We do not need rigid, artificial benchmarks. Within parameters, teachers should arrange class sizes HEADLINE:Size does matter

13th July 2007 at 01:00
The first of our discussions is on class sizes should we have a strict maximum or let heads decide? Illustration by James Fryer

THE ASPIRATIONS for improving Scottish education, clearly set out in the National Priorities and A Curriculum for Excellence, seem to have overwhelming support within the profession. Public expectations have been raised about schools' capacity to meet individual needs more effectively through, for example, more active and participative learning and personal learning planning.

Such investment should enable staff to have more frequent opportunities for individual contact with youngsters, allowing time to track progress and set realistic targets with pupils and to implement the strategies that are advocated in Assessment is for Learning.

In secondary schools, that investment has been directed exclusively at reducing class sizes to an average of 20 in English and maths. The executive has prioritised recruitment to meet that ambitious staffing target and should be applauded for its efforts.

It remains to be seen whether or not this commitment can be met across the country, particularly in maths. At a practical level, there are schools that are having difficulty meeting the targets because of physical limitations. The challenge is acute in some newly built schools and can only be addressed on campus by bringing in hutted accommodation, incurring additional costs.

I understand that professional associations see the implementation of this initiative as a breakthrough in their quest to reduce class sizes across the curriculum. But there is little sign of commitment beyond English and maths in S1-2. In terms of equality and fairness, is it reasonable to expect teachers in modern languages, social subjects or religious and moral education to continue teaching much larger groups in the junior school?

The rigid approach on class size conflicts with two principles espoused by the main political parties. The first is a belief that the implementation of education policy should, wherever appropriate, be devolved to school level. The second is a commitment to developing school cultures based on professional trust and collegiality, empowering staff to influence key matters that affect their core business ie, learning and teaching, and the care, welfare and support of pupils.

With that agenda, surely the most sensible approach would be to allocate additional investment to schools, and through appropriate staff consultations, staffing resources could be allocated in a manner that would meet pupil needs most effectively.

Is such an approach likely to work? Evidence is available across the country that it would. It is common practice to have different sizes of class groupings, taking account of pupil circumstances, and staff generally have come to appreciate that flexibility for example, a Standard grade Credit class of 30, but a Standard grade FoundationGeneral class of 18.

It has been argued in some union circles that, in relation to the S1-2 debate, class size maxima of 20 must prevail, as staff could be open to legal proceedings if a pupil underperforms in a class of 20-plus. If that is the case, why have there not been legal proceedings where there have been differential class sizes and outcomes at Standard grade? The research evidence on achievement outcomes from smaller class sizes is, at best, inconclusive.

So, in taking forward the school improvement agenda, let's hope there will be closer consultations with the profession, not only about policy direction, but on policy implementation.

Above all, we should let common sense prevail, and trust our teachers and our schools to make decisions that, in their professional judgment and experience, will be in the best interests of our pupils.

We do not need rigid, artificial benchmarks nor external micro-management. Within parameters, teachers, with school managers, should have the flexibility to arrange class sizes that will most effectively meet the needs of their pupils. Surely that's not too much to ask?

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