THE first SNP government came to power in 2007 on the back of some eye- catching promises. One was to cut class sizes to 18 for children in the first three years of primary school.
It proved a vote-winner, especially with women, who have traditionally been more wary of the Nationalists. But it proved a difficult promise to keep, often because of simple practical reasons such as the lack of available space in many schools for the extra classrooms required.
In the face of intense difficulty to deliver its commitment, the SNP introduced legislation in 2010 to limit class sizes to 25 for P1. In the party’s manifesto in the 2011 election, the promise was more vague: “Over the next five years, we will bring together the complex guidance and legislation on class sizes to deliver a coherent system in Scotland’s schools to support progressive reductions in the youngest years”.
How Michael Russell, the Cabinet secretary for education, intends to do this became clearer yesterday. He intends to extend the legislation to P2 and P3. There is evidence that using legislation to force the hand of local authorities is an effective way of ensuring Scottish Government priorities are reflected in the delivery of education service locally. But is this focus on class sizes the main challenge facing Scottish schooling? Should it be the key issue for those in charge of our children’s education?
One of the criticisms of New Labour’s early years in power was its obsession with meeting specific targets, particularly in health. A disproportionate amount of effort went into bringing services into line with new targets, to the detriment of other services that were equally important to patient health. A major part of this criticism was that the targets were seldom based on a coherent, thought-through plan. Often they were figures that appeared to have been plucked out of the air, with little regard to the practicality of achieving them and the benefit to the patient.
The same criticism may prove to be true of the SNP focus on class sizes. By concentrating all its effort on meeting its manifesto promise, the broader picture of pupil-teacher ratios across primary and secondary schooling has actually become worse. There seems to be a particular problem in S1 and S2 – two years identified by educationalists as a crucial period for pupil development. Does it really help to improve the teaching of children in one age group at the expense of children in another age group?
Before Mr Russell legislates, he needs to demonstrate a number of things. He needs to bring forward empirical evidence on the efficacy of reducing class sizes to 25, when some studies question whether this has much of an effect. He must also demonstrate the practicability of his plan, for example in the creation of composite classes. And finally he must ensure that these changes can be brought about without harming the schooling of children in other age groups.
High noon on the high street
WHAT do the dismal retail sales figures on Scottish high streets tell us? Does the fact that in November they were worse than south of the Border say something about Scotland’s economic predicament at the moment? Do the numbers demonstrate that Scots have less money to spend, or are less confident in their economic security and therefore less willing to splash the cash a little in the run-up to Christmas?
This will be the conclusion drawn by many observers in the light of this key indicator of economic activity and consumer confidence. It will be added to recent figures about unemployment and GDP to paint a picture that reflects a grim view of the Scottish economy.
Or maybe there is another explanation. This newspaper is not keen on Scottish stereotypes, but could it be that the supposed Scottish trait of thrift and canniness – OK, meanness – is a factor here? One interpretation of the figures is that canny Scots are holding out for a bargain. They know shops will cut prices as we near Christmas and retailers start panicking about meeting their sales targets. Consumers know the banners announcing a “Christmas sale” are already printed and could be going up in shop windows any day now. Why buy the kid’s Christmas present now when it could have a “20 per cent off” sticker next week?
There is a Mexican stand-off at play here. Shopkeepers want our business and they want us to pay the full price. We want a bargain and we’re prepared to wait until we get one. It is a gunfight at the high street corral. But it is based on the assumption that Scots are being canny and are not holding off simply because they are skint. Who will blink first?