Big and not beautiful
Of course there is no "simple" link between class size and examination results. There are far too many other influential factors involved. What is self evident however, for those of us working in secondary schools, is that our pupils learn better when there are fewer of them.
What evidence do I have for this statement? Seventeen years as a science teacher in an 11-18 comprehensive school. During that time I have taught classes of all ages and abilities, the size varying greatly, depending on the usual school factors such as staffing, timetabling, and options.
The biggest effects have been with low ability classes in years 9 to 11. Where numbers have been smaller, the benefits have been immediate: rapid establishment of good teacher-pupil relationships, more support for individual pupils and less pupil disruption.
I admit I have also achieved success with larger classes but the overall learning environment has never been quite as good. More pupils miss out on that extra bit of help. More incidents of disruption occur - simply because the classes contain the extra one or two disruptive pupils and they have a greater choice of peers with whom to interact.
At sixth form level, larger classes pose very different problems. In such a class there will automatically be more strugglers who need a slower pace and the sort of individual help which becomes more and more difficult to give. For the teacher there will also be much more marking to do, which in turn means less time available for marking other year groups' work.
In its recent report, OFSTED recognized that young children need more individual attention when they are learning to master basic literacy and numeracy. Well what about the older ones entering secondary schools without those skills? More and more are now joining our year 7 classes without the ability to cope.
How is the class teacher supposed to give the necessary help to these few children when he has the equally pressing needs of at least 25 other children to attend to? Ofsted seems to suggest the answer is classroom assistants. This begs three questions: where are they going to come from? Who is going to train them? And could there really be sufficient funding to allow schools to employ the number needed?
I do not think so.
A better answer lies in giving schools sufficient funds to employ more specialist support teachers and to avoid the need to make staff redundant and so prevent class sizes from rising ever higher.
Whether we are talking about good teachers or average teachers, good lessons or average lessons, fewer pupils in the class does mean more effective learning. Clearly no single factor will ever outweigh the importance of good teaching. However, we must never let this be used as an argument for not striving to reduce class sizes in our secondary schools.
Phil Sanderson is head of science at Framwellgate Moor Comprehensive School, Durham