Class sizes still a big issue

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
Fiona Hyslop has come in for a barrage of abuse, but she had plenty of support at SNP conference

It sounded good. The 250 schools promised by the Scottish Government would be built a year ahead of schedule, Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop told the SNP annual conference in Inverness last week. Class sizes were at the lowest level ever, she continued, and pound;8.6 million had been made available to pay for 3,000 additional places for students in Scottish universities.

Then there was the achievement that received the most enthusiastic reaction from delegates - Scottish history in its "rightful place" in schools, thanks to the new curriculum. Its delivery would be supported by a "world-class" online resource covering 200 separate Scottish history topics, she announced.

Ms Hyslop, however, is arguably the most beleaguered member of the SNP cabinet - although Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill took the pressure off her for a while.

When commentators and opposition MSPs want to poke holes in the SNP Government's performance, it is frequently to education and unfulfilled SNP pledges that they turn - from class sizes of 18 in P1-3 and access to a nursery teacher for every child, to the Government's promise to replace PPP with the supposedly better-value Scottish Futures Trust and student loans with grants.

Sure enough, no sooner had Ms Hyslop told delegates all the many and varied ways in which the Scottish Government was "getting on with the job" - a phrase so oft-repeated that it was left ringing in the ears of anyone present in the Eden Court Theatre auditorium - than Labour was on the warpath, calling for her to apologise to "pupils, parents and their families" for failing to deliver class sizes of 18.

Labour's education spokesperson, Rhona Brankin, said: "She has also broken her promise to abolish student debt, record numbers of newly-qualified teachers are unemployed and not a single new school will be built in the lifetime of this government. Fiona Hyslop is the worst Education Secretary since devolution and the SNP Government has never made a serious effort to keep its promises. She should feel personally ashamed of her appalling record."

Criticism from opposition politicians is par for the course, but what did delegates at the national conference make of Ms Hyslop's performance to date? A straw poll, carried out by The TESS, suggested most were disappointed the class-sizes target was not going to be met.

Tom Angus from Perth said: "If you promise something in a manifesto, you like to think you'll be able to achieve it."

But, like Ms Hyslop, they blamed the recession, some adding that independence would give the Government the money-raising powers it needed to deliver. "We expected - and believed - that faster progress would be possible," she said. "None of us saw the recession - and its impact on council finances and teacher numbers - coming."

Some of the party's foot soldiers had lost their appetite for progress on class sizes. Ian MacDonald from Tain in Easter Ross felt the quality of teachers was more important than the quantity. Janice Mair from Aberfeldy said "education bosses" seemed to feel classes of 20 to 25 were fine and was happy to go along with that.

Two older members of the party faithful didn't seem enamoured with any of the SNP's education policies. Veteran nationalist Gerald Fisher branded himself the "number one arguer on education policy with the Education Secretary". Gesturing in the direction of his companion, he commented wryly: "Like me, he only agrees with this party on one thing - independence."

Adopting a more serious note, he argued that reducing class sizes and the removal of ring-fencing had proved incompatible. "The two policies were right: the problem is, the party did not see they would get into conflict with each other," he said.

A Glasgow delegate said she had been in favour of scrapping ring-fencing and giving councils more freedom - but then she saw what Glasgow City Council had done with it. She was a former primary teacher and a believer in class-size reduction and the importance of nursery teachers in the early years, but now saw class sizes growing and access to nursery teachers dwindling.

Ms Hyslop's support came from younger delegates. Gregor Murray, 22, from Dundee, said schemes introduced for the unemployed had been gratefully received in a city hit with factory closures.

Andrew Sweeney, a 19-year-old Aberdeen University student, said that getting rid of the graduate endowment had been "massive" for him as he came from a low-income family. "Fiona is doing a great job," he summed up.

Mr Murray added: "Other parties picking on her all the time just makes us rally round more."

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