For the teacher unions, there was a manna-like quality to the Government's bungling over class sizes this week. Over the past few years, despite their best efforts, they have failed to stir public discontent over policies such as the introduction of national standards.

Whatever the unions argued, parents showed themselves, by and large, to be only too keen to know more about their children's progress at school. The Government had good reason to be confident this support would continue as it sought to implement further aspects of its education policy. Now, however, one mishap has brought that expectation crashing down.

In reality, it was always going to be somewhat difficult to sell the concept of slightly bigger class sizes in return for a higher quality of teaching. This went against the classroom trend over the past few decades. It was also easy to argue, with some justification, that the initiative would limit the potential for the one-on-one tuition provided by smaller classes.

Parents were always going to take some convincing even if, as the Government initially suggested, the policy would involve the vast majority of schools gaining or having a net loss of less than one fulltime equivalent teacher.


But any explanation became altogether more difficult when, after the Budget, it was revealed that, because of flawed modelling, some intermediate schools faced losing up to seven teachers. The Prime Minister's subsequent assurance that these schools would not lose more than two teachers over the next three years averted an immediate public relations disaster. It is, however, far from the end of the story.

The initial modelling, undertaken, presumably, without too much time pressure, could not be done without faults creeping in. Thus, there is little prospect that an essentially off-the-cuff response to these flaws will not have some unthought and unsought consequences.

More fires may yet have to be fought by the Government. Further, the backdown has ruled out much of the anticipated $43 million in savings each year over four years thanks to smaller class sizes, which was to have been spent on enhancing teacher quality. With that rationale gone, education groups have fertile ground to suggest there is no point in pursuing the original policy.

They have, of course, not been slow to seize upon this. Their ambition is not simply to prevent bigger class sizes but other initiatives on the Education Minister's agenda. These include the development of a new teacher appraisal system, a requirement for all trainee teachers to have a postgraduate qualification, and, potentially, the introduction of performance pay to recognise and reward teacher excellence.

All these deserve a strong measure of public support. It would be unfortunate, therefore, if the Government were to back off because of one instance of mismanagement.

Indeed, most parents could probably finally be persuaded to accept slightly larger class sizes in exchange for higher-quality teaching if it was clear this would not be detrimental to pupil achievement. This is surely achievable, even though the strident talk of teacher unions will seek to convince the public otherwise.

First, however, the Government must win back public confidence for its policies. Education groups will ensure the case is rigorously tested. But for the sake of parents, their children and the implementation of policies promoting excellence in education, it is important that it is achieved.