Don't level up to 30, let's go for 20 in all

5th December 2003 at 00:00
As someone who has campaigned all my working life in education for smaller class sizes, I was particularly disappointed to see the negative responses of some of our most respected education leaders (TESS, November 28) to the Scottish Executive's policy of reducing class sizes to 20 in S12 English and maths.

Frankly, I think the arguments are spurious. First, yes, it may be "unfair" to other subjects (including my own social subjects area) but this is something we can campaign on - don't level up to 30, let's go for 20 in all.

Second, the problem of accommodation (something I wrote about in The TES Scotland years ago) was not a special sign of my foresight but easily seen from the experiences in the USA, where some schools had to turn down money from the federal government because of accommodation problems.

Third, the claim is made that there will be a transfer of staff from unpopular schools to popular ones. But no evidence whatsoever is given to back this up.

Even more disappointingly, missing from the negative discussions is any mention of the evidence as to why reducing class sizes to 20 is important.

It was claimed at the ADES conference that attainment is not particularly helped by smaller class sizes. Yet this, even in its narrowest sense, is refuted by the evidence from the USA, where the experiences in California and New York show that there is improvement in attainment and it is at its best where there is a jump to 20 or under.

Indeed, a recent visit to an Ayrshire school backs this up: the popular school, capped at maximum numbers, has S1 classes of 33 as compared to last session's average mid-20s; teachers were complaining about how much more difficult it was. And most teachers who have had experience of small and large classes would, I believe, agree.

The evidence from the USA and the experience of almost every classroom practitioner of whatever political hue is that small classes improve pupil behaviour, attendance, health and attainment, as well as parental involvement.

Teacher interest, motivation, health and stress also benefit. Put bluntly, pupils and teachers enjoy school and learning more and teachers sleep better and prepare more interesting and varied lessons.

While it may be true that "poor" teachers won't improve greatly with smaller classes, it is important we recognise that even "good" teachers can get dragged down by large classes.

This is why the cry should be "smaller classes for all," not the negative whinges from directors of education and headteachers. It's time for them to direct and lead.

Henry Maitles

Head of Social Studies

Faculty of Education

University of Strathclyde

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