Conundrum of class sizes

3rd September 2010 at 01:00

How Fiona Hyslop must be laughing to herself now. How Nicola Sturgeon must be letting a smile crack open across her face as they both read in last week's TESS the SNP Government's own review, which has concluded that choosing to offer smaller class sizes is a decision best left to schools.

When Mike Russell took over the role of SNP education spokesman from Ms Sturgeon in 2000, he found the policy manual full of blank pages. This was too good a chance for the clever, maybe too clever, politician who was far better read and more lugubrious than the average MSP.

Nicola had spent her time courting the teachers' unions and giving a typically solid, yet uninspiring, performance while Labour education ministers changed faster than you could say "Scottish Qualifications Authority". John Swinney, then party leader, moved Sturgeon out and promoted the ebullient Russell, who quickly made an impact with his cultured tongue, picking up a gong for best parliamentary debater as just reward for his endeavours.

Russell's flair was not enough for a man with a fine opinion of himself: what was needed was a big idea, and it did not take long for Mike to come up with one - smaller class sizes. Drawing on evidence from the US, and no doubt given a few home truths from his missus, a primary heidie, Mike made sure that smaller class sizes was put at the centre of the SNP's manifesto in 2003.

Rather than challenge the idea head on - and not willing to upset the unions, which naturally saw small class sizes as beneficial to maintaining, if not enlarging, their membership - the Labour and Lib Dem coalition parties instead sought out their own priorities to promote.

The then Education Minister, Cathy Jamieson, launched a nationwide consultation on education policy that went through the motions but endorsed the consensus of an education system run by local authorities, subject to an increasingly meddlesome central government which paid lip service to school autonomy.

The small class sizes policy had a shelf-life beyond Russell after he failed to get on to his party's list for the 2003 Holyrood elections. It was distinct in a world of otherwise bland manifesto commitments, being viewed as a progressive pledge which made self-evident sense to those who did not have to consider all the other demands on educational finance. In other words, it was a political easy sell, a no-brainer for no-brainers who would not or did not have to think about its requirements and consequences.

The problem remained, however, that when Ms Hyslop became Education Secretary, the policy was undeliverable as it had never been properly costed. Although now limited to P1-3, it would require new classrooms built and new teachers recruited. All the right noises could be made, but the SNP had also relaxed controls over local authorities as part of the concordat to extract a council tax freeze. The class size policy and the concordat were, in practical terms, mutually exclusive.

Hyslop probably worked out the democratic failings of Russell's policy for herself and, before being demoted to the ministry of culture, left Russell a time-bomb - the deconstruction of the class-size policy he created by setting up a review group.

Fortunately, Russell is quick-witted and sure-footed and will no doubt welcome the report with a smile and move on, while the outcome - the Tory policy of leaving the decision to schools - must mean that, at a time when money is tight, nothing will alter.

Such is the way of trying to change Scottish education.

Brian Monteith enjoyed his primary class of 36 pupils.

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