SNP accused of U-turn on class sizes

Ministers accused of breaking election pledge by setting limit at 25 pupils
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Scottish ministers are to introduce new legislation that will cap primary school classes at 25 pupils despite accusations of a major U-turn on education policy.

Announced yesterday, the move came barely two years after a key SNP manifesto pledge to reduce the first three years of primary school classes to a maximum size of 18, a proposal that many believe was instrumental in steering the party to an election victory.

Yesterday the Scottish Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, denied the plan was a weakening of the manifesto promise, arguing that the limit would provide a "backstop" for local authorities that are facing increasing legal challenges from parents to push class sizes up to their current limit of 30 under Scottish law. This is the same as the legal limit in England and Wales.

The pressure for new legislation follows a string of successful legal cases by parents against councils that were implementing a 25-pupil limit policy and denied places to their children on the basis that classes were full. The new legal cap of 25 is expected to be introduced by the beginning of the next academic year. Ms Hyslop added that a review of class-size policy across all ages would see how the rules could be made "more coherent".

Ms Hyslop said that the legislation was designed to "support smaller class sizes" and put the framework in place towards reducing numbers in the future, though she declined to say when the promise of no more than 18 pupils per class might be met.

Opposition parties were quick to attack the move, branding the announcement as proof that the government had abandoned one of its main election pledges. Scottish Labour said that the SNP had intended to adopt a 25-pupil policy and claimed this proved the original figure of 18 had been "ripped up and thrown away". The party's education spokeswoman, Rhona Brankin, said that while the recent legislative programme did not refer to class sizes, "the cull of the 18 class size pledge has been on the cards for months".

Reducing class sizes to 18 has proved a persistent struggle for Ms Hyslop, with the recession squeezing public spending and local authorities, such as Glasgow, reluctant to enforce the plan due to financial constraints.

Liz Smith, the Scottish Tory schools spokeswoman, said the SNP had misled parents and "was only interested in conning the electorate".

The Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, Margaret Smith, said the SNP had admitted defeat over its flagship education policy. "SNP ministers have failed to deliver the legislation, the funding, or the teachers for councils to reduce class sizes across Scotland in line with this pledge."

But the move was welcomed by Marilyne MacLaren, education convenor of the SNP-Liberal Democrat coalition, who branded the current system "a dog's breakfast". Implementing a legal limit of 25 would allow councils to enforce the policy without fear of reprisals.

However her approval came with reservations. Ms MacLaren warned in large cities, such as Edinburgh, the policy would be impossible to implement because of lack of space for extra classrooms, high numbers of children living within the catchment area, or spending restrictions among local councils.