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Softly, softly on class sizes

Elizabeth Buie reports from Perth on the mood at the EIS conference

Class size cuts produced the biggest split at the Educational Institute of Scotland's annual conference in Perth. The division was not over the union's commitment to a maximum class of 20 pupils across primary and secondary - but over tactics.

Hardliners, who had won a narrow vote last year calling for a ballot on industrial action, were frustrated that no such action had emerged in the past 12 months. They called again for a campaign of industrial action if negotiations to achieve cuts in class sizes had not been achieved by December.

Speakers on behalf of the EIS council argued that a more effective strategy would be to participate in the ministerial working group set up to examine class sizes and related resources issues.

If progress was not being made by the time of the group's interim report, the EIS could then withdraw and turn to industrial action. Such a tactic would be more effective in the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2007.

In the end, the council's motion won the day by 174 to 130 votes. The result proved an endorsement of the stance taken earlier by Ronnie Smith in his general secretary's report. In an implicit direction to tread a moderate path, Mr Smith welcomed the decision by the EIS council to appoint two members to the working group and to engage in "intelligent conversations" on how to move forward.

"We should look at the evidence where it exists, commission it where it is lacking and try to agree on priorities - because we must acknowledge that our aspirations and ambitions simply cannot be met in one fell swoop," he said..

"There is a consensus that class sizes need to be cut - we have to try to build a similar consensus on how far, at what pace and in what order of priority, given competing claims on resources. This way of working is difficult, labour intensive and, of course, we will not have it all our own way. But it is surely better than standing on opposite sides of the street hurling claim and counter-claim at each other."

For some delegates, however, the partnership message cut no ice. Jock Morris, Glasgow, said the question was whether the union was "prepared to use the threat of industrial action to shift the priorities of the state so that the 97 per cent of children who attend state education can have parity with the privileged few who attend private education".

Mr Morris added: "On July 2, we will be on the streets of Edinburgh having an intelligent dialogue with another ministerial working group - the G8."

He posed the question: "Are we going to lead the members into a serious dispute with our employers over class sizes, or are we going to wait until another volcano erupts under this institute? Because, believe me, the lava is building."

Andy Heron, North Lanarkshire, warned earlier that Scottish Executive commitments on class sizes for P1 and S1-S2 in English and maths were weakening. "Headteachers said to Peter Peacock it would be much better if it is left to us to decide, and he said that was a good idea. And then the directors said that a maximum of 26 would be better - but not a word from the EIS to say we would go on strike on class sizes."

Jack Barnett, incoming president, said on behalf of the EIS council:

"Non-participation in the working group is not a realistic prospect. How would it look to SEED (the Scottish Executive Education Department), members of the public and teachers if we left others to shape the final decision?

"The findings of the working group are expected by summer 2006. What we need is an agreement on a planned and phased approach to class size reductions beyond 2007. We need sufficient capacity in the TEIs (teacher education institutions) and schools, otherwise we will be creating a problem of paraprofessionals or unqualified staff being used."

Sonia Kordiak, Midlothian, said: "Teachers can't be magicked out of thin air. Some areas already don't have enough teachers for supply or to cover non-contact times. There are more teachers in training and more will be trained, but industrial action won't accelerate their arrival."

Both Alan Munro and Willie Hart, local association secretaries for East Renfrewshire and Glasgow respectively, reported no complaints from members about class sizes. Their key concerns had been the threat to their pensions and management restructuring.

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