Headlines from last Saturday's papers read: "Inspectors say class size makes little difference" (The Times), and "Class-size cut will not improve standards" (The Independent).
This flies in the face of professional judgment, parental opinion and logical argument, but it is "political dynamite", as David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers put it. Regrettably it is based on inspection findings, not research studies. Rather smugly the Office for Standards in Education says: "Analysis of inspection data differs from research into class size in that it is based on disinterested judgments by inspectors for whom the contentious issue of class size was not uppermost in their minds." This is a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of research. Because it was not uppermost in the inspectors' minds they did not pose relevant questions. It is not the quantity of data (inspection reports on 200,000 lessons) that matters: it is the quality of the questions asked.
The OFSTED report is based on the percentages of lessons graded by inspectors as good or better, and then analysed in terms of age range of the pupils and class size. These gradings were made during classroom observation of lessons given by teachers often nervous, but keen to give of their best. It can be expected that they worked hard to ensure that every child was profitably occupied in the context of their familiar approach to teaching and classroom organisation.
The OFSTED inspections lasted less than a week. Is it any surprise that OFSTED reports that "teaching methods and classroom organisation have a greater impact on learning than size of class"?
The inspectors were asking "What is the quality of learning in this class now?" not "How is the quality of learning affected by the size of the class?" To tackle this question requires in-depth study for much longer than one week.
Research needs to start from a theoretical position. Recently I made a logical analysis of some of the problems as classes get larger. Here are six ways in which a primary teacher's work gets more difficult when just one more child joins the class.
There is one more child involved in the regular routine of classroom activities such as questions to answer, anxieties to be assuaged, lost property to find, quarrels to resolve, and first aid to administer.
For every lesson involving individual work one more set of materials has to be prepared.
Every time written work or an exercise is set, there is one more piece of work to read, mark, think about, and discuss with the child.
In national curriculum assessments there is one more child to assess and one more report to write to parents and discuss with them.
There is one more child to share that small amount of time which the teacher can spend on the needs of individual children.
There is one more space filled in the classroom which may reduce the flexibility for reorganising teaching.
In a research study, classroom data collection could start from these statements, asking questions like "Are these statements true?", "If so what are the consequences for the teacher?" and "If so what are the consequences for the children's learning?" It would mean in-depth study over time and would require a sample large enough to enable different teaching styles to be separated out in the analysis.
An interesting feature of the first of the above "logical arguments" is that it may explain why, in the OFSTED findings, it is only in the early years that class size is noticed as affecting performance. Very young children are more insistent in their demands for teachers' attention than older children. The more of them there are, the greater the pressure on the teacher. This could adversely affect an inspector's rating of the quality of learning in a class of young children, but would not show up with older children.
An essential part of research is criticism. Policy-makers ignore this at their peril. Professionals and researchers need to ask whether the conclusions are fair statements. According to the Daily Telegraph, "Mrs Shephard welcomed OFSTED's 'positive contribution' and endorsed its conclusion". Probably she has read the report itself: most of the professional and research community has not yet had the opportunity. When it does it is likely to judge it flawed.
Professor Michael Bassey is a senior research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University and executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association.