Small classes are the answer to disruption

A cut in pupil numbers will lead to better behaviour and learning, not streaming and setting, says Henry Maitles

GOING round schools is undoubtedly the best part of my job because the 30 or so a year that I visit give an insight into what teachers are thinking in a way that few others can get. Early May found me in a school where, because of sporting commitments, the mixed-ability S2 class was reduced to some 17 pupils instead of the "normal" high 20s. The (almost qualified) student perceptively half apologised during our reflective discussion as to how well it went because the class was (in British terms) so small.

The atmosphere was good, the lesson was innovative, the student was able to spend time with all groups and all students, behaviour was great, the kids participated, the teacher relaxed, there was humour, the kids knew more at the end than the student was expecting, the student was enthused and the lesson was a model.

Now I am not saying that you can't do this with classes of 30; you can but it is so much harder, the lessons so much more problematic that there is a tendency to be safer and more boring just to get through the day. For most teachers the problem is not mixing ability, it is disruption; and in particular disruption and bad behaviour in the big mixed-ability classes.

Research in England suggests that where the alienated disruptive element reaches about 25 per cent, then good teachers become disciplinarian and weaker teachers begin to sink. In either case the quality of education is seriously reduced. With smaller classes this does not happen in the same way. If a quarter of your 16 pupils are problematic, they can be dealt with in a way that does not ruin the experience for the rest.

It is the inability or lack of will of those in charge of education to deal with class sizes (McCrone didn't even contemplate it) that leads to other solutions, all cheaper but with serious drawbacks.

The most obvious way is through setting or streaming but there are such obvious drawbacks that we cannot, as the Scottish Executive suggests, just let schools get on with it and see what happens. We can understand the frustration of teachers faced with large classes who see setting as a solution. Yet regularly the setting is as much, if not more, a factor of disruption as of ability.

But what about social inclusion? What about educational inequalities? What about those low ability pupils who find themselves in more difficult classes, full of alienated and badly behaved pupils? Those teachers arguing for streaming and setting are making a virtue out of a poor response to the problem of large classes. Clearly the evidence from the United States, where the benefits of smaller classes are being seriously evaluated not just in primary 1-3 as the Scottish Executive suggests but right up to the equivalent of our S3-S4, is something that we have to take on board.

What are these benefits? Better motivation by pupils and teachers; better attendance in tough areas; more parental involvement; lower stress and absence levels among teachers; better and more interactive teaching and learning - and higher achievement and attainment by all pupils. This experience is the reason why many US educationists and teachers are moving away from setting and streaming and arguing that in smaller mixed-ability classes we get all the benefits of positive behaviour and learning.

On this side of the pond, we get a strenuous ignoring of this evidence and HMI urging setting as a panic response to S1-S2 underachievement in a situation where smaller classes are so obviously a better, more inclusive response.

So where does this leave us in the great education debate? It is interesting that neither Executive spokespersons nor politicians in general even contemplate reducing class sizes to below 20. In financial terms, I have estimated that to do so across the board in S1 and S2 would cost some pound;100 million in terms of extra staff.

In the US, some schools couldn't find the necessary accommodation. That factor could have been built into recent refurbishment programmes but wasn't.

Yet this is clearly something worth campaigning and fighting for. It would be the greatest step forward in terms of education since the contract and class size deal of the 1970s. I would go so far as to say that it would enthuse staff even more than the McCrone pay award. What about it Cathy?

Henry Maitles is head of modern studies in Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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