The Western world's major research project on cutting class sizes brings mixed news for any strong protagonist. Primary 1 pupils certainly benefit from smaller classes but those benefits do not extend much beyond that, according to the Tennessee Star project conducted in the late 1980s.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute, carried out a study for the Educational Institute of Scotland on the methodology of the Tennessee researchers and concluded their findings were soundly based. "It is very good research," Professor Paterson comments.
He says the project confirms that early intervention and reducing class sizes up to primary 3 does seem to have an effect which lasts, but it does not intensify. The full effect is in the first year of primary. "Continuing with smaller classes beyond P2 does not seem to add extra benefits. It is also a very expensive way of getting benefits that could be achieved in other ways," he maintains.
Professor Paterson believes paired reading schemes and special schemes such as the Pilton intervention project in North Edinburgh could be as effective.
"As far as reading performance goes, alternatives tend to produce more for the same cost. The use of assistants in the classroom is unproven but the debate about class sizes tends to take place in a vacuum, and improvements could be achieved by other means."
Staff at the London Institute of Education are also re-analysing the Tennessee findings as preparation for their two-year study of class sizes, which encompasses 100 schools in 25 local authorities. It is one year in to the project.
A further re-examination was carried out by Professor Sig Prais, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who challenged the enthusiastic reactions to the Tennessee findings. He maintains the experiment only benefited six-year-olds and believes it would be more productive to investigate alternative textbooks, more detailed teachers' manuals, other forms of class organisation and teaching styles, and more lesson preparation time for teachers.
The Tennessee experiment has attracted worldwide interest because it followed 7,000 children through their first three years of school.
Children were randomly allocated to a class of 15, a class of 24, or a class of 24 that was supported by an assistant. The study's authors produced evidence showing maths and reading scores were higher in the smaller classes.
Over the three years, children in the small classes made only 1.6 per cent more maths gains than other pupils, which Professor Prais says is equivalent of just three extra days of teaching a year.
The reading gain was the equivalent of six days.