Smaller classes 'require extra training'

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
Skills gap means teachers are unable to respond to the individual needs of disadvantaged pupils, Canadian study finds

Teachers need to be better trained to make the most of reduced class sizes and to cope with an unintended consequence - more composite classes, a Canadian expert has claimed.

In Ontario province, class-size reductions in kindergarten to Grade 3 (the equivalent of pre-school to P3 in Scotland) were a major election promise by the Liberals when they took provincial power in 2003.

By the end of the last academic year, 90 per cent of these early years classes contained 20 or fewer pupils, and 100 per cent of classes had 23 or fewer.

Research into the initiative's early days has found "many indications" that teaching and learning have improved for "many children" in these early primary classes.

A "notable change" has been the degree of individualised teaching provided to pupils with additional support needs, the researchers said.

But classroom observations revealed smaller class sizes had not benefited all pupils. The lot of children from racial minority, immigrant or lower- income backgrounds had not improved, the study said.

This was because teachers had not been trained to cope with their specific disadvantages, said Nina Bascia, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto.

Teachers did not know how to help children who were not native English speakers, she said, because there had been no training in equity, social diversity or social justice issues.

"While smaller classes allowed teachers to spend more time with individual children and understand more about their situations and learning needs, they did not have the capacity to respond effectively," Dr Bascia said. "So when they had more information, that just made them feel the children were even stranger than they had originally thought."

The Scottish Government has promised to reduce class sizes to 18 in P1-3. But the policy has been plagued by difficulties, with councils claiming they do not have the funds to make the changes.

Class-size reduction was worth doing, Dr Bascia said, but she argued against focusing exclusively on one age and stage. "I have no argument with thinking about early learning - it's very important," she said. "But I'm concerned about this isolating of a particular time period and the hell with the rest of it."

Twenty years ago, the concern was for adolescents because of the changes they go through. But the challenges this group face have not gone away, she said; they are just being ignored.

She added: "There are a number of different times in a child's life when more thoughtful groupings, different kinds of curricular approaches and more opportunities for children and adults to interact one-on-one would be appropriate. We have to look at the whole spectrum."

There were also some unintended consequences caused by reducing class sizes in the early years, the Canadian research found. Classes further up the school were growing, and more children were being taught in "combined- grade classrooms" or composite classes.

According to the report, teachers in upper grades claimed their working conditions and professional relationships had reduced in quality. Parents - particularly those of special needs children - were also concerned about what happened to their children as their education progressed.

"The study suggests that, while small classes in primary grades can mitigate against learning challenges, these same challenges loom large in larger junior and intermediate classes," the researchers wrote.

In Scotland, Parliament's education committee recently heard from four councils that class-size reductions were leading to larger classes further up the school and to more composite classes, a trend reported in The TESS last year (October 23).

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