One of the top three questions I am asked by prospective parents is ‘How big are the classes?’. The other two are concerned with university destinations for Sixth Form leavers and with student happiness within the school.
For Year 7 in September the students at Birkdale will be in groups of 16 or 17 for the core subjects of Mathematics, English, Science and Languages and 20 or 21 for the other subjects. In the Sixth Form the average class size currently is just 7.
The class size debate is rarely out of the headlines. Class sizes are rising in the state sector because of the financial constraints; normally calm head teachers resorted to heckling when addressed by the Education Secretary recently.
The government tends to argue that class size doesn’t matter, making use of 3 sources of evidence. Firstly, international comparisons such as the PISA tests highlight the fact that many Asian school systems far out-perform the UK system despite having much larger class sizes. Therefore, big classes are fine conclude ministers who are keen to save some money. Hang on a minute I hear you shout, burnishing your critical thinking skills: that doesn’t prove that large classes don’t have an effect on results. There may be a host of other reasons why the systems in Hong Kong and Shanghai perform so well: private tutoring, a high level of parental engagement and a culture that highly values education. In fact, a number of Asian countries are reducing class sizes to try to boost creativity in their students.
Secondly, there are some well-publicised studies which have tried to tease out the effects of class size on educational outcomes by carrying out a secondary analysis of existing studies. These tend to show that reducing the class size does improve results but not by much. However, many of the studies reviewed were not primarily designed to look at the effect of class size on outcome so that the evidence is not hugely strong.
Thirdly, some studies within the UK have simply looked at the number of teachers and students within different schools in relation to the examination results. This compares the ratio of students to teachers, within a particular institution, with some measure of the GCSE grades produced. The difficulties here are that this ratio may vary across different age groups of students and the quality of teaching and the culture in the different schools are unlikely to be constant.
The best, and specifically constructed, studies seem to show that there is a beneficial effect from reduced class size, particularly for lower ability students and for younger students. Most teachers would agree with this, based on their experience. A smaller class allows teachers to build stronger relationships with students and understand better how each student learns. It also allows each student more teacher time and more opportunity to contribute to class discussion. Clearly a smaller class also makes it easier to ensure that the students are always on task and allows the teacher to spend more time on feedback, either orally during the lesson or in marking written work. Finally, the teacher may be able to change their teaching approach with smaller classes, attempting different activities and enabling the students to change how they learn for the better. It is easier for the teacher to ensure that every student is making good progress, rather than focusing on the most able and least able students and inadvertently overlooking the quiet, middle-ability student who is not being stretched.
Aside from the examination benefits, smaller classes are also great for individual care of students. Every student can be known well in a smaller class: extra-curricular achievements and experiences can be recognised, signs of unhappiness spotted and dealt with quickly and personal encouragement offered.
As Head Master I will continue to make small class sizes a priority.