The proposed ballot on industrial action by the Educational Institute of Scotland in support of its call to cut class size to an absolute maximum of 20 is bad news for parents on many counts.
Industrial action is always bad news for pupils and parents and should be avoided whenever possible. However, strangely, avoiding industrial action by granting the EIS target of a maximum of 20 pupils in each class would also be bad news for parents and pupils.
For a start, there is no evidence that such a universal cut would benefit the learning and attainment of all pupils.
There is some research evidence suggesting that small classes benefit the very young and struggling students, but many schools already recognise this and arrange staffing to provide small classes in such circumstances.
However, there is no evidence that small classes particularly benefit average pupils in the middle school. Indeed, even the oft-quoted "Tennessee research", which is regularly cited as supporting claims for the benefit of smaller classes, has been superseded by research in the same state - replicated in Dallas, Texas - which shows that the quality of teaching matters considerably more than class size (TESS November 4, 2005).
But perhaps the biggest problem for parents and pupils will be the impact of the class size limit on schools. It will have very little impact on rural schools or schools in deprived areas which are currently operating at or below the 20 pupils per class level. It will, though, have a major impact on larger, popular schools that are operating with classes more or less at the current maxima. A cut in primary classes from the current maximum of 33 to 20 can only be achieved by establishing more classes. Not only would this mean a third more teachers in such schools (with questions about how they could be recruited), it would also mean a third more actual classrooms. As creating extra classrooms in popular schools is often impossible, then the alternative would be to cut the school roll by a third.
This would not just mean an end to placing requests, it would also inevitably require a re-drawing of school catchment areas so that fewer pupils were entitled to go to the popular schools.
For those lucky pupils and their parents who ended up in the reduced-sized classes in the popular schools, this would seem very attractive. However, the one third of pupils and their parents who suddenly found themselves excluded would be very angry.
Although the EIS has backed its call for smaller classes by citing parents'
preference for private schools and saying that this is because of the small class sizes on offer in that sector, that grossly misrepresents the situation. For a start, only four per cent of parents can and do opt for private schools and many make this choice on grounds other than class size.
However, within the state sector, parents tend to chose school over class size and research evidence would seem to suggest that this is the right choice.
Reducing class size reduces teachers' workload, but it is not so clear that it has a comparable benefit for pupils and parents.
Judith Gillespie Development manager Scottish Parent Teacher Council