Teachers believe that smaller class sizes are more effective than staff pay rises at improving learning, despite research that finds teaching smaller groups has little or no effect on performance, it has emerged.
A survey of more than 4,300 UK teachers by TES Global, parent company of TES, found that smaller class sizes was teachers’ top choice by a large margin, when asked to prioritise how any extra resources to improve learning should be allocated.
A union leader echoed the survey results, saying teachers knew “in their gut” that teaching smaller groups improved “the educational experience”, while research into the matter had focused on a very “narrow” set of outcomes.
Almost 56 per cent of teachers chose class sizes as the best way to improve learning – nearly three times as many as the second most popular option, better teacher pay, which was chosen by 19 per cent. The third choice was better professional development, chosen by 11 per cent of respondents.
However, research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the Programme for International Student Assessment’s (Pisa) international education rankings, has found that smaller classes do not boost pupils’ performance.
A 2012 OECD report on Pisa’s findings said: “At the country level, Pisa finds that the size of the class is unrelated to the school system’s overall performance; in other words, high-performing countries tend to prioritise investment in teachers over smaller classes.”
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has also found that reducing class sizes in itself will not improve learning. However, it did find that if a class is reduced to 20 pupils or fewer, and this reduction is accompanied by more personalised teaching where pupils benefit from lots of good quality feedback from the teacher, then there is evidence that pupils do better.
But the EEF also points out that the cost of reducing a class to a level where a significant benefit is likely is “very high”.
In 2009, education academic Professor John Hattie found that the effect of reducing class sizes was less than the impact of other interventions.
The NUT teachers’ union said that it supports teachers’ calls for smaller class sizes to be a priority for schools, and is campaigning for a statutory maximum class size that should, over time, be reduced to 20.
NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney (pictured, inset) told TES: “Teachers know in their gut that a smaller class improves education because pupils get more individual attention. Many politicians and wealthy people send their children to private schools, which have smaller class sizes than we have in the state sector.”
He said that much of the research on the impact of class sizes had been based on the “narrow” measure of how it affected test results, rather than looking at pupils’ broader educational experience.
“I don’t think that is good research,” he explained. “Small class sizes and more individual attention allows a lot more development for the child.”
Emotional ‘wear and tear’
Mr Courtney said that teachers were increasingly concerned about excessive workloads, adding that it was not surprising in this context that so many wanted smaller class sizes, because “the more books there are, the longer it takes to mark them.”
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said that despite the evidence not supporting an investment in smaller class sizes, it was easy to see why teachers would be in favour of the measure.
“Teaching is such an interactive profession and relies so much on the ability of teachers to develop a good relationship with pupils,” she said. “So even though research shows it’s not the most effective way, it’s completely understandable why teachers think it is.
“It’s difficult for anyone who hasn’t taught to understand just how much teaching takes out of you. Working with large groups of pupils – that’s a huge wear and tear, and it makes complete sense that teachers would want smaller class sizes.”
The finding comes after the Association of School and College Leaders warned in March that 64 per cent of schools had increased their class sizes in the past 12 months to cope with shrinking budgets. It found that 75 per cent expected further rises in class sizes in the next 12 months.
Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, said: “The learning will not be better if you teach in a didactic way to a small group [instead of a large one] but [it can be better] if you take the opportunity of having fewer children in a class to have more one-to-one work with the teacher.
“Usually, it is when you get below 20 children in a class that the reduction creates those opportunities and smaller numbers allow you to make those changes. Going from 30 children to 27 won’t really change your teaching.”
‘Smaller classes would be a factor in better teacher retention’
Secondary English teacher Louise Tierney*, who has taught both in state and private schools, explains why she feels that class size is important:
“I really like teaching 15 to 16 pupils at once – it’s a good size for plenty of interaction, but small enough that all voices can be heard.
“Teaching smaller groups makes it easier to personalise marking and feedback and then tailor teaching appropriately.
“Teachers work very hard to ensure the maximum progress of their pupils whatever the class size, so the real difference that it makes is to teacher wellbeing.
“That may not sound important, but stress and burnout take many teachers out of our classrooms every year and that does impact on pupil performance.
“I wouldn’t expect to see a straightforward correlation between smaller classes and improved results, but I would expect it to be a factor in better teacher retention, indirectly leading to higher standards.
“I would also expect it to have an impact on school culture, as smaller classes allow for more time for teachers to interact with each individual pupil.
“Great schools are built on great relationships. Those strong relationships develop pupils’ confidence.”
*Louise Tierney is a pseudonym
The limits of research
Professor Peter Blatchford, professor of psychology and education at the UCL Institute of Education, who is carrying out research on school class size, said that the disparity between the view of teachers and the findings of research on the usefulness of small classes was “central to the debate”.
He told TES: “There’s a number of reasons for this [disparity], no doubt, but the main reason I think is that teachers have a wider set of things in mind when considering class size than simply scores on attainment.
“So, in a way, the poll and the research are both right. The limitation of the research is that it is usually concerned with whether class size makes a difference to attainment.”
A more important question, he said, was how teachers can adapt their teaching techniques to make effective use of having a smaller class.