Chris McDonnell on how budgetconstraints failed to stop him reducing class numbers for early years pupils. It is being increasingly suggested that smaller classes for younger children has a significant effect throughout their later schooling. The fact that research - for instance the STAR (student teacher achievement ratio) project in Tennessee - is now confirming what most teachers have been saying for a long time, is no real surprise. But it is reassuring.
For schools, the staffing of class teaching groups becomes a matter of financial choice. Given a cash limited budget, at a time when many schools are having to lose staff in order to balance the books, how can we begin to reduce class numbers in the early years? And, should we attempt it, what is the actual cost to the school?
We were faced with just this issue earlier this year. With some 63 children due to start in our reception year this term, a continuation of our two-form entry model would mean both class groups having more than 30 children. I had some difficulty with this, as I'd declared many times an intention not to accept such numbers in the reception year.
With a legal budget that may well run into trouble later in the year, there was certainly no money available to employ an extra teacher and so create three classes. We could only achieve that by redeploying our existing staff.
Our teaching group organisation over the past two years has accepted the necessity for vertical age grouping across Years 1 and 2, and Years 3 and 4, creating three teaching groups within each double year band. Years 5 and Year 6 have been taught as single-age groups, with two classes in each year.
The only way that we could release a teacher and create an extra reception class was by mixed-age teaching at Years 5 and 6. It was this option that we finally accepted, enabling us to plan for three reception groups, each of 21 children.
The immediate and recognisable cost can be seen in Years 5 and 6 where each of the classes has 33 to 34 pupils. Further, we now have to modify curriculum plans to cater for a two-year cycle in the final primary years.
Our decision to opt for the smaller groupings for the youngest children therefore has serious consequences. If we are to live with the extra difficulties, we must be able to justify the value of smaller early years groups.
During the coming year, we need to monitor the outcome. It will not be enough to suggest that smaller groups in themselves, without any other change, will always achieve higher standards. We must now look to teaching styles and competencies and so question our professional management of the classroom.
School effectiveness is now a national issue, and rightly so. If we are to argue the case for smaller teaching groups, we must be able to demonstrate that classroom effectiveness is improved as a direct result.
We need to define what we expect from the reduction in pupil numbers in reception. As there will be three groups, equal in number, we shall have no internal control by which to measure our success. It will, therefore, be much harder within the confines of this year group to measure any significant improvement in performance in the short term. Yet the need for evaluation is self evident.
It is likely that a longer-term indicator will be the perceptions of staff teaching this group as Year 1 pupils the following year - they will be able to compare this year group with previous classes.
Alongside this reduction in basic teaching group size, we are hoping to encourage and support parental interest in these first few months of formal schooling. With smaller numbers, teachers will have more chance to get to know the parents of each child. Our school sees them as the first educators of their children. The staff offer formal support, help and guidance during the primary years in partnership with parents.
We must question how successful we have been in offering that support. Or have we just been paying lip service to a policy statement that exists only on paper? We now have the opportunity to challenge that statement in a genuine way.
But we do not accept the innovation of smaller reception groups for the coming year, while believing that larger classes of older pupils are of no significance. We challenge any such assumption.
However, where choices have to be made, the greater long-term good would seem to come from offering our youngest pupils the best pupil-teacher ratio. That is one clear indication of the STAR research on class size. We would do well to acknowledge it, despite the serious funding implications.
Chris McDonnell is head of Fulfen Primary School, Burntwood, Staffs.