Smaller really is better, isn't it?;Briefing;Analysis

19th June 1998 at 01:00
Research findings should help bolster the Government's difficult attempt to reduce class sizes. Elaine Williams reports

Like motherhood and apple pie, smaller class sizes have got to be a good thing. The lack of hard and fast research evidence notwithstanding, the Labour party appeared to pitch in at that level, nailing its colours to the emotional mast. Classes of 30 and under for all five to seven-year-olds had to be an election winner, and so it proved.

But as the good ship Labour enters the muddied waters of implementing legislation on the matter, the business of achieving classes of 30 for all infants seems to be throwing up as many problems as it solves. The Government could do with some ballast, such as research indicating that the end is clearly worth all the intervening agony.

They may well be in luck, albeit late in the day. Researchers and policy-makers rarely work to the same timetables. When class size was turning into a hot political issue before the election, academics returned to the topic and initiated some substantial pieces of work. But the findings from that work are only now coming to light.

One piece of research that will be published next month, however, seems to confirm the Government's view that setting a benchmark on class size has got to be better than not setting it at all. The National Foundation for Educational Research has been looking not at whether class size affects educational attainment, but teachers' experience of teaching smaller numbers of pupils.

This project, titled Every Pupil Counts, was based on a survey of more than 900 headteachers and 700 teachers from 400 schools. They were required to keep a diary of their observations and feelings about class size. The teachers, according to co-author Jim Jamison, were all experienced in teaching both large and smaller classes. Although most would like to see classes of well below 30, they affirmed overwhelmingly that any attempt to reduce pupil numbers per class was welcome.

"Teachers who taught 36 pupils last year and are teaching 26 this year said the job is transformed," Mr Jamison said. "They feel they are actually teaching. They all expressed the frustration, disappointment and guilt they feel at not being able to meet their own standards when taking large groups, even though they work very hard to teach all the pupils and meet their needs."

Just as much effort was expended by teachers of smaller classes, but they were much more likely to feel that each child was being given the chance to realise his or her potential and that there were more occasions when learning was "purposeful, involving and enjoyable".

Teachers of smaller classes spoke more confidently about their teaching, about pupils' progress and about their ability to support those with special needs, including the most able. In larger classes the more able were left to get on by themselves. "Teachers feel they shouldn't have to," Mr Jamison said. "They believe they could bring on these children so much more if they were dealing with fewer numbers."

Interviews with headteachers and teachers "suggested strongly" that morale, motivation and self-esteem of teachers was affected by class size and that larger classes, combined with the overcrowding of classrooms, had negative effects on pupils' behaviour. Teachers were concerned that large classes affected their ability to control their workload, their classrooms and how they covered the curriculum. They believed smaller classes enabled them to vary their teaching methods more, do more practical, hands-on work and provide better quality and a richer environment for pupils while making teaching more enjoyable for the teacher.

Although the project did not aim to measure pupil attainment in relation to class size, weekly records kept by class teachers and heads "did support the contention that the quality of teaching and learning benefited from smaller class size".

Jamison believes this research has to support the Government view that any attempt to reduce class size is better than no action at all, though in the course of research, headteachers expressed concern about the inflexibility they saw enshrined in the Government's legislation.

All in all, the Government will probably take some comfort from this report, for there has been little satisfactory research on the matter. Research in the 1950s and 60s seemed to show that children in larger classes did better, though that has largely been discounted as it appeared not to take account of such factors as less able children being put in smaller classes and schools' tendency to devote their most capable teachers to, say, a large top junior class.

After that, research into class size went into the doldrums until the Star Project in Tennessee, begun in the 1980s, found that children in classes of under 20 do better in reading and maths than children in large classes (which in Tennessee means 25 and above). That research is ongoing, but is also regarded as limited.

For example, British researchers are doubtful that universal generalisations can be made about findings that derive from the particular nature of education in that part of the United States.

There are deeper doubts about the validity of experimental research methods in this area, since many factors other than class size contribute to pupil attainment. A more recent report by the Office for Standards in Education, which seemed to indicate that class size was not a factor in educational attainment, particularly at key stage 2, was criticised for basing its findings on past inspection reports. According to Dr Peter Blatchford of the University of London's Institute of Education, it is not the input of data but the quality of research questions that counts in this matter.

In the light of these reservations he is directing the Class Size Research Project, a substantial research initiative into class size. The project, which is taking a huge sample of 12,000 children, is looking at class size differences in terms of educational process (nature of the curriculum, groupings, methods of teaching), as well as educational achievement.

"This very big project is setting out to get good information in the UK context", Dr Blatchford said. "We are optimistic that it will provide necessary evidence on this vexed issue. There is a lot more to be learned about what size of class might be important to have the right kind of effects. The Government has plumped for the administrative figure of 30, but what is so magical about 30? But they had to start somewhere."

Policy-makers cannot always wait for researchers to catch up, but besieged ministers are sure to welcome any findings that support the move towards smaller classes.

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