The plaid truth on class sizes

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Primary class numbers in Scotland are to be cut to 18. In England, the figure stays at 30, prompting complaints of a 'tartan gap'.

William Stewart

reports on the extra pound;65m the Scots have found to achieve that target

"EDUCATIONAL APARTHEID," the headline-writers screamed last month when it was announced that class sizes for 5 to 7-year-olds in Scotland are to be cut to just 18.

As the legal limit south of the border is set much higher at 30, the hysteria over what is being dubbed the "tartan gap" might seem understandable. That is until you consider the historical context.

Apartheid implies a split society a nation of haves and have-nots. But as far as education is concerned, England and Scotland have always had their own separate school and exam systems, evolving independently of each other.

The idea of Scots getting a better schooling than the English is also nothing new. As a small country, Scotland has always punched above its weight in education. Testament to that are the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, economist Adam Smith and the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are examples of many Scottish inventors, scientists, engineers and literary greats who have done so much to shape our world.

And the tradition has continued. Last month, just a week before two Scots were appointed Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, research was published showing that English teenagers were less likely to get good qualifications or go to university than those in Scotland.

The 20-year Economic and Social Research Council study found that in 1986 about 10 per cent of pupils in England and Wales went to university, compared with 17 per cent in Scotland.

By the late 1990s the gap had widened, with around 25 per cent of English pupils going to university, compared with 37 per cent of young Scots.

Higher education participation rates in the two countries have moved closer together in the past decade. But some are predicting the gap will open again following the Scottish Executive's decision to scrap the one-off end-of-course graduate endowment fee.

Things have always been different. So why all the fuss now? The answer is devolution. The process has brought 300 years of union political arrangements under greater scrutiny than ever.

Elected Scottish politicians were given control over many of their country's affairs, including education. And through the Scottish Parliament, the so called West Lothian question re-emerged. It asks why Scottish MPs are able to vote at Westminster on policy areas such as education that effect England but have no bearing on their own constituents.

Added to this sensitivity is funding. A formula worked out in the 19th century means Scotland receives around pound;1,500 extra per head in public expenditure than England.

The reasons for this imbalance remain unclear, although some argue it was a ruse to ensure the Scots stayed committed to the union. But it remained after devolution because the Scottish Parliament, which has never used its tax varying powers, receives all its funding in a block grant from the Treasury in the same way that the Scottish Office once did.

As the Scottish Nationalist Party has grown in influence, its English counterparts have steadily drawn more attention to the inequity.

So when it was announced last month by the new SNP administration in Holyrood that class sizes for 5 to 7-year-olds were to be set at 12 places fewer in Scotland than in England, it was no surprise that groups such as the TaxPayers' Alliance complained.

The group claims English children would be condemned to an inferior education compared with their Scottish cousins, even though both systems were being funded from the same taxes.

So are their fears justified? The first question is: will the Scottish class size limit of 18 become reality? Second: if it does, will it make a real difference to the quality of education?

The SNP's critics in Scotland have been quick to point out that its class-size policy lacks detail. There is no target date to implement it and no figure has been put on how much it will cost.

But the Nationalist-led Scottish Executive's commitment is less open-ended than some of Gordon Brown's education funding pledges, and it has said it will be met within the current Parliament.

The Executive has also backed its promise with a pound;65 million funding package. It includes 300 new teachers from September and another 250 to start training ready to enter schools by August 2008.

This, together with more nursery funding, amounts to pound;25m for this year. A further pound;40m is going to local authorities to spend on the extra classrooms that will be needed if the pledge is to be met.

Nevertheless, fears have already been expressed that the policy will lead to pupils being taught in temporary huts as schools struggle to find room.

This is not the first Scottish class-size promise. The previous Holyrood administration a LabourLib-Dem coalition promised to limit all first-year primary classes to 25 and all English and maths classes in the first two years of secondary to 20. All by August 2007.

Figures produced by the SNP in March suggested that the majority of areas were still way off, even though the target had been controversially loosened to say that it would be met so long as English and maths classes "averaged" 20.

But the then Executive claimed that an influx of newly qualified teachers meant the goal would be met by September.

John Stodter, general secretary of Scotland's Association of Directors of Education, believes that will "pretty much" be the case given the greater flexibility.

He says the new SNP target depends not on money but on teacher supply. Estimates for the number of extra teachers needed have been put as high as 3,500.

Mr Stodter is more conservative, estimating that around 1,000 more teachers will be needed. But he believes it will still be the biggest challenge.

"I am not worried about the funding," he said. "I have to take the Government at its word on that. What I am worried about is getting the teachers through.

"Teacher supply has improved significantly and they are recruiting far more. But most teachers are trained in Scotland's central belt and it could be difficult to get them to work in the more remote and far-flung schools."

If the goal is achieved, will it mean pupils north of the border are getting a better education?

Not necessarily. Recent research has suggested that advantages of smaller classes are wiped out if a pupil goes on to be taught in a much larger group. And the SNP pledge is only for the first three years of primary.

Lindsay Roy, a past president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, argues that the SNP commitment breaks the principle signed up to by all the main political parties in Scotland that implementation of policy should be devolved to school level.

"Surely the most sensible approach would be to allocate additional investment to schools," he said. "Through appropriate staff consultations, staffing resources could be allocated in a manner that would meet pupil needs most effectively."

But why such a difference in policy compared with England in the first place?

John Dunford, general secretary of the largely English Association of School and College Leaders, says: "Politics, in a word. It smacks of a political decision rather than evidence-based progressive policies."

Mr Stodter takes a more sympathetic view. As someone who worked in English education for 13 years before moving back north of the border in 1990, he is well placed to compare the systems.

He argues that the Scottish emphasis on class sizes is due to the country having a less centralised, competition-driven education system.

Because schools' exam and test results are not compared nationally to the same extent that they are in England, Scottish politicians need an alternative way of demonstrating their commitment to improving schools.

Class sizes are their chosen indicator, particularly because they are aimed at helping the most disadvantaged.

Mr Stodter says it is a question of priorities. And that is where the TaxPayers' Alliance case could fall down.

Even if Scottish pupils do end up in smaller classes than their English counterparts, it is principally because their democratically elected politicians have chosen to target a different policy area from their Westminster counterparts.

And if they are unable to do that, then what is the point of having them in the first place?

Scotland has chosen to devote a bigger slice of its financial cake to smaller class sizes. If that leaves the English feeling envious, then perhaps they should concentrate on persuading their politicians to do the same.

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