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Big is beautiful - except when it's quite unrealistic

Life's a bitch and then you die. You've seen it on scores of toilet walls - though let's face it, anyone in further education has long since ceased to take such an unreservedly optimistic view of their lot.

The adage came to mind the other day when reading the latest pronouncement from an FE luminary. This time it was Terry Melia, grand inquisitor (sorry, chief inspector) for the Further Education Funding Council, writing about class size in his annual report.

According to Dr Melia, FE classes are still too small. Unrealistically small is how he actually terms it. Faced with continuing budget cuts, it seems colleges have been pruning teaching hours rather than pushing up the sizes of classes. Shorter hours, the wisdom runs, impede student learning. Bigger classes do not.

This is not, of course, a thought original to Mr Melia. Roger Ward, boss of the newly-formed Association of Colleges, was saying something very similar just the other day. So clearly it's the line of the moment - and you can be sure we'll be hearing a lot more about it in the future.

Now class size is one of those areas where people tend to believe the "evidence" they want to believe. Thus government ministers (who are prepared to believe anything as long as it can be used to justify spending less on the fripperies of life, such as health and education) latch on to last year's OFSTED report and its finding that no clear link exists between the number of pupils in a class and the quality of education provided.

Let us not forget, however, that we're talking politicians here. And that their enthusiasm for large classes only stretches as far as other people's children. For their own, you can bet your life they're still to be found in the cosseted classes - the smaller ones - of the private sector.

Those of us somewhat nearer the front line of education tend to look for other verities. So instead of the truth according to chief inspector Chris Woodhead, we go for the Nottingham University researchers who have rubbished OFSTED's methods as being "unreliable", "methodologically suspect" and "superficial and incomplete". It's wonderful stuff if that's what you're looking for. Here's some more from project leader Dr Christopher Day: "(OFSTED's) uncritical use of its own inspection results as research data means that it conducts the debate entirely within its own 'official' definition of what constitutes quality teaching and learning. It selects from the available information to support a narrow, predetermined 'official' definition of quality."

Large classes, the Nottingham team suggests, do matter. They have a bad effect on the way kids behave and lead to absenteeism, stress and burn-out among teachers. Or to put it another way, big classes damage your health. Anyone who's been in teaching for more than five minutes could tell you that.

Most of the investigations in this area have been based upon schools. In FE, class size presents additional problems. Unlike schools, most colleges can't predict from one year to the next precisely how big their classes are going to be. You set up your programme based on your best guess and then hope that they'll be at least 15 takers for each class - not 50, or five.

Classes that don't recruit in sufficient numbers often get closed even at present. The chief inspector suggests that we might close more. Where that leaves you with the lecturers you've lined up to teach them is another matter. It's a particular problem if the teachers concerned are full-timers. Full-timers need full timetables. Even in post-incorporation FE, they can't be sacked on the spot. Not yet they can't be, anyway.

But what if they are part-time? What, in particular, if the college concerned has drawn upon that vast and growing pool of the under-paid and over-exploited known as agency staff? Won't that solve the problem? We all of us know it's the way things are going.

One principal was even suggesting last week that soon colleges will have to be staffed entirely by agency people, give or take the odd manager, just to enable them to pay their pensions bill!

So, you cut and slash, stack and merge. Ship in the extra desks and pile 'em high. Then you can happily wave goodbye to half your agency bods as surplus to requirements.

There's only one fly in the ointment. Consider the following news item from The TES of two weeks ago: "An over-reliance on part-time teachers is threatening standards in colleges, warns Terry Melia, chief inspector for the Further Education Funding Council." And no prizes for guessing where the story originates: a certain annual report, that self-same report so damning of "unrealistic" class sizes.

Life's a bitch? Not half, eh, Dr Melia?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in a London FE college.

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