Are we being conned?;Comment;Opinion

8th October 1999 at 01:00
Sam Galbraith does not seem to have got his sums straight before he spoke out on composite classes, says May Ferries.

WHY do composite classes have a maximum of 25 and why is the management's proposal to raise the limit to 30 an issue for primary teachers and parents?

Primary school staffing is the fundamental point in the debate. In Glasgow (not significantly different from any other authority), the total school roll times a decimal multiplier is used to determine how many teachers you get. Then headteachers have to match pupils and teachers into classes.

The class configuration of my school changes every year. It depends on how many primary 1s enrol and how many primary 7s leave, plus who leaves or arrives during the session. I'm amazed that Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, had the figures available to state that "the number of composites would be cut by two-thirds and only 900 out of 17,488 would be above 25" (TESS, September 10). Does this mean that this year there are 52,464 composite classes all with fewer than 25 pupils?

That's a lot of primary teacher jobs lost to help fund the pay offer. Are we really thinking about some optimum "best value" primary school? Roll 420 equals two classes of 30 at each stage? Where is this school? How can it be arranged across Scotland?

Here are a couple of real examples to illustrate my concern about the accuracy of the figures. In my one school we have had composites in the past at different stages. Currently we have five year groups at about 20, and two year groups at about 30. Additional deprivation funding allows us to have seven straight classes this year and a non-teaching depute.

Last session the P4 year group rose to 35. So we had two P4 classes and a full-time teaching depute. This session the P5 dropped to 32, so seven straight classes can be created.

Another Glasgow school of 120 has six classes at the moment, four straight and two composites. If the composite class maximum is abolished, it could become four classes of 30, all composites. Thus the number of composites has doubled and two teachers have been lost.

If composites can be formed with "working groups", it can be argued that this is no different from a straight class. But depending on the generosity (ha!) of the staffing standard this is often not possible. Raising the composite maximum will make it more unlikely as it will tighten any flexibility currently available. The process is designed to make savings in primary staffing, and an educational justification for the cut is now being sought.

What about a P1-P2, for example - P2s all early-interventioned-up, reading, writing, counting, in the same room with new starts in need of a quite different experience - 30 in the room regardless of age? What about a P6-P7 with some big noises all ready for secondary involved in primary-secondary activities, while P6s are left behind to wait another year. Thirty to a room regardless of age?

What about a P3-P4 where talented P3s overtake the P4s during the session? Or if the smaller group is less able P4s, are they being deliberately "kept back", repeating P3?

A lower maximum does not eradicate these problems, but it does give the teacher more time for each child's needs. Thirty in such classes will exacerbate the problems, and parents and teachers will feel cheated.

I'm not convinced of the figures that can predict a two-thirds reduction in the number of composites. They certainly will never be abolished. Maybe the real agenda is school closures?

Investment in primaries is long overdue and Mr Galbraith needs to do better quality homework to explore these complications. If he was talking of a major improvement in primary staffing to minimise the need for compositing, or if he was talking about reducing all primary classes to 25, I might be more convinced of his commitment to primary education.

May Ferries is depute headteacher, Victoria primary school, Glasgow.

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