Numbers are important, argues Christopher Day, as the next government could learn from one of its European partners
Over the past year the Labour party has recognised that class size does affect the quality of teaching and learning in schools. In doing so it has shown, unlike the present government and its advisers, that it takes at least some notice of research worldwide which unequivocally states that class size is a significant factor on pupils' learning opportunities.
Studies have shown that while short-term measurable achievement in what we call the core subjects cannot be attributed only to class size or teaching methods, both are contributory factors. Smaller classes can and do lead to increased learning gains, have favourable effects upon student attitude, self-image and motivation, have positive effects upon the achievements of economically disadvantaged and ethnic minority students, on the acquisition of basic skills by underachieving students, and on the morale, motivation and retention of teachers.
The Government and its close advisers have sought to disassociate class size and the quality of teaching, ignoring the views of parents, governors and headteachers and focusing instead upon promoting particular versions of whole- class "interactive" teaching as a means of containing the problem of larger classes which contain pupils with a broader range of individual learning needs.
In this country, alongside increases in class sizes - particularly in primary schools where 25 per cent of classes (more than 1 million children) across the country are now more than 30 - we have seen increases in teachers' working hours, rises in pupil misbehaviour and pupil exclusions, and unprecedented increases in the numbers of teachers and headteachers seeking early retirement on the grounds of stress-related ill health.
Commendably, many headteachers in primary schools have responded to problems by "protecting" the younger children such that smaller class sizes for 5-7 year-olds have been maintained, usually at the expense of 7-11 year-olds. The much-trumpeted policy of the Labour party that it will ensure that no class of younger pupils will be above 30 in total builds upon this, and is, therefore, most welcome.
The mistake will be to assume that this is all that is required to improve morale, motivation and achievement of pupils and teachers so that schools really can become the foundation for lifelong learning.
Class size is a key factor in the quality of educational opportunity available to all pupils and in the establishment of positive dispositions to learning which stretch over a lifetime. Pupils of all ages have a right to sustained individual attention according to learning need, for there is no linear continuum for development.
Teachers need reasonable conditions of work if they are to apply efficiently, effectively and appropriately, knowledge, skills and expertise. Note recent findings of Maurice Galton and colleagues that teachers in larger classes spend more time in "critical control" as a percentage of all routine, less time in sustained interaction with individual pupils, and less time in feedback as a percentage of task supervision. As Michael Bassey so powerfully observed: "There is one more child involved in the regular routine of classroom activities . . . One more set of materials to be prepared . . . There is one more piece of work to read, mark, think about and discuss with the child . . .There is one more child to assess (national curriculum assessments) and one more report to write to parents and discuss with them . . . There is one more child to share in that small amount of time which can be spent focusing on the individual needs of pupils . . . There is one more space to be filled in the classroom which may reduce the flexibility for organising teaching in different ways . . ."
It is instructive to observe the response of a neighbouring government to the issue of class size and the quality of education. When the Netherlands parliament discussed the issue in 1995, it concluded that size had no effect and that there was no money to reduce class size. The secretary of state for education established a research commission on the subject.
In October 1996, the commission reported that class size did matter, proposing an average class size of 20 in the first four grades (ages 4-8) and 28 in the next four. In response, the secretary of state announced that class size reductions (from the current 40 in the lower and 35 in the higher grades) would be phased in between 1997 and 2001.
It is my hope that whichever government is elected will listen to those closest to the child in school, be prepared to consider disinterested research findings whether they support, inform or challenge existing political ideologies and policies, and on occasion be willing, as in the case of the Netherlands government, to change its mind.
Christopher Day is professor of education at the University of Nottingham School of Education. He directed the "Class Size Research and Quality of Education Project", undertaken in collaboration with the National Association of Head Teachers