A size for Scotland

1st June 2001 at 01:00
ONE thing is for sure in the renewed debate over class sizes. Size, or at least optimum size, may be argued over but it is perspective that matters. Last week's parliamentary debate initiated by the SNP (page six) showed that there are as many conflicting thoughts on the subject as there are think-tanks. So we had innumerable perspectives - the opposition parties who wish to embarrass the Government, ministers who are keen to play down a costly commitment, parents whose think-tank of preference is "common sense" and teaching unions for whom more teachers is the desirable flip side of smaller classes.

There is none the less clearly a consensus, probably educational as well as political, that too many large classes is undesirable. The issue is what the limit should be. Again there is a likely consensus which suggests that knocking off two or three pupils here or there is not going to be particularly effective. So the SNP policy of moving towards a maximum of 18 pupils in P1-P3 over seven years has a superficial attractiveness, based as it is on the much-vaunted Tennessee STAR project in the United States. As Labour foundduring its early days in Government, however, issues about parental choice, best use of resources, the availability of extra teachers and additional classrooms emerged to complicate the picture. Targets, to which the present Westminster and Edinburgh governments are addicted, turn into strait-jackets.

Perhaps the answer lies in Donald Gorrie's suggestion from the Liberal Democrat backbenches that it should be up to headteachers, in consultation with education authorities, to decide how additional teachers should be used. As Mr Gorrie so rightly said, schools may well feel that additional help to sort out behavioural problems or learning difficulties ought to have a priority call on resources.

The quality of teaching does clearly matter to pupils' attainment and, if that is influenced by the number of pupils in a class, it must be taken seriously. So what this subject self-evidently needs is detailed, wide-ranging research in Scotland for Scotland, not studies imported from very different conditions in Europe or the United States. More precisely, class size has to be set alongside all the other factors.

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