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It's not just about size, it's the way you teach

Classroom numbers are a pressing political issue but cuts are not an answer in themselves, says Ewan Aitken

FRIEND was once primary 4 in its entirety. This was when the family lived on a remote island where the total school roll numbered six. It was a profound experience for them, but they would not want it for their children. They tell me that they experienced the extremes of both total teacher attention and an enormous sense of isolation, missing something special about learning with their peers.

I should say that I am simply reflecting that person's experience and I would not want to extrapolate from it in any way to make pejorative assumptions about small rural schools.

Class sizes are very much in the political limelight. One party has nailed its colours to achieving class sizes of 18. The Educational Institute of Scotland has set out its stall at 20 or fewer as a major plank of its manifesto. My own authority has achieved our pledge of an adult-pupil ratio of 1:15 in primaries with all primary 1-3s having a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:30 or better.

That last sentence symbolises the conundrum that an aspiration towards smaller class sizes makes all political parties face. We could have achieved a target of all P1-P3 classes with fewer than 30 but physical space has, in some cases, made that impossible at present. Some classes have 33 children but more than one teacher.

As I read the research on this subject, however, it becomes clear that the efficacy of an adult-child ratio is different to that of a teacher-child ratio. This again is different in efficacy to that of a class size reduction with one teacher.

None of these scenarios is bad, but they do produce different results in different ways - which just goes to show that statistics by themselves tell us very little. Politicians and the public alike are beginning to grasp that truth.

Having said all that, size, to coin a phrase, does matter. Everyone believes that smaller classes make a difference. What is fascinating, however, is the veritable paucity of evidence.

Much of the research is American, the major research work being the Tennessee-based Star project which tracked 7,000 children from 80 schools beginning in 1985. It did show significant difference in test performances by children from smaller classes.

Two things are not yet evidenced in great detail, however. How transferable is that to the Scottish context and was it just the smaller class that made the difference?

One major Scottish-based analysis is the report from the Scottish Council for Research in Education. Its conclusions point to a more complex set of factors. In particular, for class size reduction to really work, what actually made the difference were changes in teaching practices rather than teachers simply doing the same as before but with smaller numbers.

Put simply, it is not just size but technique that matters also. And in this case that will mean changes in teaching practices. Is that part of the manifesto of those championing smaller classes at all costs?

This begs the question: could we achieve some of the results which appear to be connected to smaller class sizes without requiring a massive drop in numbers through the introduction of some of those techniques through teacher training or changing the role and training of classroom assistants?

Smaller classes do make a difference but not as an end in themselves. The cost of dropping class sizes by the huge numbers suggested is enormous. No Scottish figures have been produced but one study estimated a pound;2 billion bill to achieve classes of 20 across the board in England.

The SCRE study suggested that there are other ways of achieving individualised learning (which is not the same as individual attention), which seems to be the factor that makes the real difference, than simply by dropping all class sizes in a "one size fits all" model.

The power of individualised access to ICT to engage pupils in individualised learning based on a combination of whole-class teaching, group collaboration and individual work, without huge drops in class sizes, is one example of an alternative approach.

Class sizes do need to fall. No one would argue with that. But the results we all aspire to require much more than one, number-based, solution. The education experience is too complex a process for a simplistic answer based on statistics alone.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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