Forget setting, size is what really matters

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Smaller is better when it comes to class sizes, say most teachers, and recent research backs them up, says Henry Maitles

HE recent discussion and debates around setting in our schools (TESS, November 29) have been interesting and informative; it is good to see people engaging in passionate and rational debate, backed up by differing experiences and concrete evidence.

Yet, the debate is to some extent a symptom of the lack of a holistic view of education that permeates our vision of education. I believe that the genuine calls for setting or streaming stem from a pessimistic view of the system. this suggests that it is impossible to do anything about the class sizes we face and that, within large classes, setting is one way of keeping sanity and attempting to deal with the supposed lack of stretching of able pupils, general low attainment (TESS, December 6) and the problems of both behaviour and boys' underachievement.

And yet, the international evidence for reducing class sizes significantly as a much better solution to these areas is now overwhelming. In particular, the results from California and New York, where classes in the equivalent of our S1-S3 have been reduced in studies from 30-plus to under 20, have been startling. In every index you care to measure, improvements have been radical.

Measure attainment, and it is significantly better; take truancy, and it drops sharply; take teacher absences, and it nearly halves; take parental involvement, and it jumps; look at pupil behaviour and there is marked improvement; examine interest by pupils in the lesson and it increases; measure teacher stress and it is much less.

We cannot hide our heads in the sand from this evidence. It is true, as the Government here suggests, that dropping classes in S1 and S2 to a maximum of 30 from the current 33, while itself being marginally welcome, will not give massive measurable improvement; but reducing classes to under 20 will. While this might be startling to education policy-makers, it will not be in any sense anything other than common sense to our teachers; they understand and many have experienced on occasion the benefit of smaller classes.

Indeed, in one survey, I asked all modern studies departments in Scotland to outline what would make their teaching (and pupil learning) better; the overwhelming top choice was smaller classes.

The arguments against this will be a financial one and an organisational one. In one pilot in a school in Aberdeen, SEED has given the (admittedly small) school some pound;250,000 to reduce its classes in S12 to under 20. Unfortunately, results as to its effectiveness will be limited as the school is also setting these smaller classes and this will muddy the results. Extrapolating for Scotland as a whole, we might be talking about some pound;100m-pound;125m per year to reduce class sizes in S12 across Scotland to under 20.

Yet even if the political will could be found to fund this historical reform through an expansion of the teaching force, a problem which became obvious in the USA will then come to light - there will be a severe lack of accommodation. This is particularly galling and suggests an incredible short sighted approach from both central and local government.

The PFI funding that has gone in to every Glasgow secondary and is now being proposed and taken up in many other local authorities has not had the need for more accommodation to deal with the potential of smaller classes as even a tangential issue. Indeed, the capacity in the Glasgow schools has, if anything, been reduced through this initiative. We need to remember this political lack of will when we are told there are no rooms available to reduce class sizes.

Should we be pessimistic about this? Yes and no, if this doesn't fudge. Governments have not grasped this nettle and go down the road of suggesting short-term quick fixes to the problems in our schools. It is no surprise, given funding implications, that the McCrone committee did not even discuss this, despite it being on or top of most teachers' agenda. Yet, the profession itself, most parents and educationists realise that smaller is better.

We need a campaign to get this. It would be the most single welcome (and popular) reform the Executive could make. And it would show that education is still the top priority.

Henry Maitles is senior lecturer in social studies at Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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