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Giant leaps on a small scale

Class sizes in primary schools have continued to rise over the past decade. The number of classes with fewer than 20 children has fallen by half, and nearly a quarter of all classes now contain more than 30. Class sizes in secondary schools, in contrast, have remained relatively constant, indeed the percentage of classes over 30 has fallen to only 5 per cent. The House of Commons Select Committee on education concluded that the disparity in funding between primary and secondary schools was too large and should be reduced by distributing any increase in funding disproportionately in favour of primary schools.

Unfortunately the Government, in its response, abrogated any responsibility for bridging the funding gap and repeated its oft-rehearsed argument that there is no evidence linking class size and pupil achievement. This is true in Britain only because not one, well-controlled, study of class size and achievement has been carried out.

But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is in fact a substantial body of evidence derived largely from studies carried out in the United States.

The most recent and most definitive study, Project STAR, in the state of Tennessee, followed more than 7,000 pupils in 79 schools through the whole of their primary career. These children were randomly allocated on entry to school to one of three kinds of class for the first four years - a small class, defined as between 15 and 18 pupils, a regular class with an average size of 25, or a regular class with a full-time teacher aide. An extensive testing programme was undertaken including achievement measures on maths, reading and language together with measures such as discipline, attendance, self-concept and participation.

The findings of this huge, long-itudinal study were significant, consistent, even monotonous. The effect of class size in each of the first four grade levels was found in all locations - urban, suburban and rural. The average advantage that pupils in small classes gained in maths and reading was in the order of two or three months. The achievements of minority pupils was even more marked: at the end of the first grade (at six or seven) 17 per cent more minority pupils passed the reading tests if they were in small rather than in regular, or regular with teacher aide, classes.

These benefits were achieved without any additional teacher training. Also noteworthy, given the Government's interest in teaching assistants, was the consistent finding that classes with teacher aides performed no better than classes without them.

Did these benefits of early intervention last? When they transferred to regular classes in grades 4 and 5 those pupils previously in small size classes had significant advantages on every set of measurements taken. The greatest were for inner-city and suburban classes. Thus the positive effect of early involvement in a small class remained pervasive two years after children returned to regular size classes. These benefits also extended to measures such as participation in clubs and music and involvement in lessons.

Project STAR, and the subsequent follow-up study in grades 4 and 5, has been called the most significant educational research done in the US in the past 25 years, and leaves no doubt that small classes have an advantage over larger classes in reading, mathematics and pupil involvement throughout the primary grades, an advantage which is particularly strong in the first two years. The authors therefore argued that the best hope yet of achieving educational excellence is to reduce class size in the first two years of schooling.

The results of this study are not easily generalised, particularly since their definition of a small class is so small compared with those in Britain. Nevertheless the consistent and significant continuing impact on achievement and behaviour of a reduction of some eight to 10 pupils per class deserves attention.

Decreases in class size are extremely expensive and are therefore unlikely in a climate of public sector cuts.

However, a compromise might be a planned reduction in the size of reception classes as a first step. The resulting learning boost would not only benefit learners and teachers alike, but would also be good value for money.

Neville Bennett is Professor of Education at Exeter University.

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