Schools (Class Sizes)

Question Time — Scottish Executive — Education and Young People, Tourism, Culture and Sport – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:00 pm on 2nd December 2004.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent 2:00 pm, 2nd December 2004

To ask the Scottish Executive what recent discussions it has had about reducing class sizes. (S2O-4313)

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I have regular discussions with local authority and teacher representatives on several educational issues, including class sizes.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

Does the minister agree that many classes are far too big? For example, is he aware that according to the Executive's latest figures, in secondary schools in the Falkirk area, 47 per cent of first-year maths classes and 55 per cent of second-year maths classes have 30 or more pupils? Instead of allowing head teachers to dilute the partnership commitment to reduce such class sizes to a maximum of 20, will he fulfil the commitment by increasing teacher recruitment and giving local authorities additional resources to employ more teachers, to improve educational opportunities for pupils in our schools?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am glad to be able to satisfy Dennis Canavan on all those counts. The Executive is firmly committed to reducing class sizes in secondary 1 and 2 maths and English in particular, precisely because we think that classes are too big. That is part of our commitment to have 53,000 teachers in our schools, even though school rolls are falling. We are on track to meet that commitment.

We have increased teacher training places by 700 this year and in the subject to which Dennis Canavan referred—maths—we are training 80 per cent more teachers this year than we did last year. In the past two weeks, I have given education authorities an extra £60 million to build extra classrooms to house extra teachers. We have in place the budget to train those teachers and to pay their salaries. Everything is in place to meet the targets by 2007. Far from being given latitude to dilute that commitment, head teachers will have latitude to go further and to cut class sizes more, provided that that is in the educational interests of pupils.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

I was pleased to hear what the minister said. In allowing head teachers more flexibility over class sizes and providing on-going information, will he undertake always to keep teachers informed, particularly through the Educational Institute of Scotland and other trade unions?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Not only will teachers be kept informed, I hope they will play an active part in national and local discussions about how we provide the flexibility for which head teachers and schools have asked. It is good professional practice for head teachers to seek to involve teachers in the discussion of potential changes to class sizes in their schools. That is very much the spirit in which I want progress to be made.

Once we have in place all the resources that I outlined to Dennis Canavan, we want to ensure that head teachers can on occasion consider cutting some class sizes further, provided that doing so does not disadvantage other pupils. That ought to be a professional judgment between the head teacher and the class teachers to do the right thing by the kids in a school. I therefore hope that teachers will be actively involved in the process.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

Are falling school rolls not having more impact on class sizes than are Executive policies to boost the number of teachers? Several news stories in the past few weeks have suggested that a shortage of teachers persists, not least in Glasgow. Given that driving down class sizes is the key to improvements in attainment and discipline in school education, will the minister undertake to review the measures that he is taking to increase teacher supply, rather than twisting and turning on matters of flexibility?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I do not for one minute think that I am twisting and turning on matters of flexibility. Our policy is clear and I will reiterate it. We have given the extra cash to build the extra classrooms to house the extra teachers whom we are recruiting. We have in position all the places in our universities to train those extra teachers and we have all the money to pay their salaries. Given that everything is on track, it is right that we should examine how we might advance our policy even further with some local flexibility. Indeed, last week the First Minister quoted the SNP spokesperson speaking in support of that policy rather than opposing it. I hope that we will get support from the SNP.

Fewer than 1 per cent of all teacher posts in Scotland are still advertised after three months, so we do not have a big national problem with teacher shortages. Mechanisms have been put in place to plan the type of teacher we require and what type of subject we require to be taught, in advance of any shortage that we see coming.

I accept that there are localised shortages, but local authorities are working hard to resolve that through their supply provision. However, not only do we not have an overall problem, we are supplying extra teachers to make sure that with the combination of falling school rolls and extra teachers, we can make use of an unprecedented opportunity to reduce class sizes more than we had planned.