Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A Scottish tale of broken promises, localism and wishful thinking

A delicious cautionary tale from North of the border, as Scottish education minister Fiona Hyslop is demoted for the failure of the SNP's class size policy. Local authorities were given cash to employ more teachers to cut primary class sizes for younger pupils to 18. But being good localists, the SNP let them spend the money as they wished. They even drew up a vacuous agreement with the Scottish local authorities' association, COSLA.

Funny enough, the councils had other plans for the cash. The result: a fall in teacher numbers of 1,348 over the last year, more embarrassment for Alex Salmond and Ms Hyslop forced to spend more time visiting art galleries. To be fair, the average class size in primaries did fall - from 23.2 to 23.1 but as the BBC reported, 13.2% of P1-P3 pupils were in class sizes of 18 or fewer, a figure which was unchanged from 2008.

When Labour cut infant class sizes to 30 or below in its first term, it did so by a combination of legal sanction and intensive monitoring of every authority with large class sizes. Ministers knew exactly which schools were not meeting the pledge. Money was directly targeted to those schools. Even then, the need to allow flexibility on in-year entry means that up to 20,000 infants (compared with 450,000 in 1997) will find themselves in an over-large class in any given year. This approach may seem unduly centralist - but it was the only way that politicians could keep a promise so specific. And the literacy and numeracy strategies were probably rather more important to standards.

As the 2010 election approaches, voters should ask politicians south of the border when they promise simultaneously to free schools and impose more traditional teaching and rules on all pupils, how exactly they plan to square the circle?

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