Size does matter

13th July 2007 at 01:00
The first of our discussions is on class sizes should we have a strict maximum or let heads decide? Illustration by James Fryer

WE LIVE in interesting times. By government decree, Scottish teachers or at least some of them will face smaller class sizes for the first time in four decades. Class maxima in English and maths S1-2 will fall to 20 and in P1 to 25. Further cuts, targeted at nursery and P1-3, are heralded by 300 new teacher posts in place for the new year.

Thus political thinking catches up with the daily experience of the practitioners: smaller class sizes have clear educational benefits for our pupils. This has been recognised in the Educational Institute of Scotland's campaigning demands on class size, and we thank the previous LabourLib Dem government for the cuts, while applauding the SNP administration for honouring their manifesto commitment with a fresh tranche of class size reductions.

It is in the context of this political consensus on the benefits of smaller class sizes that we need to view the issue of maxima versus averaging. The former propounds a fixed upper limit of 20 pupils, while the latter envisages an average of 20, with an upper limit of 29 and a correspondingly lower number below 20.

The EIS has long argued the merits of a fixed limit, and this was overwhelmingly endorsed at its recent AGM. There is nothing new in the notion of maximum class sizes it is a modus operandi that has served Scottish schools well, since the 1970s contract that set current sizes.

At that time, a comprehensive upper limit ensured the entitlement of all pupils to the benefit of reduced class sizes, wherever they lived and whatever their ability level. This was premised on the manifest benefit of smaller classes and the perceived iniquity of some teachers struggling with classes of upwards of 40 pupils.

Of course, there was flexibility on size within the agreed contract, and schools and authorities exercised judgment in reducing sizes to meet particular needs. Today's wide variety, flexibly determined by schools within existing maxima, is witness to the effectiveness of this approach.

This programme of reduction raises similar issues. Society places ambitious demands on our education system and we need an improved learning environment to meet the needs of all our pupils. The myriad research available is unequivocal in telling us that all sections of the pupil population benefit from smaller classes.

This is the entitlement that our children deserve. It is inequitable to deny groups of youngsters smaller classes on the basis of "flexibility", as defined by education authorities or headteachers. If reduction is a perceived to be good, then all should be entitled to it through a programme of reduced upper limits. Thereafter, schools can determine flexible arrangements within these limits.

The programme underway has an inexorable logic that should shape future progress across the board. Class sizes of 18 in early years up to P3 prompt the question, "What happens in P4 and beyond?" Similarly, in secondary schools, teachers in disciplines other than English and maths will see the benefits accruing to these subjects and ask, "Why not my subject?"

The rationale that prompted this year's reductions is no less powerful when applied to other stages and subjects. Now is the time to develop a long-term workforce planning strategy that factors in a staged reduction for all pupils alongside the continuing fall in school rolls.

A strategy based on averaging will fail to meet the aspirations of Scotland's parents and the needs of all its pupils. Contrast that with fixed upper limits, which will give clarity to teachers, parents and local authorities and will deliver tangible results for all pupils. Thereafter, flexibility can determine appropriate class sizes, according to particular circumstances.

This would truly be "an egalitarian approach that embraces the Scottish tradition of the democratic intellect", to borrow from Fiona Hyslop's address to Parliament, which set out the Government's plans for Scottish education.

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