Progress has been 'disappointing'

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Eighteen out of the 32 education authorities are making headway in cutting P1-3 class sizes. Neil Munro reports

The western Isles has become the first part of Scotland to declare officially that all its P1-3 pupils are in classes of 18 or less, The TESS can reveal. It was achieved in the 2008-09 session and was disclosed in the response to our survey last week of council spending plans.

Although the council's very small schools were close to the Government's target, like those in Orkney and Shetland, this news will undoubtedly be seized upon by Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, as evidence of the "year-on-year progress" to reduce the size of infant classes which was agreed in the concordat between central and local government.

Ms Hyslop is under pressure to demonstrate success since there are no deadlines and no ring-fenced funds requiring education authorities to implement the policy.

She reflected that pressure this week in her response to the latest pupil census figures which revealed that, at September 2008, only 13.2 per cent of P1-3 pupils were in classes of 18 or less, an actual rise of 0.9 per cent.

But Ms Hyslop said the figures also showed that 18 out of the 32 authorities were making progress in reducing class sizes, and that, since 2006, there had been a 2 per cent rise in the number of P1-3 pupils in classes of 18 or less.

Quizzed at a press briefing, however, she conceded: "Progress towards cutting class sizes to 18 has been disappointing and not as strong as we would like it to have been. I am aware that, at a time of economic restraint, some local authorities are choosing not to replace teachers who retire. That will be a matter for discussion with the authorities."

Ms Hyslop also pointed to a reduction in the number of P1-3 pupils in classes of over 25, from 38 per cent in 2006 to 23 per cent in 2008, and to the fact that some councils such as West Lothian (SNP-run) and Midlothian (Lab) were making particularly good progress which others could emulate.

Nonetheless, The TESS survey on council spending has revealed that 11 of the 30 councils which have set their budgets so far are not even committing additional resources to make any progress at all in 2009-10. These are Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Dundee, East Renfrewshire, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow, Highland, Inverclyde, Orkney, Renfrewshire.

Labour-run Glasgow is the only council to declare outright opposition, saying the policy "would cost millions upon millions of pounds (and is) irresponsible."

None of the other councils have set timescales on an 18-pupil limit in P1-3. And others are tentative: for example, North Lanarkshire (Lab) intends to go for a limit of 23 in P1-2 only, which it will abandon if there is a lack of classroom space or because of placing requests.

The census figures showed that average class sizes in P1 ranged from 16 in the Western Isles to 23.1 in North Ayrshire; in P2, from 18.4 in Shetland to 25.3 in East Lothian; and in P3, from 17.5 in Orkney to 26.7 in North Ayrshire.

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