a year and pound;56 million for training over seven years. The Accounts Commission has already noted that 31.6 per cent of primaries are at less than 60 per cent capacity.

CASE FOR THE EXECUTIVE

The administration has met its targets on class sizes but points out that this is only one element of raising attainment in the early years. Classroom assistants, early intervention and more training for teachers are equally important. Revised figures show there are only nine classes between P1 and P3 with 30 or more pupils.

The SNP's policy would cost pound;168 million in teacher costs and pound;350 million to adapt buildings.

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