One of the most hotly debated issues in education policy is class size.
The issue caused major problems for the National Government in 2012 as they had to backtrack on a controversial proposal to change the teacher:student funding ratio, which would have increased class sizes for most students.
And Labour has proposed a change in the funding ratio, as part of its 2014 Education policy, which would see the creation of approx. 2,000 additional teaching positions.
But much of the debate on class size misses the point.
The discussion invariably descends too readily into the “Quantity v Quality” trade-off without recognising the common sense view that most parents would prefer smaller class sizes for their children.
Indeed, today’s Dominion Post (12 August 2014) features an article quoting the Principal of Scots College Prep School, Mr John Western:
Western says the small class sizes, about half to two thirds the size of those in a state school, make a big difference in teaching:
“The individual needs of each child are catered for and that’s because the teachers have time to work with every child…they can improve their weaknesses and celebrate their strengths, and as a teacher that’s a real privilege.”
Two recent and significant pieces of research on class size, published this year, are a new review of major research undertaken by Northwestern University Associate Professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and published by the National Education Policy Center (February 2014 ); and a review of 112 research papers (written between 1979 and 2014) by Australian Dr David Zyngier of Monash University (published May 2014).
These two items are cited by Labour in its Education Policy document.
But QPEC also notes the highly regarded series of projects by Peter Blatchford and colleagues at the University of London. They studied several hundred real classrooms and schools which varied considerably in actual size.
They found that larger classes affected:
- the size and number of groups in the class, with consequences for curriculum coverage and learning;
- the teacher’s time on task with individual students,support for learning,behaviour management and stress or wellbeing;
- and students’ interactions with the teacher, time on-task and peer relations.
The research programme as a whole reported benefits of smaller classes for some students both at the beginning of primary and the beginning of secondary schooling. These effects were most pronounced for students who might be at risk of disengaging from learning.
In terms of policy recommendations, Diane Schanzenbach believes the following policy recommendations emerge from her studies:
- Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy. All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.
- The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run, but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.
- The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.
- Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.
So, in summary:
- Class size matters – let’s be honest.
- Research supports the common sense notion that teachers can better manage smaller classes.
- Students can get more individualised learning and better quality feedback.
- Achievement gains are clearly positive, especially in the early years.
- Children from disadvantaged backgrounds gain far more benefit from smaller classes and suffer disproportionately more from larger classes.
QPEC’s wish-list therefore includes much smaller classes for low-decile schools, where students need the greatest attention and support from their teachers.
1. Diane Schanzenbach / NEPC:
2. David Zyngier / AARE blog:
3. Peter Blatchford Projects:
Blatchford, P. (2003). The class size debate: Is small better? Maidenhead, UK:
Open University Press.
Blatchford, P., Bassett, P. & Brown, P (2011). Examining the effect of class size on
classroom engagement and teacher-pupil interaction: Differences in relation to
pupil prior attainment and primary vs. secondary schools. Learning and
Instruction, 21, 715-730.
Blatchford, P., Russell, A. & Brown, P. (2009). Teaching in large and small classes.
In L.J. Saha & A.J. Dworkin (Eds.). International handbook of research on
teachers & teaching (pp. 779-790). New York: Springer.