Small classes no panacea

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Control of education should be removed from the whims of politicians, says former council chief

REDUCING CLASS size does not improve pupil performance and is a grotesque waste of money, according to Keir Bloomer, the former Educational Institute of Scotland activist and education director.

The policy is supported by most political parties, not because it is effective but because parents and teachers are in favour of smaller classes and it is in the politicians' interests to ingratiate themselves with voters, he told an international summer school on leadership in Edinburgh this week.

While high-quality feedback from teachers to pupils on their work and behaviour helped children do better in school, research showed that cutting class size did not, he said in the opening speech of the conference.

The recently-retired chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council also made a radical call to remove education from political control on the grounds that politicians are too easily swayed by public opinion instead of facts.

One option, he said, would be to put education into a public trust, along the same lines as the BBC, to prevent it being used as a political football. This would also allow plans to be made well into the future, he argued, instead of being tied to short political cycles.

"Reducing class size is politically popular because it is just that, populist," he said. "Lack of effectiveness and the grotesque waste of resources have not been allowed to influence the decision. This is symptomatic of the prob- lems of political decision-making."

A Scottish Executive spokeswoman countered his claims, saying ministers were clear that class sizes do make a difference, especially at key stages of education. She also argued that people expected accountability from having elected people at the top of the management system in education.

Larry Flanagan, convener of the education committee of the EIS, agreed with the executive that education policy should be subject to public scrutiny through the ballot box.

The union was campaigning for smaller classes because of their positive impact not only on the learning and teaching process, but also on behaviour and socialisation. However, it wanted to see smaller classes across the board not just at key stages, he said.

"If you reduce classes in the early years and move back to larger classes in upper primary, you diminish the effect. That's why we want reductions across all ages and stages," he said.

Earlier this summer, the Nuf-field Trust, a health think tank, suggested that operational control of hospitals and primary care should be passed to an independent corporation, similar to the BBC, operating under a charter that guaranteed a free service to patients. According to Mr Bloomer, education needs to begin exploring similar options.

"Intelligent debate is happening in the NHS. We need a similar intelligent debate in education," he said. "It's a complex issue and there are quite a lot of different possibilities I'm not advocating any particular one at the moment."

However, he was clear that while he believed there was a role for the state in education as banker and regulator, it should not lead. "The leadership role, quite simply, has tended to produce bad decisions," he said.

Even when the decisions made by politicians were good, trust in them had eroded to such an extent that the public tended to rail against them.

He continued: "Often it is sensible to close schools, but distrust of politicians has created a mood of unthinking opposition to change."

Teachers on the other hand, he argued, were among the most trusted people in the country.

Mr Bloomer quoted research by John Hattie of the University of Auckland to back up his argument. Professor Hattie examined 300,000 pieces of research involving some 200 million children worldwide to assess what influenced their performance. Focusing particularly on six factors feedback, behaviour, early intervention, testing, pupil diet and class size he concluded that the most influential of these was the quality of feedback from teachers.

"The most useless of all (class size)," said Mr Bloomer, "is the one which has been enthusiastically espoused by virtually every political party as an educational panacea."

Why did parents and teachers both want smaller classes, he asked. Parents believe it will mean more attention for their children and teachers believe it will reduce discipline problems. Both, however, were wrong, he argued.

"There is no evidence smaller class sizes will mean more attention for each child," he said. "Teachers just teach the smaller group the same way as they teach the bigger one. Smaller classes may create the opportunity to give more attention but in practice that opportunity isn't taken up.

"Teachers on the other hand support small class sizes because they think discipline difficulties will be reduced. I have every sympathy with teachers over this. But if you think discipline difficulties are a serious problem, you should tackle them not think the answer to it is to spend huge sums on a blanket reduction in class size."

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