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Class Sizes - Too Big or Too Small?


What is the ideal class size? Thirty seems to have become the normal number of pupils - but could this be too high, and even prove an impediment to effective teaching? How can one teacher possibly educate such a large number? Can they gauge the understanding of each and every pupil? There will surely not be enough time for them to attend to each and every student`s needs - and so their teaching manner will tend to assume that any one who doesn`t courageously ask for assistance has completely understood the lesson.

In an ideal world perhaps each pupil would have their own teacher, or even a host of teachers. With this focused attention the lessons could be moulded to suit their character. We all learn differently, and with time to spend teaching just one pupil, teachers would be able to pinpoint just what parts of the lesson their student is having trouble understanding.

This ideal of one to one teaching is of course unlikely to become a reality any time soon - though it could be argued that home schooled children, and indeed those receiving regular private tuition, do enjoy some aspects of it already.

The latest Labour party press release has stated that 12% of primary schools have class sizes of between 31 and 35. Government figures revel that 1% of primary school pupils are in classes of 36 or more. The education sector has ruled that no key stage one child (age five to seven) should be taught in a class with more than 30 pupils. This is supposed to be a strict ruling, allowing exceptions only in rare cases, such as twins or siblings wishing to remain in the same class, or when a child who has been placed in care requires a place.

The 2016 school census shows that the majority of KS1 classes contain 29 or 30 pupils; and of those with more than 30, 95% have no more than 32 pupils. In secondary school class sizes remain roughly the same, averaging around 30 pupils. By Keystage five however, it is not uncommon for classes to be drastically smaller, especially at A level. In my history class there were only four of us. I can well remember the striking contrast between my general studies class, which had about 25 boisterous pupils, and my history lessons, which were conducted in a relaxed and rarefied atmosphere. I felt somehow more valued as an academic, learning in this environment, where the teacher called us by our first names, and would be able to spend considerable time with each of us, if we found ourselves struggling over a certain topic. No time was wasted with petty classroom disturbances: the preceding general studies lesson was always marred by some recalcitrant pupil causing disruption. The four of us we were always on our best behaviour - indeed, we were eager to learn, to take part in the spontaneous discussions that were a feature of most lessons, and which the teacher always encouraged. Was Napoleon a hero, or a tyrant? Did he betray the libertarian values of the French Revolution by crowning himself Emperor? By debating such topics we took an active role in our own education, found our own confidence, our own voices. In a class of thirty such debates would probably have got out of hand, and the teacher would be reluctant to try such an unconventional teaching method.

What must not be forgotten is that acquiring social skills at school is just as important as the academic learning that takes place there. We can enumerate the benefits of smaller class sizes, and even one on one home schooling; but if we reduce the number of peers children are interacting with, we may well be denying them the opportunities to develop necessary social abilities. Besides this, many influential studies, conducted by respected organisations such as the Grattan Institute, McKinsey & Company, and the Brookings Institution, imply that, within certain bounds, class size is not a particularly important factor in the efficacy of teaching. The Sutton Trust published a paper in 2011, which was quite clear in its findings:

`the benefits of reducing class sizes are not particularly large or clear, until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15`. Hiring more teaching assistants meanwhile is associated with very small or no effects on attainment.`

Evidence supporting this claim would be the large (often 40+) class sizes in east Asian regions such as Hong Kong and Shanghai - two regions that reach the top of the Pisa rankings. To further confuse the matter, when a test group was surveyed by the Sutton Trust, 73% of the teachers were adamant that reducing class size would greatly help pupils.

Perhaps we want a simple formula - a nice inverse relationship between class size and the quality of the lesson delivered. This enables politicians to make judgemental phrases, and promising pledges. Speaking in Swindon this month, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said:

`Half a million children are now being taught in super-size classes of over 36.`

This was actually a vastly inaccurate figure - 42,000 is the accepted amount, that being 1% of children. We should be focusing on the quality of teaching, rather than simply looking at the number of children in a classroom. A bad teacher is unlikely to find new passion for their profession if their class is shrunk; and a good pupil may still excel even if their class increases in size.

19 months ago
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