Lower class sizes in doubt

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Deal on staff-pupil ratios and free school meals threatened by budget cuts and falling rolls

Doubts are already emerging over whether the framework agreement brokered last week by the new Education Secretary, Michael Russell, and council leaders will deliver the reductions in class sizes and higher teacher employment it promised.

Although a straw poll of councils by The TESS shows a warm welcome for the greater flexibility handed to councils on free school meals and early years targets, questions persist over whether some authorities will be able to make significant movement on class sizes targets when many are facing education budget cuts.

The proposed deal is effectively a trade-off: councils would deliver an additional 11,000 pupils in P1-3 classes of no more than 18 by August 2010; in return, the Scottish Government would give them the flexibility to prioritise free school meals for children in the most deprived areas and expand early years hours.

Mr Russell has also offered to relax regulations on the definition of a nutritious free meal, saying it can now be "breakfast, brunch or lunch". But that, too, has been criticised.

Leslie Manson, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said it was very difficult to find a single view among his members, given their different political, demographic and financial circumstances.

But, speaking in a personal capacity, he speculated that teacher employment figures by next August might be even worse, driven down by budget pressures and falling rolls.

"To turn the tide, I wonder whether we are not talking about added expenditure if we are to deliver a lot more teachers," said Mr Manson, who is the education director in Orkney.

Glasgow City Council leader Steven Purcell - a frequent focus of criticism over class sizes from Fiona Hyslop, the former Education Secretary - said that, by introducing more flexibility on pupil-teacher ratios, Mr Russell was now acknowledging Glasgow's position "that the definition of a class size is more complex than simply matching one teacher with one class".

Edinburgh and East Renfrewshire councils also welcomed the new emphasis on teacher-pupil ratios rather than class size.

Marilyne MacLaren, convener of children and families at Edinburgh City Council, and Alan Lafferty, East Renfrewshire's education convener, both said that the greater flexibility would allow them to operate team- teaching across classes. Neither council could afford to build more classrooms, which they would have had to do in order to meet class-size targets.

Councillor Purcell hit out at the Government's narrow definition of class sizes. "We are concerned that its method of measuring class sizes does not acknowledge the large number of teachers we employ to provide specialist provision," he commented. "We would therefore be keen to work with them to develop a more sophisticated way of measuring pupil-teacher contact and class sizes.

"I wish to emphasise that were we to redirect the additional teachers that Glasgow currently employs to run nurture classes, English as an additional language provision and our specialist dyslexia service, we could meet the class size commitment tomorrow."

Glasgow's leader also took issue with the relaxation of guidelines on free school meal provision. "It is vital that a nutritional meal, in whatever form that may take, is provided on the basis of the needs of `deprived children', not `deprived areas'."

Providing a free breakfast would not necessarily fulfil single outcome agreement commitments to improve the health and well-being of children, he warned, since many vulnerable children in Glasgow were unable to get to school in time to receive a breakfast.

"It is therefore vital that resources are not redirected away from lunchtime in favour of breakfast, or indeed in favour of an arbitrary class size of 18," Councillor Purcell said.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, welcomed any progress on class-size reduction, but described last week's proposal as a "laissez-faire approach" which would allow any or all of the 32 authorities to sign up to the deal or not.

One senior director claimed that the framework agreement illustrated the dilemma of a government "which has removed ring-fenced funding and still wants to deliver a series of education commitments".

Another director warned of the dangers of the exercise being too statistics-led. He took the example of a school which might have one class of 15 pupils and another of 21 and might be told to create two classes of 18 out of the total 36 pupils to meet the target. There might, however, be good educational needs for having asymmetrical class sizes - support needs or physical space.

Councillor Lafferty in East Renfrewshire, one of Scotland's wealthiest areas, observed: "I would rather spend money on bringing extra teachers into our schools, rather than providing free meals to the children of some of the extremely wealthy parents we have in our area."

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