The Educational Institute of Scotland this week raised the pre-election stakes on education funding after revealing that 80,000 children in primary 1-3 are in classes of more than 31 pupils.
Labour has already attempted to lure voters by promising to cut classes in the age-group to below 30 immediately it comes to power. Helen Liddell, the party's Scottish education spokeswoman, reiterated that this was one of the party's five key electoral pledges. Mrs Liddell said the Pounds 5 million needed to employ extra teachers would come from cutting assisted places.
However, Labour's figures would only produce 240 new posts across Scotland, given the Pounds 21,000 a year average cost of a primary teacher. Reacting to the class size statistics, Mrs Liddell said: "These figures point up the fact that some people are complacent about overcrowding in the early primary and these are the critical years. The cities and densely populated areas are worse."
Opening the EIS's general election campaign, Ronnie Smith, the institute's general secretary, said the evidence showed that class sizes were being stretched because of the financial difficulties facing local authorities. "Class sizes are under very severe pressure and they are a critical factor in achievement because teachers have more time to spend on the individual child," Mr Smith said.
May Ferries, the union's president and a Glasgow primary teacher, said the class sizes set by the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee had made a significant contribution to educational standards and discipline in Scottish schools.
According to statistics produced through a parliamentary question from David Blunkett, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary south of the border, class sizes in the early years have been rising steadily through the 1990s.
In 1991, 72,600 pupils in Scotland, 16.5 per cent, were in classes of more than 31 but by 1995 that had risen to 79,600 pupils, 18.1 per cent. Lothian topped the table with 23.4 per cent followed by Tayside at 21.5 per cent and Central at 19.8 per cent. The lowest percentages are in the rural and island councils, which are all in single figures.
EIS policy is to accept cuts in class sizes wherever it can negotiate deals. The early years are a priority. The union is pressing for all intake and composite classes to be lower than 25 and wants a limit of 25 on all other classes.