Schools (Class Sizes and Pupil Attainment)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 10:55 am on 7 February 2002.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 10:55, 7 February 2002

We come to the Scottish National Party debate on motion S1M-2697, in the name of Michael Russell, on class sizes and pupil attainment, and two amendments to that motion. I ask those members who wish to participate to press their buttons now. If members are leaving the chamber, they should do so quickly and quietly.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 11:03, 7 February 2002

Let me put the argument very bluntly at the start of the debate. We need to get the most bang for our buck in education. We need to target resources where they will have the most effect for the longest period of time. We need to invest, as a nation, in the best prospects for our future. To do so we must take radical and direct action to reduce class sizes in the early primary years to 18 pupils or less. That policy has shown its benefits elsewhere and could show its benefits here: it leads to better attainment, more help for the disadvantaged, has long-term effects and, in economic terms, it pays for itself.

The great advantage of the policy is that it is not a new policy. As long ago as 1943, the Educational Institute of Scotland committee on education reconstruction—a committee that was looking to rebuild Scottish education after the war—proposed that no class in the infant department should have more than 20 pupils on the roll. That was an expectation in 1943; it has not been fulfilled almost half a century later.

The policy has wide public support. In the "British Social Attitudes Survey, 1999" smaller class sizes was the top choice for expenditure on primary education from parents.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, please let me get under way. When people were asked to name only two things that they wanted to change in primary education, 55 per cent wanted smaller class sizes. It is worth noting that in the same survey, only 1 per cent sought more emphasis on testing, yet that has been a constant refrain from the Labour and Tory benches.

Since Labour came to power in 1997, it has claimed that its first educational priority is the reduction of class sizes. Brian Wilson, just after the 1997 election called it

"one of the Government's key manifesto commitments."

That phrase was repeated two years later by Peter Peacock. Helen Liddell, Brian Wilson, Sam Galbraith and Jack McConnell—and even the Minister for Education and Young People—have all trumpeted that intention. In "Working together for Scotland: A Programme for Government", the Executive even claimed that the target had been achieved for primaries 1 and 2. We have heard no more of that claim, because it was not true, as the school census showed.

The reality of today's situation can be seen in the Accounts Commission for Scotland's report on key performance indicators for councils for 2000-2001. With less than six months to the cut-off date, only five councils—the three island councils plus Argyll and Bute Council and Dumfries and Galloway Council—were able to report that none of their primary 1, 2 or 3 pupils was in a class of 31 or more pupils. Two councils—South Ayrshire Council and West Lothian Council—had to report that more than 15 per cent of their classes were of 31 pupils or more. In addition seven councils had an increase in the number of such classes compared to the previous year.

For the Executive, even a cosmetic target has been impossible to achieve, even with a declining school population. Over the period there has been a decline of almost 7,000 in the primary roll. The Executive might get there, late and by an accident of birth rate, but where is there? Classes of 30 are marginally better than classes of 35, particularly for the teacher, but there is no evidence that such small reductions in size are of any significant benefit to pupils or to their attainment.

I am more inclined to listen to the Executive's advisers than to the Executive on the matter. Its advisers have argued that some research suggests that:

"within primary schools (especially P1 to P3) a class size of between 20 and 25 pupils produces the best learning environment."

That is from page 35 of the Executive's publication "2001 Scottish Social Statistics". The Government's advisers say 20 to 25. I think that Mr Sheridan would say 15. The evidence supports 18—and I will look at that evidence in a moment. Whatever the figure is, it is not 30, no matter what the hype and spin from new Labour. Scotland needs a real target for class sizes, backed by real evidence, which can show real benefits and is implemented by real plans with real resources.

Talking about reality, here is Brian Monteith.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

I thank the member for giving way. If he had read his speech correctly, he might have noticed that since 1940 is not less than half a century; it is in fact more than 60 years—more than half a century. I am sorry to pick him up on that small point.

The member talks as if all the research is a given and that it is accepted as fact. Does he accept that the evidence is inconclusive and that a great deal of evidence contradicts the evidence that he quotes?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I do not accept that at all and I will tell him why; I am just about to cite the research.

The policy of reducing class sizes to 18 or less has its modern origins in the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio project in Tennessee. That project was designed not just to introduce smaller class sizes, but to scrutinise the effects of such reduction. Mr Monteith can listen to this. Professor Frederick Mosteller of Harvard University, probably one of the greatest statisticians of the past half century—and I accept half century as 50 years—called the Tennessee programme

"one of the great experiments in education in United States history."

Mr Monteith should listen to this. The US Department of Education's office of educational research and improvement—a Government agency—claimed that the programme was

"doubtless the all time most comprehensive controlled examination of the thesis that a substantial reduction in class size will, of itself, improve attainment."

Peter Mortimore, director of the well-respected Institute of Education in London described the Tennessee study as

"the most thorough research ever done on class size using the experimental method."

The words used to describe the research, Mr Monteith, are "thorough", "comprehensive" and "controlled". All that proves that the advantage of smaller class sizes stays with pupils right through their schooling, into adulthood and their entry into the labour market.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

In a moment. The evidence also suggests that the educational investment that I am advocating would more than pay for itself through strong, positive economic returns. I am about to address the issue of how much such investment would cost. If Rhona Brankin would like to make a point about that, I would be happy to take it.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

That is not the point that I want to make—I want to ask the member about research. Does he accept that research shows that much of the gap that exists between youngsters in school and in later life is created in the first few years of life? Does he also accept that an integrated approach to narrowing that gap—including measures such as early intervention, sure start programmes and the introduction of classroom assistants, as well as steps to reduce class sizes—works best? There is nothing about that in the SNP's manifesto.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

We have supported consistently all the measures to which the member refers. In this debate I am making the point that reducing class sizes is the single most important policy.

I want to talk about the cost of that policy. To implement our proposals in Scotland, we would need 3,115 extra teachers, taking today's pupil numbers as a baseline. At full operation, that equates to £105 million per year. Teacher training costs would need to be boosted by £56 million over seven years and maintained at an additional £3.1 million thereafter. The cost of additional school accommodation is more difficult to assess, but the Accounts Commission for Scotland noted that 31.6 per cent of Scottish primary schools were at 60 per cent capacity or less in the year 1999-2000, and it is likely that some space is already available. No building of new schools, however funded, that is in the pipeline at present should take place without accounting for a reduction in class sizes of the sort that we propose. The minister could achieve that with the stroke of a pen.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not. I have a lot to get through.

The challenge as regards infrastructure is less great than it seemed even a year ago. Demographics help us.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I will not. I must finish what I am saying.

Most observers have failed to note that the Executive projects a reduction in the number of teachers in Scotland after 2004. Its figures project a fall of 2,900 between 2004 and 2011. Simply by maintaining the present number of teachers and by taking advantage of the increasing availability of space in our schools, we could ensure that much of the programme could be funded from present resources.

Of course, not all of it could be funded from those resources. The SNP is a practical party, so we have had to argue that, in addition to meeting costs from present budgets and from cancelling planned reductions, we should meet them through an incremental implementation plan. We should work first in the areas of social deprivation, because in those areas the impact of our policy would be most obvious.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I will not; I want to finish what I am saying.

One might argue that the costs of the programme could be met from the underspend in education year on year by the Executive. Given its record of failure on expenditure, the Executive could learn much from the way in which the programme is planned and costed.

There is a final reason for us to implement this policy, based on naked self-interest. The chamber is full of baby boomers. The majority of us and the majority of our fellow citizens—

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The Parliament includes some aging baby boomers who are experts on Shakespeare, but only one or two of them.

The majority of us and a large number of our fellow citizens are from the baby boom generation. We are moving inexorably towards a situation in which hundreds of thousands of people who are now economically active—bizarrely, MSPs are classed as economically active—will be dependent, not on themselves, but on the smaller and smaller number of people who succeed them in the labour market. As the birth rate falls, the number of those on whose shoulders we will have to lean becomes smaller by the day.

The shrinking number of school pupils means that there will be a dwindling number of people to support their elders, who want to live longer and better. Those people will have to sustain not just that liability, but the massive public-private partnership liability that the Executive has produced.

For reasons of naked self-interest alone, it is absolutely essential that the present generation of school pupils and those about to enter school are equipped and prepared to the highest standard for their working lives. We in Scotland know that we have an underperforming economy. We are the generation that will have to plan to make it perform for the future, if we are to go to our old age able to sustain our standard of living, our standard of health care and our standard of welfare. Not only do we owe to our children the best education that we can give them; paradoxically, we owe it to ourselves.

When we see the chance of significantly improving education, of guaranteeing higher and longer-lasting achievement, of reducing learning support intervention and of assisting the most vulnerable in our society, we have an obligation to take it. When that opportunity means a better-educated work force that is capable of powering a better-performing economy, we would be fools to reject it. I want a better Scotland, and this policy would pave the way towards that. I also want the best Scotland—this policy would be the guarantor of that. A better Scotland, leading to the best Scotland—that is the aim of the SNP and of this policy. I ask the chamber to support that aim and the means of achieving it.

I move,

That the Parliament notes increasing research that indicates considerable short-, medium- and long-term benefits from reducing early primary class sizes, preferably to 18 or below, and the particular impact that such reductions have on children living in poverty; further notes the performance indicators 2000-01 report by the Accounts Commission published on 24 January 2002, which shows that the Scottish Executive has not yet achieved its own class size targets, and therefore calls on all parties in the Parliament to support the SNP's radical initiatives on this matter as an important step in not only assisting individual educational attainment and individual lifetime achievement, but also bringing collective economic benefit for Scotland as a whole.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 11:15, 7 February 2002

It will come as no surprise to anyone in this chamber that I am not interested in naked self-interest—I am interested in the future of Scotland's children. I want to concentrate on that in my speech this morning.

I want to deal with some of the issues that Mr Russell has put before the chamber. Our programme for government includes a commitment to reduce class sizes in primary 1 to primary 3 to 30 pupils or less. Let me put the scale of that task in context. Returns for the 1998 school census showed that 939 P1 to P3 classes had 31 or more pupils in September of that year. For that reason, we adopted a staged approach, with the target applying to primary 1 from August 1999, to primary 1 and primary 2 from August 2000 and to primary 1 to primary 3 from August 2001. We backed up that policy with the resources needed to deal with the problem: £47 million was provided to education authorities to employ additional teachers and to fund classroom adaptations. The school census results in 1999 and 2000 showed that we were making progress. Preliminary evidence for 2001 suggests that that is still the case.

In August last year, the Executive asked authorities for an update on progress. From their returns, it is evident that, of only 90 primary 1 to primary 3 classes with more than 30 pupils, 53 of those met the regulations by having two teachers involved in the class. Twenty-four classes had excepted pupils, as defined by the regulations underpinning the commitment—for example, pupils who enrol in schools after the end of the placing round. Only 13 classes did not meet the regulations that underpin the programme for government commitment. I understand that, in four of those classes, the problem has now been addressed through the provision of two teachers.

We know that definitive results will only be available when the school census results are published in the spring. However, there has been significant progress and we are well on the way to meeting our target. I take this opportunity to congratulate education authorities on that impressive achievement—an achievement that is already benefiting children in schools across Scotland.

There is a body of research opinion that links class size with attainment, particularly in early-years education. However, within that body of opinion there is a range of views. Some researchers question whether a reduction in class sizes is the only or the best way of improving attainment levels.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I quoted three out of many studies in support of my view, and I would be happy to provide the minister with more. Will the minister say what studies she is quoting, as I would be delighted to read them? It is very difficult to find any studies that support her position.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

If Mr Russell had read nothing other than the Scottish Parliament information centre research briefing on class sizes and pupil attainment, he would have found that there are a number of contrary opinions.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Is the minister aware of the study by the Heritage Foundation in the United States, which assessed whether small class sizes influence academic achievement and concluded that the effects of other factors not included in the data, such as teacher quality and teaching methods, were more significant than the effects of class sizes?

Is the minister also aware of the US Department of Education study of the issue and of a widely cited review by Glass and Smith entitled "Meta-analysis of research on the relationship of class size and achievement", which found that research

"does not support the expectation that smaller classes will of themselves result in greater academic gains for students".

In case Mike Russell is not convinced by those studies, I point to a report by the Thomas B Fordham Foundation, which reached similar conclusions. Does the minister accept that there is evidence to support the conflicting positions on this issue?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I want to move on to deal with some of the points that Mr Monteith makes—I thought that he was going to read out his whole speech there. I hope that he will allow me to intervene when the time comes.

This morning the SNP has provided members with some costings, but we must question whether its proposal is the best or the only way of dealing with the issues that we want to address. The research that has been cited on the effect of class sizes on attainment focuses on how pupils perform in standardised tests.

Mike Russell raised that issue, but everyone who is involved in education knows that education is about much more than performance in standardised tests. Ultimately, education is about giving every child the opportunity to reach their full potential and about producing young men and young women who can play a full part in society. Education is not just about providing people for the work force—that is one aim of education, but it is not the only one.

I remind members of the national priorities for education that the Executive set out and that the Parliament endorsed. Those priorities described what we want for all our young people. Education should raise the standards of attainment and achievement; provide a high-quality learning environment; promote equality and inclusion; involve parents; help to develop values and citizenship for young people; and equip pupils with the foundation skills, attitudes and expectations that they are going to need throughout their lives. We are investing to bring about the changes that we need to make.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I wonder how the minister's priorities are going to be achieved, given the paucity of last week's local government settlement, which led to a cut of £17.2 million for Glasgow and a cut of 79 teaching posts. How will the council improve the education of Glaswegian youngsters if there are 79 fewer teachers?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I will move on to address some of the investment that has been made. [Interruption.] Perhaps Mr Gibson and other members of the SNP should listen to my answer. The Executive has given local authorities specific grants of £137 million for pre-school education in 2001-02. That sum is part of our overall investment in pre-school education of £467 million over the period 2001-04—Rhona Brankin emphasised the importance of early-years intervention. We have also invested £36 million in special educational needs projects.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

No. I want to move on.

We are investing in modern information and communications technology equipment and training. A further investment of £23 million from the new opportunities fund has been made for ICT training for teachers, librarians and others, and £90 million is being invested in infrastructure and support. More money—a further £40 million—is coming in the period 2002-04 to sustain and renew the existing infrastructure. We are considering the existing problems with the school estate and what we can do with that money. Mike Russell needs to understand that although there are schools that have spare capacity—we can all identify those schools—some of them are not in locations that best meet the needs of the changing population.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I will not take any more interventions, as I need to move on to talk about real schools, real people and real priorities.

As Minister for Education and Young People, I have visited a number of schools and have been impressed by initiatives that are making a positive contribution to children's education. On Monday, I visited a primary school in Prestonpans in East Lothian that has adopted an innovative use of the classroom assistants programme. At that school, the classroom assistant follows children from primary 1 through a number of classes in order to give a degree of consistency. All the primary 7 pupils whom I met could give me a definition of what the attempt to promote social inclusion meant to them in their daily work with other young people in the school. Teachers and children felt that the approach of having additional adults in the classroom had helped to give some pupils—particularly those who are most vulnerable and those who lacked confidence—greater reassurance and support. The school was working hard to take that initiative into secondary education.

That initiative has been welcomed as another positive step towards improving the quality of education. Our overall aim is to reduce the pupil to adult ratio across authorities. In 1999, we estimated that that would require around 5,000 classroom assistants. Feedback from people who are involved in education tells us that the initiative not only helps to reduce teachers' work loads, but allows teachers to teach children, which is what they do best. We know that teachers value the initiative because it allows them to reduce the time that they spend preparing materials and resources and gives them the opportunity to deal with individuals and groups who need help and support. In some instances, teachers have reported another positive outcome: they find a greater enthusiasm for the work that they have been trained to do and that they want to do.

I do not have time to develop some of the themes that I wanted to spend more time on. I put on record a final reminder: we believe that reducing class sizes is an important feature of education policy—we are well on the way to meeting our policy commitment—but it is not the only feature. We must examine the other initiatives, such as new community schools, that give the most disadvantaged young people opportunities to boost their attainment levels to the level of those who are at the top of the academic structure.

I move amendment S1M-2697.2, to leave out from first "notes" to end and insert:

"believes that class size is an important aspect of educational provision; notes that the performance indicators recently published by the Accounts Commission relate to the financial year 2000-01 whilst the targets in the Programme for Government relate to the financial year 2001-02; welcomes the progress that the Scottish Executive and local authorities have made in reducing the size of Primary 1 to Primary 3 classes; recognises that education is about developing individuals to their full potential, and considers that the Scottish Executive should continue to promote the raising of standards in education through the implementation of the National Priorities for Education at national, local authority and school level."

Photo of Kay Ullrich Kay Ullrich Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am sure that Brian Monteith would like to join me in congratulating Ayr United Football Club on reaching the final of the CIS Insurance cup last night.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 11:25, 7 February 2002

I have no problem in congratulating the three members of Hibernian Football Club who play for Ayr United on reaching the final of the league cup—it is just a pity that they had to beat Hibs to do so, but there we go. I am, as usual, magnanimous in defeat.

I am pleased to take part in this debate as it gives us an opportunity to lay to rest one of the great myths of modern politics: that the class size that a teacher teaches is crucial.

In the 1997 election, one of Labour's five big election pledges was its claim that it would reduce class sizes. That pledge was repeated in the 1999 Holyrood election, when the Labour party said:

"We are investing £52 million to reduce the numbers of pupils in primary classes 1 to 3 to 30 or below by August 2001, while maintaining parental choice."

Of course, that pledge was misleading—it was a gesture towards a problem that was far greater in England than in Scotland. Some members may disagree, but if Mike Russell wanted a better example of how a London-centric media reports an English view during a general election, I cannot think of one.

When the Tories came to power in 1979, classes of up to 40 pupils were commonplace at primary stage in Scotland. We negotiated an agreement with the trade unions to put in place a limit of 33 and, by 1997, there were only 2,685 classes of more than 30 pupils—I say "only" to stress that 2,685 is too many. However, it was no mere accident that the situation had improved markedly. During the Conservatives' all too brief reign of 18 years, we increased expenditure on education by 15 per cent in real terms. It is important to note that the trend was towards a continuing reduction of class sizes and an improvement in pupil to teacher ratios—not pupil to adult ratios. The reality of the situation that Labour inherited was that it was improving.

Irrespective of that reality, Labour pushed the idea that class sizes were too big. Although it is not yet August, I can tell from current information and from schools' likely intake that the Scottish Executive will not meet its target. The reason for that failure is quite simple and exposes Labour's fundamental political weakness. The Labour party is completely out of touch with the needs and desires of ordinary, everyday Scottish parents. The truth that the party cannot fathom is that parents would rather send their children to a school that has classes of 30 or more pupils, if that school has a good reputation, than send them to a school that has classes of 15 or 18 pupils, if that school has a poor or bad reputation.

Parents are interested in the academic performance of pupils, which, at primary level, is chiefly about building a foundation in numeracy and literacy. The minister was right to point to the importance of a more rounded education, but it is just as important for parents to believe that their children will learn respect for their elders, discipline, a sense of teamwork and individual endeavour and character. That approach may be reflected in the wearing of uniform, punctuality, creativity and spontaneity. It is important that those values are encouraged in schools.

Whatever parents may take from their local schools, the truth of the matter is that they want to make their own choice of school. I argue—

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am interested to hear that the Tory party is continuing to ignore public opinion and public demand—that is what led the party to its sorry state. Fifty-five per cent of people who were asked want smaller class sizes and the teaching profession has been arguing for smaller class sizes since 1943. Why does Brian Monteith think that he knows better?

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

If Mike Russell listens to the rest of my speech, he will find out that I do not believe that I know better or that there is an ideal in education. I recommend that he read my article in The Times Educational Supplement on what education is, where he will find an explanation.

I repeat that whatever parents take from local schools, they want to make their own choice of school. Therefore, the most important educational reform that the Conservative party made in Government was not self-governing schools or changes to the curriculum, but the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, which enshrined in law Alex Fletcher's desire to give parents a right to choose their son's or daughter's school. It was at that time that the debate about school class sizes became irrelevant, because the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 meant that parents began to dictate class sizes by exercising choice. In the light of the gradual reduction in class sizes and the growing power of parents, for Labour—new or old, tankie or Trotsky—to suggest that it could or should reduce class sizes was nothing more than a political gesture, which it sought to use to help it win the general election in 1997.

We are faced with a motion that is laughable in its simplicity and dangerous in its naivety, for the Scottish nationalists say that we should go further and cut class sizes to 18 pupils or fewer. Mike Russell is Scotland's gesture politician par excellence. Before he takes that as a compliment, let me remind the Parliament that his gestures are all empty. His soundbites are as lasting as his erstwhile moustache and they have about as much attraction. We should not worry about Mike Russell, for—as Magnus Linklater has noticed—his arguments

"might be dismissed as the rantings of a second-rate polemicist."

If some schools believe that they should operate with smaller classes, we should let them. I do not believe that there is an ideal way to teach children, because every child is an individual who requires a different approach.

We should seek to empower our schools with greater powers, so that, if parents choose smaller classes, or boy-only or girl-only classes, or Gaelic-medium classes, or set or streamed classes, they are able to do so. Politicians can cite every piece of research that has ever been produced, but in the final analysis only parents should decide how their children are taught. That is why the reform of our education system must start from the pioneering work of Alex Fletcher in 1980.

I move amendment S1M-2697.1, to leave out from "increasing" to end and insert:

"that the reduction in class sizes in Primary 1 to Primary 3 to 18 would involve a substantial revenue cost and an unquantifiable capital cost together with a removal of parental choice; acknowledges that class size is only one aspect of educational provision which may help to improve standards in Scotland's schools, and considers that greater devolution of decision making to teachers and parents should be the goal of the Scottish Executive."

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat 11:32, 7 February 2002

I am not sure whether I qualify as a very aged baby boomer, but I remember 1943 well.

It is some time since I have said nice things about Mike Russell in the Parliament. Members know that I enjoy doing that. He is a man of great urbanity and wit—[MEMBERS: "Vanity."] To be truthful, I dictated my speech to my personal assistant about 10 minutes ago and, although I said "urbanity", she wrote down "vanity". Mike Russell's debating skills are widely acknowledged. His formidable forensic style of questioning in committee is equally admired. He displays an easy charm, which verges on the oleaginous from time to time. That charm is usually tempered by a zest of lemon that prevents it from being cloying.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I am slightly concerned that Ian Jenkins is perhaps not a member of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

I am not quite a paid-up member of the Mike Russell fan club; I am an associate member of the branch that is chaired by Magnus Linklater. We realise that our hero is a flawed character.

Mike Russell has shaved off his moustache, so I suppose that I could use the word "barefaced" about him. However, I would not say that he was a barefaced liar. Since he shaved off his moustache, we have been able to see his nose a bit more clearly and it is not yet of Pinocchio-like proportions. I would not say that he is a stranger to the truth, but perhaps his acquaintance with the truth is occasionally more fleeting than we would wish. He does not tell lies, but—like members of all parties in the Parliament—he tells half-truths and twists the truth to suit his arguments.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I had been enjoying the member's speech up until now. My enjoyment has just fallen away.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I think that "vanity" was right.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

Like almost everyone in the Scottish National Party, Mr Russell appears to be afflicted periodically by jaundice; he seems to be unable to recognise a good-news story when he sees one.

The fact that the number of classes with more than 30 pupils has fallen from almost 1,000 in 1998 to only 13 represents a good-news story. As Mike Russell well knows, the statistics that he quoted do not reflect the present situation. In any case, the trend is clear and the commitment on class sizes is on the point of being realised. Similarly, the primary 1 to primary 3 attainment levels are improving—progress is being made.

To be honest, the provision for our youngest children is massively better than it has ever been. We should take into account the increase in pre-school and nursery provision; the sure start scheme; early intervention; more classroom assistants; reductions in class sizes; and the rise in attainment. All that represents a good-news story at this stage. It is surprising that Mike Russell should pick class sizes and pupil attainment as topics for debate, because we seem to be making good progress on them.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

Not at the moment.

Although the record on class sizes and pupil attainment is good, everyone would recognise that in many other areas much improvement needs to be made.

I do not disagree totally with Mike Russell about class sizes, which are important. There should be a drive across the board to reduce class sizes and to maintain them at a reasonable and manageable level. We could debate what that means, but that is the principle. There are too many large classes at standard grade and higher level. It should be recognised that teaching methods and the demands of the assessment system that is in place mean that subjects that used to considered as classroom subjects, for which the numbers did not matter, make different demands on teachers and pupils. The gap that used to exist between practical and classroom subjects has been reduced and there is now a maximum classroom number in secondary schools of 20.

I am delighted that research projects show the effectiveness of smaller class sizes, which always used to be a bit nebulous and difficult to prove. Incidentally, I was a bit worried that pieces of research had been published by someone called Galton and someone called Simpson—Galton and Simpson did not seem to be the best source for information.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

No, the member is in his final minute.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

Am I? Crikey!

Small class sizes are important not just for measurable attainment, but for other important aspects of education such as relationships within classes; the kind of attention that teachers can give to individual pupils; and the kind of formative marking and assessment that can be undertaken.

In that context, I want to mention the proposals to amend or remove the "Schools (Scotland) Code 1956", on which consultations are being undertaken. If the code is scrubbed—which I am not saying is the wrong thing to do—I urge ministers to ensure in some other way that there are clear and binding statements about maximum class sizes. If possible, it should be stipulated that classes should be smaller than they were before.

For all the reasons that I have outlined, I support a movement towards smaller class sizes. However, for reasons that are alluded to in the Conservative amendment, I fear that Mike Russell weakens the case by setting a target that is unrealistic in the present situation. National priorities will be served if we can establish class sizes at a reasonable level. All parties in the Parliament will recognise that that is only one factor in the promotion of the national priorities. We should work together on all fronts to give all our children the educational opportunities that they deserve.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

My attainment target is to shoehorn too many members into the time available. Please keep speeches to a maximum of four minutes.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 11:38, 7 February 2002

I am pleased to say that I am probably too young to call myself a baby boomer. However, I declare an interest in that I am a mother of a son who was born weeks after the 1997 general election to the echoes of the mantra, "Education, education, education." That young son is due to start primary 1 later this year.

Nothing is as precious as a child. Nothing holds as many prospects as a child's mind and their capacity to learn. The Parliament should have no greater sense of responsibility than in how it develops policies to nurture and develop the minds of our young children. A debate on education provokes passions—a passion for education and the passion of anger. I will address both aspects.

The SNP is passionate about education because it affects the life chances of our constituents. We are passionate about education as parents and as Scots who are conscious of our educational tradition. Why do I get angry when we have a debate about education? The situation that my constituents in West Lothian face makes me angry. What has the Executive's education policy achieved in that area? West Lothian should be the cockpit of the knowledge economy—it needs to be. In the interests of a better Scotland, the children of West Lothian should have the education and skills to drive us forward. West Lothian should be the cockpit of the knowledge economy, but in the latest report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education, our schools come 24th for reading, 30th out of 32 for writing and 29th for mathematics. More than 15 per cent of West Lothian schools have not met the target for reduction in class sizes.

Let me explain what has happened in West Lothian. To meet the artificial target that class sizes should be not greater than 30, pupils were shoehorned into composite classes. For 2001-02, composite classes account for 23 per cent of all primary 1, primary 2 and primary 3 classes. There are now composite classes in 78 per cent of all primary schools. In the past year, the number of composite classes for primaries 1 to 3 has increased by 9 per cent. All of that has been done simply to meet the target.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Does the member think that the target that was set in Mike Russell's opening speech would be achieved by any less artificial means?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Absolutely. Our target would be met by investment in teachers. Whereas the Executive will reduce teacher numbers by 2,900 between 2004 and 2011, the SNP wants teachers to be available to ensure that we achieve our pupil-teacher ratio.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

No, I will continue to develop that point.

We should listen to what teachers and head teachers say. Head teachers have told me that they would prefer the flexibility of making their own choices, rather than the dislocation and disruption of composite classes, which result from the requirement to meet the class size target. Where is the evidence that the target is working?

When Jack McConnell was Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs, I asked him repeatedly to explain the educational value to schools of shoehorning pupils into composite classes, when the reduction that was being achieved was only from 32 to 30. Where is the value in the Executive's education policy? Mike Russell cited the evidence that shows that reducing class sizes to 18 can make a real difference.

If we want the best for Scotland, we should examine the education system that we had in the past, which was built on a passion for education and learning. The system was built with boldness and vision, and by radical but effective policies.

Tinkering about will not make the major difference that we desperately need for young people.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am in my final few seconds.

We must decide whether we have the courage to take up the challenge of building our education system on the boldness and vision of the past. We must decide whether we will carry the torch of innovation and excellence. The SNP has the vision and a policy that can achieve that. If members are up to the challenge, they should come with us; if they are not, they should not praise what is mere tinkering with the system.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 11:42, 7 February 2002

Today's debate on attainment is important, but we must not lose sight of our broader social inclusion agenda. A debate on education cannot take place in isolation. We must never forget that some of our children cannot improve their attainment because factors outside school prevent them even from getting to the stage at which they are ready to learn. That is why education needs to be addressed alongside housing, problems with addiction, domestic abuse and crime. Those issues need to be addressed in the round, because tackling them will also improve our young people's attainment and opportunities.

I want to acknowledge the hard work that has been done in pre-school and early school learning to address the inequalities in our communities. Members may be aware of the improving early-stage attainment figures for numeracy and literacy in Glasgow schools. That is a positive trend. We must congratulate Glasgow City Council and the staff and pupils involved, because such improvement gives us hope that the Scottish Executive's strategy is beginning to work. There is no opportunity for complacency, but there are grounds for hope. We need to build on that.

Two things affect my perspective: first, I was a teacher for 20 years; secondly, I am a mother of two, who has one child in primary 2 and one who is a pre-schooler. Both of my children have benefited from the investment that has been made in early-stage learning. I am sure that they will benefit more.

I would be foolish to argue that class sizes have no impact on the general capacity to learn, but I contend that reduction in class sizes is only one lever by which attainment can be improved. As a teacher for 20 years, I taught classes of 30, of 20 and of 15. I also sometimes taught classes of only four or five. It depended on how complex the needs of the youngsters were but, in certain circumstances, the group of four or five could be the most troublesome. Even if there were only four or five in the class, the support of someone else was needed. The levels of attainment did not necessarily depend on how many were in the class.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

The evidence that is available that suggests that small class sizes can work also suggests that teachers would be required to change their teaching practices to suit those smaller class sizes. Therefore, if we introduced class sizes that were as small as those that Mike Russell has suggested, we would need not only more classrooms and more teachers but a large amount of in-service training, so that teachers were equipped to deal with small classes. Would not extra training be needed to deal with the very difficulties that Johann Lamont has highlighted?

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Teaching practices may indeed need to be changed, but in some cases that could also bring benefits. Some subjects benefit from a different approach. Teachers may need to move away from the teacher-talking, children-listening approach. My view is that class sizes should depend on circumstances. It is not always the case that teachers should not be able to teach a larger group. It is significant that, although the education unions have always argued for smaller class sizes, they do not argue that the policy should be loaded in the way that Mike Russell has suggested. We should not use only one lever.

For a number of reasons, I am anxious about the SNP's position. There is a lesson to be learned from the targets that were set for things such as waiting lists. The targets ended up driving policy and priorities, without necessarily achieving what was sought. There is a danger that concentrating on class sizes will overwhelm everything else without doing what is intended. We might end up resourcing something that does not deliver. [Interruption.] Had Mike Russell been in one of my classes during my 20 years of teaching, he would not have got away with the behaviour that he has got away with today.

Flexibility is essential. We need to consider what happens at different times in our classes. We need proper support for youngsters with special educational needs. We need support to integrate youngsters with disabilities into mainstream education. At times, teachers should be able to work one to one with a troubled child, which would not be possible if we were to invest in only one element. To use only one lever would be to deny ourselves the flexibility that must be available.

I have only a short time left, but let me make one more point. The SNP has said that it would provide significant investment to bring down class sizes. I would not demur from the idea of investing in education, but I would need to be convinced that such investment would be effective.

Mike Russell said that his policy would help the disadvantaged. My fear is that the bulk of the money would come from the transfer of resources towards magnet schools and away from schools that are under capacity. The latter may have fewer pupils, but they certainly do not have fewer problems and difficulties. The SNP's one-size-fits-all strategy would have a serious impact on flexibility and on our capacity to narrow the gap in equality of achievement in education. For Labour members, that equality of achievement is as important as anything else.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party 11:47, 7 February 2002

Having gone to school for the first time in 1943, I am a pre-baby-boomer. I am glad that, when my class was 40 in number, someone was predicting that class sizes would come down to 30 some time in the future.

From time to time, I resent the way in which the Administration debates with a rather patronising tone, as if it was the fount of all knowledge and wisdom. I dispute that the Executive knows everything about education, as I spent the last 16 years of my career in education in deprived areas. Every teacher knows that having small classes creates a far better teaching atmosphere. Large classes seem to work only with well-behaved docile pupils who have been rigidly disciplined. Children are not universally docile and, fortunately, fear-based rigid discipline with its attendant repression has gone.

I mention those things because of my previous experience with Strathclyde Regional Council, whose administrators and budget holders were very quick to say that small class sizes were not an issue. I am pleased that the representatives of the party that controlled the Strathclyde Regional Council that I worked for now believe that reducing class sizes is a good idea. Their views have moved on a little. However, I have two complaints: first, the Labour Executive has not quite achieved its objective of having class sizes no greater than 30; secondly, that objective is quite under-ambitious.

Let me put the argument at its crudest. If a child is in a class of 30 for three hours and the teacher divides the time evenly, the child can only demand six minutes of the teacher's time. In a class of 18, the child would get 10 minutes. Of course, we all know that teaching does not work like that. The teacher's time is consumed variously by activities such as group supervision and listening to reading. Teachers need to diagnose problems and solve them in class, or establish the evidence to call in the further help that was mentioned earlier. The opportunities for doing that are manifestly greater in a class of 18 than in a class of 30.

The hard evidence is available. In 1991, a sample from 800 Texas districts, which contained over 2.4 million children, produced this conclusion in the Harvard Journal on Legislation:

"student achievement fell as the student/teacher ratio increased for every student above an 18 to 1 ratio."

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Will the member confirm that the SNP, in its 1999 manifesto, said that it would have class sizes of 25 only when it had achieved independence? What will the SNP have to achieve before it has class sizes of 18?

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party

As Rhona Brankin knows, achieving independence would be the answer to most of our troubles. It would unleash the wealth of this nation—wealth that currently runs off to the south to subsidise it.

North Carolina experimented with smaller classes in 1995-96. Its target was 15, and its evaluation was that:

"Compared to a matched group of students in classes that had not been phased into the smaller class initiative, students in the smaller classes outperformed the comparison group in first, second and third grades on both reading and mathematics tests."

A primary head teacher told me recently that his teachers had said that, if the class size went beyond 26, they were not in academic control of the class. Being in academic control—and, indeed, in disciplinary control—is the acid test.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I acknowledge Mr Campbell's experience at the coalface—or the chalkface, I am not sure which. Does he agree that the classroom assistants programme has offered the opportunity to do exactly the thing that he is talking about—to give teachers more time to be directly involved with pupils? Does he agree that the adult-pupil ratio is the crucial factor?

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party

No. I am sorry, but as a teacher I can accept that having classroom assistants has a value—in tying laces, wiping noses, sharpening pencils— [Interruption.] Labour members should let me finish and not take the chance to snipe. It does them no good. Having classroom assistants has a value in those ways, and in all the other important supportive tasks that assistants do in class. However, having assistants is not the same as increasing the ratio of teachers to children. That is the acid test in all this.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

What would Mr Campbell do with the assistants?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Mr Campbell, you are running out of time. Come to a conclusion please.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party

The crunch point is that every child who slips through the educational net at the start—because classes are too big, because the teacher is harassed or unsupported, or because the psychological services cannot be accessed—is a child who is likely to have little self-esteem, to be under-ambitious and to become downright anti-social.

As has been said, education is about preparing children for life. To do that well, schools have to give individual pupils opportunities to build on small successes, developing their self-esteem and their hopes for the future. That is unquestionably more achievable in classes of 18 than in classes of 30. I agree that 30 is better than the previous 32, but, as Michael Russell said, we want the best for Scotland and a target of 18.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 11:53, 7 February 2002

I am tempted to ask whether my tie is fixed straight for Colin Campbell, just to be sure that I am okay to make this contribution.

None of the speeches so far has disputed that reducing class sizes is an important aim. What is being debated is the scale of the change, whether it will fit in with other economic, social and educational objectives, and whether it will be practicable in the period of time that has been suggested.

The problem with Michael Russell and the SNP's approach this morning—which has been reheated from a previous debate on educational attainment—is that we still have not heard the fine details of how the £100 million will be put together. As Johann Lamont asked, where will that money be targeted? From memory, I think that the SNP said that the money would be targeted on priority areas, but it is interesting that no one in the SNP has reaffirmed such a commitment.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

Thanks very much—but Michael Russell can remain seated rather than intervening at the moment.

Michael Russell has been quoted in the past as saying that testing is positively harmful for children and that we should look to the Soviet Union. I do not know whether that is the exact model that he now has in mind—in fact, the only person here who is modelling for the Soviet Union is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who is on the Conservative front bench this morning. Michael Russell also spoke about going backwards rather than forwards, which is similar to a saying of Lenin's about taking one step forwards and two steps back.

As Johann Lamont said, many factors—including class sizes—impact on children's education. Children's social environment is important. Colin Campbell alluded to that, albeit rather indelicately.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

Does the member recall that other saying of Lenin's—that we cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs? Clearly, the SNP's policy will require a great many eggs to be broken, certainly among classroom assistants.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I want to touch on that issue. Many factors impact on education: social class; attendance at school; supportive family environments that ensure that attendance; and, more important, the quality of the teaching environment. Evidence from Glasgow has shown that there is no doubt that classroom assistants have transformed education. They have done that not by doing the minor things in class that many teachers initially thought they would do, but by being a key adult in the classroom who genuinely assists the qualified teacher, with the teaching expertise, to develop young people's skills. Assistants are now vital members of any classroom and school community.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I thank Mr Gibson for wanting to intervene. He has reminded me that he referred to 79 posts being cut in Glasgow. Let us get the facts clear. Those posts will not impact on the curriculum or the teaching environment. Mr Gibson omitted the facts about the situation in Glasgow—perhaps that is indicative of the kind of contribution that SNP members make. The increase in Glasgow's education budget has been more than 10 per cent this year, as a result of the local government settlement over the next three years. Labour members in that authority, unlike SNP members, have identified education as the fundamental priority.

Earlier this week, Michael Russell and I were at the Education, Culture and Sport Committee. An esteemed professor of education, when asked, said that there had never been a golden age of Scottish education. I agree. The central problem with Michael Russell's motion is that it tries to create a new myth that class size is the only, or the central, way of increasing educational attainment levels in Scotland. I therefore say to Michael Russell that, as with his ego, size is not the only thing that matters.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 11:57, 7 February 2002

I welcome the Executive's amendment because it is less self-congratulatory and more balanced than some of the things that I have been asked to vote for in the past. I am happy to support it; it is reasonable.

We all agree that education needs more investment. The Executive deserves credit for having increased our expenditure on education, but we must all acknowledge that there is still a long way to go.

The SNP motion raises the question of how we can concentrate the available money. The SNP suggests a radical reduction in class sizes. We should work towards reducing class sizes as well as towards making other improvements. However, I feel that we should concentrate on increasing the staffing that is available in schools. If I were running a school, I would use the extra staff in one-to-one tuition for pupils who have, or cause, difficulties, rather than in simply reducing all class sizes by so many. Other people may take a different view, but I feel that we should concentrate on improving the staffing and on letting the schools get on with teaching more efficiently than they are doing at the moment.

I repeat a suggestion that I have made before. We should have an anti-bumf tsar in schools and Government departments. The weight of paperwork involves teachers in far too much activity that is not teaching. If there is no anti-bumf tsar, I am happy to volunteer for the job. The administrative overload on teachers is an important point to consider.

Another argument against a rapid decrease in class sizes in primary 1 and primary 2 is that it would have a serious effect in schools that are full and popular. We would have to put up lots of huts and go back to where we were 30 years ago; or, instead of, say, 60 pupils from a local area entering a school, there would be only 36—based on the class size of 18 that the SNP proposes—which would deprive 24 pupils whose parents wanted them to go to that school. We must consider that issue carefully.

We all want to improve education. Class sizes are part of that. However, the SNP is mistaken to focus so much on that particular issue, rather than on promoting a balanced programme of improvement.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 12:00, 7 February 2002

Brian Monteith has pointed out, using valid statistics, that the situation regarding class sizes in Scotland improved under the Conservatives. We also left a legacy of improving teacher-pupil ratios. However, Labour will not achieve its much-trumpeted targets by August, because in a democracy it cannot dictate to parents where they should send their children to school. Labour likes to dictate its own agenda and dogma, but woe betide Labour if it starts to interfere with the rights and choices of parents.

Parental choice is perhaps most important in rural schools, which are often under threat of closure. It seems extraordinary to me that parents in remote rural areas are put through the hell of having to fight repeatedly to keep local primary schools open, when those small primary schools often have small classes—the very thing that the Government wants.

Two summers ago, I campaigned in Argyll and Bute, alongside valiant parents and teachers, against the closure of six primary schools. Their commendable efforts prevailed and all the schools were saved. However, the schools remain under threat, because, as I was told by the board of Glassary Primary School at Kilmichael, the latest consultations on safe school buildings and what to do to develop and upgrade them is fast becoming a school rationalisation programme that will close smaller schools and move pupils to larger centres.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I remind the member that members of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee were involved in that campaign too and helped to achieve a change of mind in Argyll. I pay tribute to Cathy Peattie, who was the reporter on that issue.

Does Jamie McGrigor accept that one of the inevitable consequences of the Executive's desperate rush to private-public partnership projects is the closure of small schools? That is quite unacceptable. Does he agree that there should be a presumption against closure in most circumstances?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

In England, the Department for Education and Skills has put aside and ring-fenced large sums of money to protect small rural schools that are threatened by closure. Different councils can bid for money for that purpose. I urge the Executive to do the same thing in Scotland, where the problem is far more acute.

Labour is happy to blame councils but, in the case of Argyll and Bute Council, that is unfair. Education costs are very high because there are 26 inhabited islands and island education is 1.5 times more expensive per pupil. The report from Dr Arthur Midwinter—a Labour man—entitled "The Mismatch Effect on Council Tax Levels in Argyll and Bute", underlines the mismatch whereby Argyll and Bute taxpayers pay £100 more per head than they should for increasingly poor services.

The report also makes a point of highlighting a disparity in education. In paragraph 16, Arthur Midwinter says:

"we would expect a remote rural authority such as Argyll to have fewer pupils per teacher because of the incidence of small schools."

He goes on to say that Argyll and Bute's position in relation to class sizes is close to the Scottish average because of the deliberate decision to increase the pupil-teacher ratio in larger schools to compensate for the lower ratio in the small schools. That is shocking and shows a regard only for figures and budgets and a complete disregard for the welfare and good education of the pupils. I sincerely hope that that policy will be abandoned at once and, forby, that the Executive will follow Dr Midwinter's recommendation to grant a further £3.5 million to Argyll and Bute Council to redress the council tax imbalance.

Small class sizes are desirable because they should lead to more individual attention for each pupil. Brian Monteith is right when he says that that is not the whole answer. Scotland needs good teachers in good schools with more power to decide how best to provide an education that will give Scotland back the reputation that it once had for excellence in education.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party 12:04, 7 February 2002

I want to talk about evidence. The SNP has quoted extensively this morning the evidence that supports our proposal for class sizes of 18 pupils. I want to point out to Brian Monteith that we were quoting from qualitative research, not meta-analysis. There is a difference.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

I am 25 seconds into my speech. I am sorry if the member did not get on the Labour speakers list, but she cannot keep intervening on SNP members to find the time.

The evidence is that the minister has missed the target. In her opening remarks she attempted to slide the dates for the Executive's targets and say that they would still be met and that they remained the same. I will quote the Executive press release of August 1999, when the regulations on small class sizes were introduced:

"Regulations which came into force this month will ensure the Scottish Executive's commitment to reduce class sizes in the first three years of primary school will be met by the target date of 2001."

The minister attempted to imply that that meant 2001-02. The press release from 1999 goes on to say that the target for primary 3 will be met in August 2001. The Executive has failed to meet those targets and the evidence is there to show it.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I have already told the member—I am beginning to sound like the member of the education profession that I used to be.

I want to turn to a report from the Scottish Council Foundation and Children in Scotland, entitled "Children, families and learning: A new agenda for education". The report says:

"we need to develop and pursue a policy agenda that is rigorous and evidence-based."

Everything that we do should be evidence based. I would like to give the minister the evidence that the Executive's policies are not producing. The problems of large class sizes can be seen in the increase by 20 per cent in 2000-01 of unauthorised absences from Scottish primary schools. That is evidence of unsettled pupils not receiving enough pastoral care from the overburdened teachers of classes of more than 30 pupils.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

The focus of my opening speech was on how we raise attainment levels for all pupils. I stressed that the Executive takes very seriously the problems, such as those that Fiona McLeod has identified, in engaging pupils. We have provided the education, resources and back-up to meet the targets. Does the member accept that?

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

How can I accept that when I have just provided the evidence that the Executive has failed to meet its own targets? They are not my targets, but those of the Executive.

The Scottish Council Foundation report "Children, families and learning: A new agenda for education" pointed out that we need the evidence. I have more evidence from the HMIE report "Standards and Quality in Primary Schools: Mathematics 1998-2001". That report finds that, in 50 per cent of primary schools, there is weakness in problem solving and inquiry work in maths; in 45 per cent of primary schools, there is a significant weakness in scientific investigative skills. That is evidence that we are failing to teach our pupils how to learn and how to think.

If we do not have thinking schools, we will not be able to meet the commitments of the new job market, which is always looking for retraining and reskilling. That is based on being taught to think and learn at the earliest stages of school and to take that throughout one's life. Lifelong learning begins at school—it is not a corrective for when school lets people down. The key to delivery of such information handling skills is small classes, where pupils have the space to think and support their development.

I must draw the minister's attention to the HMIE report that shows that in secondary 1 and secondary 2 we are coasting. We are not helping pupils in those years to match their information skills to the wider world of information. I would like to comment on the importance of school libraries to that key skill, but I do not have time.

The evidence shows that small classes lead to information handling skills and abilities in pupils that make them lifelong learners. Scotland's pupils deserve nothing less than to become lifelong learners from the day that they enter education. Scotland can afford nothing less.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 12:10, 7 February 2002

I thought Mike Russell was getting a bit personal when he started talking about baby booms. I am only doing my bit for Kenny Gibson's drive for a greater population. I realised later that he was not talking about me; he was talking about himself being a 1960s baby boomer. I think he is kidding himself.

Yes, I have a vested interest in securing the best possible education for our pre-school, primary and secondary children. I tell Fiona McLeod that lifelong learning does not start when people go to school. Lifelong learning starts on the day we are born and inequality begins on the day we are born. We need to consider all those factors. Parents are one of the most important factors in what children become.

I benefited from a great education in Jedburgh in the Borders.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Well, it is all relative.

I cannot say how many people were in my class, but I can say that I learned a lot about education and I remember a lot about my education. I remember what I was taught, the games that we played, the songs that we sang and the friends that I made. Most important, however, I remember the teachers who taught me. They were the most important factor in my learning. I remember the good ones and I remember the bad ones.

The debate is synthetic. It does not consider the impact that people have. I come from a single-parent, working-class family in the Borders. I had no right to go to university. It was because of the education that I got in my school and the support that I got from my teachers, parents and pupils that I was able to do what I did and that I am standing in the chamber today. I make no apology for that.

Yes, we must consider class sizes. Class size is a factor, but it is not the only one. If we are going to invest £300 million-plus, is that the best thing that we can do? What the SNP has given us today is a semi-costed proposal. The SNP manifesto for the Scottish election talked about spending £100 million to reduce class sizes. Mike Russell now recognises that teaching alone would cost £156 million plus £3.1 million pounds year on year. We have no costings for the building programme.

Yes, there is spare capacity in some of our schools. Much of that spare capacity rests in urban Scotland where the population does not create the demand. There could be two schools—perhaps one denominational school and one non-denominational school—serving a population that is not what it was 20 years ago. Some schools might be able to meet the targets without major work. However, we would have to make sure that people were willing to go to those schools. That is not the cases in many places. In rural Scotland, many schools have spare capacity. The people who might go to those schools are 10, 20 or 30 miles away and do not want to travel.

We have no recognition of the building costs involved. I was surprised by something that Mike Russell said and I hope he will clarify it. He seemed to be suggesting that we should go ahead and build classrooms without thinking through whether we need them. Is he saying that we should stop the current building programme and add on more classrooms in a never-never-land hope that the SNP might be in power at some time and might be able to implement its proposal for 18 pupils in a class?

The reality, which Johann Lamont touched on, is that the spare capacity in urban areas will mean that the most substantial investment that we require to make to fulfil such a programme will go into magnet schools and middle-class areas. It will not address the primary issues of under-attainment in education that results from working-class children not getting the support that they need.

The issue is about far more than class sizes; it is about support, development and early-years education. It is also about making sure that the teachers who teach our children are the best. That is why the EIS and the other teaching unions do not support the SNP's proposal. They recognise that there is far more to educational attainment than the size of the class.

I hope that members will vote against the SNP motion and support the Executive's amendment.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 12:14, 7 February 2002

I have listened to the debate with great interest. It has been enjoyable and thoughtful. It is a tribute to the Parliament that members can spend time singing off the same hymn sheet about improving education in our country. We have heard worthwhile speeches from all quarters of the chamber. Jolly Ian Jenkins, as he is sometimes known, was characteristically kind about Mike Russell. I would have paid attention to all the speeches, including Fiona Hyslop's, had it not been for the fact that Mr Jenkins managed to trap my digit in his collapsible lectern. I am afraid that my concentration was shifted.

It seems to me that the debate comes down to a straightforward argument between Mike Russell's suggestion that we should zero in on class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios, and the wider arguments of Cathy Jamieson and others about adult-pupil ratios and other associated issues. We must remember that the Executive has achieved a solid improvement. Cathy Jamieson demonstrated that with the figures. Ian Jenkins said that there is further to go and class sizes matter. We recognise that, but the point is that we have done good work within a carefully managed budget.

Mike Russell talks about figures and about throwing money at the problem. We have to be wary of the trick of throwing huge sums of money at problems. Where does that money come from? Some informed opinion says that if we go down Mike Russell's route, we could end up spending twice as much as he has suggested. I say to Mike Russell that we need to look more closely at the figures.

We are talking about children from the word go. Cathy Jamieson might have been hinting at teaching for citizenship. We are not just talking about churning children off an assembly line and saying "That's it. You are ready for a job." There are many other roles.

I turn to the Conservative party's contribution, which was interesting—a sort of sharp-shooting from the undergrowth to the right—and not unhelpful to the Executive. I felt that Brian Monteith was edging towards the argument of St Mary's Episcopal Primary School in Dunblane about self-governing, but he never completed it.

I also have a point for Jamie McGrigor. Perhaps it is classic Conservative philosophy, but there is a tendency to think of the good old days and how excellent things were in the past. I am not so sure that that is the case. I had good and bad teachers. My children are finishing secondary school and I cannot fault the education that they have received, which I suggest was rather better than it was in my day. They are certainly better informed than I was.

I have a specific argument about why the issue is the ratio of pupils to adults and not pupil-teacher ratios. In the old days—and I am a 1950s baby boomer—pupils could get lost, particularly in maths. I do not know if members will remember, but a pupil could be in a class of whatever size, the teacher would be working away at the blackboard on algebra or trigonometry and the pupil would reach a point where they simply did not understand. That is a dangerous point because the pupil would lose ground rapidly and, in many cases, would never catch up. That explains much of my non-ability in maths.

With all due respect to Colin Campbell, a classroom assistant is about far more than straightening ties, wiping noses or taking pupils to the potty. In today's schools, it is the classroom assistant who can look sideways and spot when a pupil is lost.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I will finish my point.

The classroom assistant can bring that to the teacher's attention and nip the problem in the bud. That wider use of classroom assistants is important and we should not lose sight of that.

I give way to Robin Harper.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

No. The member has used up his four minutes.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I pay tribute to the powerful role of the Presiding Officer.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 12:18, 7 February 2002

This has been a good debate and we have had excellent contributions from different parts of the chamber. I should say that I know a little bit about baby boomers because my parents are of that generation.

Today's motion is typical of the SNP. It is not an attempt at any real debate. It is posturing, playing to the gallery and going for an easy headline. As my colleague Brian Monteith said in his contribution, the question of class sizes is, to a degree, irrelevant to the future of Scottish education. Large class sizes often occur in popular schools. There is often no educational disadvantage and the existing research is conflicting. All sorts of research has been done, some of which suggests that there is no link between class size and pupil attainment. Johann Lamont and Frank McAveety referred to that when they said that class size is only one factor in determining pupil outcomes.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Could Murdo Fraser explain, because nobody has done so yet, why, if class sizes in secondary schools for technical, art and science subjects are restricted to 20 for safety and teaching efficiency reasons, we should not have the same concerns for much younger children?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

With respect, the answer is obvious. As I understand it, it is all to do with health and safety. In classes where pupils are dealing with equipment that might be dangerous, it is appropriate to have a certain pupil-teacher ratio. However, it is not appropriate in other classes.

The SNP is giving undue prominence to the issue. Its proposals would be hugely expensive. As we heard from Mike Russell, they would cost £105 million a year plus the cost of teacher training on a revenue basis. There would also be a capital cost. Karen Gillon referred to that in her excellent contribution. There is an unquantifiable capital cost for new classrooms—not just new buildings but equipment. The SNP might argue that there is spare capacity in some schools and that we could simply bus pupils around the country to take up that spare capacity. However, as Brian Monteith said, that would be denying parental choice, which the Conservatives consider a cornerstone of education. Of course, the SNP has always taken the view that the state knows better than parents.

Not everywhere has spare capacity. In Perth and Kinross, primary classrooms are at 85 per cent to 88 per cent capacity. The proposed reduction in class sizes would mean a requirement for one third more primary schools—an extra 30 or so in addition to the existing 92. That is just one local authority area. Where will the money come from? Will the SNP cut other budgets or raise taxes? If it is going to raise taxes, by how much? It strikes at the heart of the contradiction in SNP policy.

Some SNP members, such as Andrew Wilson, who has sadly left the chamber, appear to support a low-tax, enterprise-focused Scotland. The party's tourism spokesman was in the papers at the weekend calling for a cut in rates and VAT for tourism enterprises, but the majority of SNP members come to the chamber every week to call for more money to be spent by the Government on every issue under the sun. That is the case today. When will the SNP stand up and tell us what its policy really is?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. There is an annoying whining noise in the chamber that is not just Murdo Fraser. Can something be done about it?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That would be a matter for the sound engineer. I am afraid that that goes beyond the power that I have at my disposal. Mr Fraser will proceed to the best of his ability in the circumstances.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I shall drone on, Presiding Officer.

We did not hear from Mike Russell why SNP councillors in Dumfries and Galloway are voting to close small schools so that the council of whose administration they form part can bid for PPP finance. We did not hear from Mike Russell why SNP-controlled Angus Council closed St Vigean's Primary School in Arbroath and put a threat on Kilry Primary School just outside Kirriemuir. Those things are happening at the grass roots.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Mr Fraser is at the end of his time.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Perhaps Mr Fraser can finish the Kilry story.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

What we need in Scottish education is not pie-in-the-sky proposals from the SNP that cannot be afforded and are simply proposed to get a headline. We do not need a top-down approach, but greater choice and diversity in education and more local decision making, giving more power to parents. If parents decide to make smaller class sizes a priority, all well and good. Those decisions must be taken at a local level. The Scottish Conservatives will continue to address the real issues in education and to propose sensible solutions. We reject the flag-waving we have seen today from the SNP.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 12:23, 7 February 2002

We have had a good debate today and there have been some interesting contributions, although obviously we do not all agree on everything. I was interested to hear Murdo Fraser say that his parents belong to the baby boom generation. I wish that I could claim the same but, sadly, I belong to the same era as Mike Russell, with whom I share an Ayrshire education. We may have had a slightly different experience of Ayrshire education, however.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Perhaps not different outcomes, but different experiences.

I want to address the dividing lines in the debate. Labour and Liberal Democrat members have expressed their clear commitment to improving the overall quality of educational experience for young people. That is our priority. Many members, including Frank McAveety, Johann Lamont, Karen Gillon and possibly Ian Jenkins, said that this is about providing the best opportunities and the best attainment levels for every young person, so that they can fulfil their potential. The priorities that we have set out and the initiatives that we have established are set to deal with that. As Johann Lamont and Karen Gillon said, we do not want a situation in which we simply focus on the arithmetic of the situation, rather than considering the experience of children and young people.

It was a bit disappointing to hear some of the comments from the SNP about the positive initiative of using classroom assistants. If SNP members talk to children, young people, parents and teachers, they will tell them how important that initiative has been. An additional 4,000 adults, all of whom have different skills and experiences, are in classrooms delivering, assisting and working with young people.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I do not have time to take an intervention. I have to move on.

Over the babble that is coming from the back benches, I would like to comment on some of the other points that members have raised. Frank McAveety talked about how the social environment that young people are brought up in can contribute to or hamper their educational opportunities. I echo what he said, particularly in relation to Glasgow. Because he has worked in Glasgow and been a councillor there, Frank knows very well the difficulties of Glasgow City Council and the struggles that it faces in redressing many years of problems. In Glasgow and in other areas, we should focus on what we can do to make a difference to children and young people, rather than the SNP's solution, which is to wait for independence, when everything will be all right. That is clearly not the case.

The Executive wants continued involvement in the new community school programme. Ian Jenkins, Jamie Stone and other members mentioned the need to have other adults and other resources in such schools to support children and young people and to help them to get the best out of school. Like other members, I am a parent. I am the parent of a secondary school pupil who is being educated in a new community school. Like other parents, I have seen the difference in terms of resources and additional support that have gone in to help not just the brightest and most academic children—of course, we want them to go to university and to achieve their full potential—but children with special needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those children are getting the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

That is the kind of education that I had and that Karen Gillon, Frank McAveety and other members had. I want nothing less for the children of the future. I want better opportunities for children in Scotland. We cannot achieve that by focusing on the single strand of class sizes. We must ensure that all the pieces are put together to ensure that education gives everybody that opportunity.

I would like to finish by commenting on some of the work that is being done out there in the real world. I know from visits to schools such as Barrhead High School, Knox Academy and schools in my constituency that those schools have used the flexibility in the curriculum and other opportunities to deal with issues such as the S1 and S2 problem and the transitional phase from P7 to S1.

I see that the Deputy Presiding Officer, who used to teach in my constituency, is looking at me, so I had better wind up.

We have to bring all those strands together. I hope that the SNP will at least acknowledge that we have made significant improvements, as Donald Gorrie outlined. I do not believe in self-congratulation, but we should recognise where we have made progress and what we still need to do. It is the Executive that will deliver that for Scotland's children.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We are now moving into detention time, I am afraid, and Mike Russell has eight minutes.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 12:29, 7 February 2002

To judge from the evidence of the past three and a half years, Labour could not deliver a pizza.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I will not take any interventions from Labour members. It is about time that they sat and listened to some truths.

I have found a number of responses to this debate remarkable. I do not think that it has been a good debate. We have seen a very poor reaction to and misrepresentation of ideas from Labour members, but some points made in the debate stand out in my memory. Johann Lamont is a member of a party that has talked about nothing but targets and what has to be achieved year on year. Now, suddenly, targets are to be abandoned; failing to meet them is not important. It is absolutely remarkable that those were her words.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

The other remarkable point in her speech—and in Frank McAveety's speech—is that they said that much still needs to be done in Glasgow. Which party runs the administration in Glasgow and has run it for generations? Which party has failed Glasgow? The answer is the Labour party.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No I will not, but I will refer to Mr McAveety's remarks about cuts in education in Glasgow. In the past week, Glasgow City Council announced savings of £4,118,500. That includes savings from fewer pupils in primary schools and 25 fewer teachers. If the Labour members listened to the part of my opening speech about the reduction of teacher numbers in primary schools because of falling rolls, they would know that part of the funding for our proposed package could come from such savings.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not give way to Jackie Baillie either.

The SNP members came to the chamber with a carefully crafted set of ideas for debate. The Labour members showed, as they always do, intransigence and an ignorance about debating and discussing ideas that shames the Parliament.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party


It is no wonder that people in Scotland are tired of this Administration and sceptical about the Parliament. The Labour members' ignorance was demonstrated graphically this morning.

I enjoyed Mr Jenkins's contribution. I admire and like Mr Jenkins. He and I have worked closely on a number of matters and we do not differ greatly on the important aspects of life. However, Mr Jenkins has a regrettable tendency to believe what he is told by his coalition partners. He said that he likes good news. In my speech, I welcomed the fall in class sizes, but I said that the evidence reveals that that fall is cosmetic and has not been achieved in key areas. It is important to tell the truth about the situation and not to hide it. Unfortunately, the truth is being hidden.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Rhona Brankin might want a ministerial job again, but she should not try to get it in my time.

I will quote what Mr Fraser said on class sizes because it will come back to haunt him. He said:

"Class sizes are irrelevant to Scottish education".

Teachers and parents will look at that and say, "Back to Dotheboys Hall for the Tories." There is no progress in that philosophy.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Michael Russell deliberately misquoted what I said. I said that in some instances the question of class size is irrelevant. I ask Michael Russell not to misquote me when he is trying to make a point about my argument.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Murdo Fraser has qualified what he said. He said:

"Class sizes are irrelevant to Scottish education".

[Interruption.] As Mr Swinney is pointing out, Murdo Fraser was guilty of a misquotation in his speech. No doubt there will be correspondence about that.

We have heard about pupil-teacher ratios and pupil-adult ratios. There is not the slightest doubt that the best way to proceed is to ensure that pupil-teacher ratios are better than pupil-adult ratios. I do not intend to diminish the work of classroom assistants. One of the most unacceptable moments in the debate was when the Labour members jeered at Colin Campbell for making a perfectly reasonable remark and tribute.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I will not. I have said why.

We must begin to talk about ideas. When parties present ideas, they should be debated.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am not scared of Jackie Baillie in the slightest, but I am scared about the time wasting that comes from her Administration, which lacks purpose and achievement. I am tired of the dishonesty about that that comes from the Administration.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party


What there is is misrepresentation. Labour has been in power in local authorities in Scotland for generations and has been power in Scotland since 1997. Labour has not achieved its targets. It is time that we made real change. The SNP has come to the chamber today with a proposal for real change and ideas about how that could be done. We seek to debate the issue, which is live throughout Scotland—55 per cent of parents want to see that change. We know that it has been a long-held view of the educational union for years. We know that many things can be done and I am not against all those being done, but this is the key change that could make a difference. All we hear is misrepresentation, girning and self-justification.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. Labour members have had their opportunity today and they have blown it.

We must consider the matter closely, plan for the future and more than anything else—I say this from the SNP benches; we are the only people who believe it—in Scotland we must have some ambition and vision for the future. If ever there was a debate in this Parliament that proved that the only ambition and the only vision come from the SNP, this was that debate. Sorry, I include Mr Harper in that, because he asked—

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Does Michael Russell agree with me that the Executive should be challenged yet again to explain, if it accepts for teaching reasons that there must be class sizes of no more than 20 for practical subjects, why that does not apply, for some reason or other, to primary schools?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Robin Harper is absolutely correct. Of course, he will receive no answer to that question, because there is no answer to it.

One of the worst aspects of the debate was when we entered into the realms of discussing education. What we heard from Labour members was a retreat into the gulag. Their argument was that the only thing that mattered was to get their pet projects through. I remind this Executive that we are here to serve the people of Scotland. On the evidence of this debate, the people who are least able to do that are not just the Conservatives—although I liked Jamie McGrigor's speech—but the Labour party in this Executive. It is the deadweight on Scottish education and it is time that it went.