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Deal or no deal

Brian Taylor | 11:47 UK time, Friday, 11 December 2009

Who knows what's best when it comes to children's education? Central or local government? Whose writ runs? Who takes the decisions?

Those are the questions which underpin the intriguing developments in the controversy over class sizes.

In essence, the new Education Secretary Mike Russell has offered a deal.

In return for councils shifting more rapidly towards the government's objective on class sizes, he'll cut them slack on other policies: free school meals and kinship carers.

Let's remind ourselves of the basics. Herewith the SNP manifesto promise on class sizes: "We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to 18 pupils or less to give children more time with their teacher at this vital stage of their development."

Progress has been relatively slow in delivering this.

Some councils say they haven't got the cash.

More fundamentally, others say the policy is misplaced.

So, according to the councils, it's can't play, won't play.

For smaller class sizes, you need more teachers.

The issue was brought to a head when the previous Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop condemned council performance on teacher recruitment and retention as "unacceptable".

As is customary, her speech was canvassed and discussed in advance.

Apparently, councils let it be known that the word "unacceptable" was.....unacceptable.

They indicated they would regard it as a declaration of hostilities, by contrast with the comradeship of the concordat between central and local government.

Exasperated at the lack of progress, Ms Hyslop delivered her speech intact, indicating further that she might have to consider removing education from council control.

The councils duly responded with cold anger.

Enter Mike Russell. He wants to "reset" the relationship with the local authorities.

But he makes clear - apparently, very clear - that the councils simply must move much more rapidly towards the SNP manifesto commitment on class sizes.

In return, he'll allow them to prioritise the provision of free school meals to deprived areas - instead of moving towards universal coverage.

Further, the meal can be breakfast or brunch instead of lunch.

Then there's the issue of "kinship carers": where a member of the child's extended family provides support.

Councils are being enjoined to extend payments for that care.

In essence, the government is saying that the local authorities can regard their progress on this issue thus far as sufficient.

In practice, they won't need to do more - although, formally, further progress is regarded as a worthwhile aim.

So where are we? At Holyrood, opposition leaders say it's a succession of humiliating departures from the SNP manifesto.

Ministers insist they are driving forward their policy and ensuring clear progress, given the tight new constraints on spending.

It looks as if the Scottish government will fall short on class sizes.

Even if councils deliver the new deal - which is 11,000 more pupils in small classes by August 2010 - that will mean coverage for only 20% of the relevant school population.

To be fair, the pledge on school meals is rather different. The manifesto only promised pilots in P1-3 plus an extension of the policy to other children in circumstances of deprivation, defined by the receipt of benefits.

Ministers can argue that has been achieved.

Again, on kinship care, the manifesto promise was limited. It was to expand kinship care, where that is possible.

But that still leaves the class sizes pledge. Councils are now enjoined to make further progress, deploying the cash saved by the other concessions.

Will it work? Not everywhere, it seems. The largest authority, Glasgow, is still opposed in principle and practice to the policy.

Glasgow says it already offers free breakfasts.

Ironically, Glasgow plans to go in the other direction, levyng 50p on breakfast clubs - although those entitled to free meals will, of course, pay no charge.

So Glasgow says the new flexibility makes no difference to them. Further, the city believes the policy is wrong in principle.

It conducted a survey into education provision which argued that the evidence on lower class sizes was shaky, concluding that any benefit in early years was wiped out unless it was maintained throughout school life.

Glasgow, in short, says it will not budge unless it is compelled by statute or by financial sanction of the type that enforced the council tax freeze.

Ministers insist there is robust evidence that small class sizes in early years give children the best possible foundation for their education.

Which brings us back to the opening question. Whose writ runs?

The government will say it is entitled to pursue the manifesto upon which it fought a national election.

Councils like Glasgow may say they are elected to run local services in their area.


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