Mike Russell deal rips up SNP's schools pledges

THE Scottish Government's education policy was in chaos last night, after it ripped up two key election pledges in an attempt to broker a peace deal on class sizes.

• Mike Russell had talks with council leaders about new deal. Picture: TSPL

New education secretary Mike Russell held talks with council leaders about a new deal which, if agreed, could mean 11,000 more pupils in primary one to three taught in class sizes of 18 or fewer by next August. In return, the Scottish Government would give councils flexibility over bringing in free school meals, allowing them to introduce the policy in the most deprived areas first.

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But the offer would result in only one in five P1-P3 pupils being taught in the smaller classes – far short of the original target, which was to cut class sizes for all children in that age group within the term of this parliament – and at the cost of rolling back the intention to offer free meals to all primary school children.

The offer, made to local authority umbrella group Cosla, but yet to be accepted by councils, came on the eve of the publication of a damning report that reveals 80 per cent of newly qualified teachers in Scotland have failed to find a permanent teaching job.

The jobs crisis was created after councils cut teacher numbers in an effort to save money in the recession, despite the Scottish Government having promised to maintain teacher numbers at 53,000 in the face of falling rolls, so that class sizes could be reduced.

Mr Russell's offer comes less than two weeks after he took over as education secretary.

His predecessor, Fiona Hyslop, was sacked from the post after she blamed councils for a drop in teacher numbers and threatened to strip them of responsibility for education.

Announcing his offer last night, Mr Russell said: "Intensive discussions over the last week between representatives of Cosla and the Scottish Government have produced a framework for further sustained progress between now and 2011 on the key concordat education commitments."

He went on: "This framework will now be discussed with the leaders of Scotland's local authorities. Cosla will feed back their views with the aim of securing a renewed and strengthened agreement focusing on delivery at a time of increasing financial pressure on the Scottish Government and on local authorities, given the reductions in public expenditure being forced by Westminster."

Mr Russell said when he took over as education secretary that his "first pledge was to re-set the relationship with Cosla, in order to achieve real progress on key priorities, including class sizes".

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He added that, with both the Scottish Government and local authorities facing an "unprecedented budget squeeze", there was a need for "a clear proposal for a way forward".

Labour claimed last night that the SNP had ripped up its election manifesto and the concordat arrangement with local authorities that allowed councils a greater degree of freedom over their budgets.

"This is a damning admission by the SNP of their failure to deliver the big promises they made," Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said.

Des McNulty, the party's education spokesman, said: "Mike Russell has come into this job and has dismantled virtually every education commitment that the SNP made in 2007.

"The class size pledge has been massively downgraded, the free school meals pledge has been hugely scaled back and, along with teacher numbers plummeting, the SNP can never be trusted on education again."

He went on: "Councils will now have to consider this arrangement, but the SNP's reputation on education is now in tatters."

In a letter sent out last night to council leaders, Cosla president Pat Watters and education spokeswoman, Isabel Hutton, said: "What has changed is that for the first time the Cabinet secretary has been explicit about progress and would like to see a further 11,000 children across Scotland in classes of this size, increasing the percentage of children in this situation to some 20 per cent.

"This represents a further 7 per cent on the current position."

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A Cosla spokesman said: "There isn't a deal as such – we have an outline of a proposal we are happy to put to council leaders, but it will be up to them to decide."

Local authority bosses have been asked to respond to the deal by Monday.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS union, said: "What really matters is making sure there are absolutely robust methods of bringing down class sizes.

"We would still make the argument that the government should introduce regulations or legislation so we can have confidence that we will see the reduction in class sizes they promised."

Only a fifth of new teachers going straight into classroom

THE latest survey of teachers carried out by the profession's governing body, the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), today reveals the number of newly qualified teachers finding work has fallen to just 20 per cent.

The damning statistics, coming just days after government figures showed teacher numbers overall are plummeting, prompted critics to accuse the Scottish Government of throwing new teachers on the scrapheap.

Only 20.2 per cent of probationers found full-time permanent work this year, compared to 30.6 per cent last year, according to the GTCS statistics.

Tony Finn, chief executive of the GTCS, said he was concerned about the fall in teacher jobs.

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He said: "As the professional regulatory body for teachers, we are concerned that the numbers of new teachers in employment has dropped steadily in recent years.

"We have a new cabinet secretary for education who will no doubt wish to take steps to ensure that new teachers are not lost to the profession."

Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said it was a waste of public money as teachers can cost up to 30,000 to train fully.