By Amreen Pathan
Question: does size matter in the classroom?
According to Professor Peter Blatchford, co-author of ‘Rethinking Class Size: The complex story of impact on teaching and learning’, size matters.
The book as an authority on this matter is well-founded bearing in mind the 20 years of systematic observation, case studies and extensive research it is based on.
The correlation between class size and progress and achievement has been the subject of much debate for much of this century. Whilst OFSTED and the DfE claim that there is no link between the two, educators, teacher unions and some research groups argue the opposite end of the stick. It is evident that the issue is a polarising one with findings supporting both sides.
Before we delve into the arguments, what are the statistics regarding UK class sizes in recent years?
- Research carried out by the Department for Education (DfE) shows the average class size rose to 22 in secondary schools, which puts class sizes at their largest in nearly 20 years.
- The class sizes for infant schools (Reception-Year 2) however have decreased from 27.4 in 2015 to 26.6 according to data published by GOV.UK in June 2021.
It is worth noting that an infant class is considered large when it exceeds 30 pupils. Interestingly, there is no statutory limit for any other class size in primary or secondary.
By the nature of the comparison from 2015 to 2021, the figure is evidently much improved for infant school at least. However, isn’t 27 young children per teacher still too large a number?
Well it certainly is if we compare the data to independent school figures. Schools in the private sector boast an advantage of small class sizes with the average class size being 18. And that is just an average. Some independent schools host classes with a pupil sum even significantly less than that.
An average class size of 18 is 10 less pupils compared to a class in public schools. So what exactly are the effects of bigger class sizes and why does size matter so much?
Five reasons why size matters
Let’s start with the most obvious ones:
- The bigger the class, the busier the teacher with ‘housekeeping’. What does this mean? There are more print outs to be made, more books to be handed out, more resources to be organised, more homework to be collected and so forth. Anybody can do the math; the more time spent on housekeeping, the less time there is for qualitative interaction.
- The amount of individual attention that a teacher can provide a pupil naturally decreases in larger class sizes. This is because their time has to be divided amongst a greater number. There can never be a fair allocation of how much time can be spent on individual pupils and with bigger class sizes; teachers are forced to select pupils on a need for need basis.
- Teaching to a whole class with a larger number is difficult in terms of differentiation and teachers may find themselves generally teaching to the average or middle ability of the cohort. This is at the expense of stretching and challenging higher ability pupil and offering individual support to lower ability pupils.
- Research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) about Key Stage 1 class sizes reveals that the scope and type of activities in larger classes was limited compared to smaller classes.
A teacher participating in the research voiced the following: “Some things you just can’t do. For a start, there is more time needed for settling and thus less time for teaching and learning. Some activities are rejected…because of lack of adult supervision. You cannot ask them to work together and stay quiet, so have some groups active, and others thinking, only works with a relatively small class, of about 25.”
What this indicates is that there is less room for creative and practical approaches with larger cohorts because coverage of topics may take longer, more adult supervision is required, physical space may be restricted and overall pace may be slower.
As well as a restricted range of teaching strategies, assessment opportunity and feedback is affected too. First of all, there is the impracticality of ‘providing prompt and sufficient feedback’, time restrictions on alternative assessment formats and inconsistency in marking across larger groups.
- Larger classes require more teacher discipline. This is not necessarily, because larger classes are more unruly but because there is a greater number of pupils vying for teacher attention that they are rightly entitled to. There is also more space for disruption because of the close physical proximity between greater groups of children.
Much ado about nothing?
Does the above mean that bigger classes are completely impractical and should be avoided at all costs?
Not at all.
Teaching and learning consists of a thousand different variables amongst one of which is class sizes.
There are also arguments to be made in favour of larger class sizes. For example:
- A larger cohort means there is more opportunity for discussion and sharing of ideas. I teach both a class of 23 and a class of 6 and I find my most enjoyable lessons with that of the former. This is because there are more pupils to share their different ideas and raise different questions. Smaller classes tend to be quieter and social interaction is definitely limited.
- Teachers may become reliant on self-directed activities and group work rather than direct teaching just because of how manageable a reduced class size is.
- Pupils too may become more reliant on being ‘spoon-fed’ as teacher support is readily accessible.
So larger cohorts is not necessarily a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs.
There is inevitably however some reduction in the quality of teaching and learning when the class sizes are bigger and this probably also has something to do with the stress teachers have to contend with when report writing, planning, marking and behaviour managing. The paperwork itself is endless.
And something must give if parents are willing to pay up to £45 for private one-to-one tuition in cities like London and Manchester as well as in affluent areas like Oxfordshire and the like.
Are you a teacher yourself? What experiences can you share about class sizes and effective teaching strategies? Or perhaps you are a parent? Can you see your child thriving more in smaller class sizes?
I would love to hear your thoughts. Share and comment below!
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