THE FIRST Minister has been forced to step in to defend his Government's commitment to reduce class sizes, as the SNP and the Educational Institute of Scotland piled on the pressure.
Jack McConnell dismissed as "irrelevant" figures revealed by the SNP, which showed that no mainland education authority had class sizes of 20 or fewer in S1S2 English and maths - seven months before the limit has to be introduced.
He claimed the target would be met in September because of the influx of newly-qualified teachers.
But the position was described as "disquieting" by Charles Gray, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The author-ities had been opposed to the policy in the first place and bringing the figures down would depend on enough teachers being available and enough space in schools.
The figures, unearthed by the SNP under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that class sizes in the two key subjects in early secondary were as high as 28 in South Lanarkshire and 27 in Clackman-nanshire, East Renfrewshire and Stirling. Only East Lothian was close to the target, with 20.4 pupils in S1 English and maths, and 21.9 in S2 in both subjects.
Information was supplied by 23 of the 32 authorities.
As The TESS revealed in 2004, the Scottish Exec-utive decided then to give more latitude to secondary headteachers on class size reductions and agreed that the pledge would be met as long as the pupil number in English and maths "averaged" 20 - and as long as there was support from parents.
Clashing with Mr McConnell in Parliament last week, Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokesperson, said if the executive had adopted her party's policy of limiting P1-P3 numbers to 18, it would not now be having to take remedial action in early secondary.
A statistical bulletin on pupil numbers, published on Tuesday, did not include class size information for secondary schools. An executive spokes-person said these were not collated as a matter of course: they last featured in the September 2003 census and would be picked up again in the census this September, which is when it would become clear whether the S1S2 target had been met or not.
The bulletin did provide information on P1 class numbers, which are also the subject of a pledge to reduce them from 30 to 25 by August. The average has been coming down from 24 in 1999 to 22.9 last September, but this ranges from 14.4 in Shetland to 24.9 in East Dunbartonshire.
The figures show that last September 17,393 pupils in P1, or 41.3 per cent, were taught in 624 classes with more than 25 pupils.
Hugh Henry, the Education Minister, said 2000 newly qualified primary teachers would be ready to start in August, allowing the P1 commitment to be met.
But David Drever, the Educational Institute of Scotland's representative on the executive's working group on class sizes, said at the launch of the union's election cam-paign last week: "One of our concerns is the lack of urgency. The executive and the politicians are not aware of how important this issue is in our schools today."
And Peter Quigley, the EIS president, speaking to members in Hamilton last week, claimed the revised policy of averaging English and maths classes at 20 would disadvantage able pupils, because they were more likely to be in larger classes above the average.
"Must they always be the political victims?" he asked.