Boost for small classes

17th December 1999 at 00:00
Study of 10 primaries shows fewer pupils do make a substantial difference to learning and teacher morale.

SMALLER class sizes and team teaching in the first three years of primary do make a substantial difference to pupils' learning and teacher morale.

The first authoritative evidence about the impact of the Scottish Executive's early intervention scheme will bring comforting news to education ministers, under fire again this week for presiding over "significant weaknesses" in the teaching of maths, science and writing (page three).

Teacher unions are also certain to seize on the findings to justify their long-held belief that more teachers in smaller classes is the way to improve standards.

The research, by Euan McKay of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, covered 10 East Dunbartonshire primaries and shows clear educational benefits when pupil-teacher ratios are slashed.

Each school had one extra teacher but four taught their own class and six were involved in team teaching alongside the existing class teacher. Teacher-pupil ratios came down from the maximum 1:33 to 1:23 and in some cases to 1:16.

Mr McKay found teachers worked with more pupils individually and in small groups and in a more focused classroom atmosphere. Assessment improved. "Teachers said they were able to get to know the children, especially 'the really good, quiet ones'."

Children were more able to talk to teachers and teachers had more time to listen. Staff could focus on specific difficulties and children with problems were more readily identified. Lower achieving groups were able to get a better understanding of class work and the higher attaining groups were challenged by extension work.

In his report to the council's education committee, Mr McKay says pupil attitudes to work improved. "This is the litmus test of the reduced teacher-pupil ratio because with a more positive attitude comes greater interaction, raised self-confidence and higher attainment. This is the 'virtuous circle' which all teachers seek to create and, on the basis of the evidence, that is what is being promoted through the East Dunbartonshire project," he comments.

Team teaching has its benefits and drawbacks, staff concluded, but everyone involved was positive about its value. Self-evidently, much depends on the ability to work together in harmony.

On the plus side, teachers can offer each other advice, complement strengths and be available to provide immediate help to pupils. But working together means different styles and strategies and requires consistent approaches to areas such as discipline and sufficient time for joint planning.

Ian Mills, East Dunbartonshire's director of education, said: "Our experience has confirmed that a reduction in class size does enhance learning and supports the Government's philosophy. The interface between pupils and teachers is the important aspect."

Frank Healy, teachers' representative, added: "I welcome this piece of research which indicates how Government funding can be used to increase educational attainment. It shows how additional resources, properly applied, can produce the goods."

Mr McKay remains cautious about his findings, based on anecdotal evidence and case studies over six months, and called for further research, especially over a longer period.

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