There is a widespread public and professional belief that students learn more effectively in small classes. The independent sector uses class size as a marketing ploy, based on the commonly held conviction that smaller classes promote better learning. Many teachers consider that large classes adversely affect the attainment, motivation and behaviours of students.
Larger classes are also believed to restrict opportunities for teachers to use a wide range of teaching styles. They are thought to increase teachers' workload and to be more stressful. In contrast, small classes provide opportunities for teachers to establish better working relationships, to use different teaching approaches and to give students more individual attention.
The weight of opinion suggests that schools should be making every effort to reduce class sizes. As part of our curriculum planning we decided to examine the financial implications of reducing our class sizes. Our school is an average size comprehensive with 920 pupils. Careful financial planning is imperative. Our recent Office for Standards in Education report stated: "the school's income per pupil is a little below the national average and towards the bottom of the Hertfordshire range." We were, however, also described as giving "very good value for money". We have managed to accumulate a surplus. Should we spend it on reducing class size?
Our average class size for the academic year 1996-97 in Years 7-11 is 23.3, which is about the national average for a school of our type. To reduce our class size would cost (at 1996-7 prices) as follows:
Class Size Additional cost per pupil
Any debate about class size should examine the key issue: will a decrease in class size improve the quality of teaching and learning and raise standards? Given the cost of making even minimal reductions in class size we asked ourselves whether more effective and efficient use could be made of the money to raise standards?
We could, for example, use the money to reduce teacher contact time. Reductions from the present 76.8 per cent would cost:
Contact Ratio Extra cost per pupil
Would staff find it more beneficial to use the money to reduce their work load? Would they prefer to have more non-teaching time and increased opportunites to work with, or observe colleagues, than to have one or two students less in their classes?
Our Grant for Education Support and Training allocations for in-service training has shrunk over the last two years. It is, as a result, more difficult to sustain the level of teacher collaboration we would wish. We currently receive #163;8,051 to provide in-service training for 55 teachers. Although in our OFSTED inspection the quality of teaching was observed to be high, with for example 55 per cent of lessons graded "good or very good", if we were to direct the money to staff development rather than to reducing class size would it have a greater impact upon the quality of teaching and learning?
We have four learning assistants who provide 100 hours of classroom support. They are linked directly to faculties and are managed on a day-to-day basis by the head of faculty. Like many schools, we believe that this strategy provides good value for money. The cost of reducing our average class size by one pupil would, equally, provide students with more than 9,000 additional hours of learning support a year. Would teachers prefer to see classes reduced, or have support in the classroom?
Teachers are increasingly required to carry out a large number of mundane clerical tasks. We have tried to increase support here, so teachers can have more time to teach. The cost of reducing class size by one pupil would provide more than 8,000 additional hours of clerical assistant support - enough to provide each faculty with their own clerical officer.
Similarly, the cost of reducing class size by one pupil would provide every pupil with an additional #163;56 of books and equipment.
We have found that our commitment to information technology has considerably raised standards. We have 88 networked machines in clusters of 15 computers in English, modern languages, science, mathematics, CDT and humanities. The finance to reduce class size by one pupil could provide more than 60 additional machines.
We realise that for many secondary schools faced by cuts, this debate is academic. The issue for them may be one of mitigating the effects of increases in class size. One of the few areas of consensus in the research on the relationship between class size and attainment is the apparently beneficial effect of smaller classes in the early years. We recognise that for primary school colleagues, reduction in class size may be a pressing priority which can clearly be justified as a method of raising standards.
There is, of course, an overriding point. Any benefits from a reduction in class size are likely to be maximised only if, at the same time, a school reviews its teaching methods and makes a commitment to improving teaching and learning.
The finance needed to make a significant reduction in class sizes in secondary school is considerable. Is it a cost effective way to improve standards? Given a choice, many schools may well decide to continue with existing class sizes and spend any additional money elsewhere.
Yvonne Bates and Martin Titchmarsh are deputy head and headteacher of the Nobel School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire