The pupils that never were

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
The TESS clears up confusion about schoolchildren numbers after figures fail to add up. Henry Hepburn reports.New figures predict the school population will fall by many thousands - days after headteachers heard it would rise by 50,000 in the same period.

The confusion arose after Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Education, told the Headteachers' Association of Scotland annual conference that the number of schoolchildren was likely to rise by 50,000 "by the end of the next decade".

Yet figures released by the Government this week show the number of pupils receiving publicly funded education will drop from 702,700 in 2006 to 677,200 in 2019 - a decrease of 25,500.

Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said: "The clear signal given to the audience was that 50,000 pupils across the spectrum appeared to have turned up. We found no reason to doubt that, given factors such as migration."

A Scottish Government spokesman said the 50,00 figure cited by Ms Hyslop was the increase on previous projections for 2019. That would still represent a drop from the current school population.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute for Scotland, said it only seemed a short time ago that a "collapse" in numbers was predicted. The changing picture made it difficult to plan for new school buildings and teacher numbers.

Ms Hyslop responded to the release of the new statistics by arguing that the falling number of schoolchildren would help the SNP Government "deliver year-on-year progress" in its aim to reduce class sizes in primaries 1-3.

Separate figures released this week show a drop in the average sizes of English and maths classes in S1 and S2.

A total of 318 out of 376 schools have average sizes of 20 or less in those subjects at the two stages, compared with 35 schools in 2003.

The previous Labour and Liberal Democrat administration wanted to cut S1 and S2 maths and English class sizes to a maximum of 20. It later said class sizes of up to 29 would be allowed, if the average could be kept to 20.

The average class size in S1 maths is now 18.5, compared to 25.6 in 2003, while in S2 maths the figure is 18.7 against 25.3 previously.

English S1 class sizes have decreased to 18.4 from 26.2, and the figure for S2 English has dropped to 18.6 from 25.7.

Mr McGregor said the figures were satisfactory, and that flexibility over class sizes was important. Mr Smith, however, was concerned that a "postcode lottery" meant many pupils were not benefiting from smaller classes.

Meanwhile, Ms Hyslop told the HAS annual conference in Cumbernauld last week that she wanted to see more women headteachers and younger teachers taking on leadership roles.

She also promised bureaucracy would be reduced by national government, which would steer clear of "micro-management".

Some headteachers feared, however, that local micro-management would take its place.

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