As the election campaign kicks off Jeremy Corbyn has been waving his red flag in support of the educational establishment, the Blob. He wants the electorate to know that children are being “crammed in classrooms like sardines”. He told an audience of supporters in Swindon that “half a million children are now being taught in super-size classes of over 36.”
Scaremongering? Yes! The true figure for classes of over 35 youngsters is around 42,000 – roughly 1 per cent of pupils. The half million number he quoted applies only to children in classes of between 31 and 35 – around 12 per cent of pupils.
The Labour leader’s promise to keep class sizes down plays on some understandable fears. Are they justified?
It should be understood that the rule about class size not exceeding 30, except in exceptional circumstances, applies only to infants – Key Stage 1 pupils (5 to 7 year-olds). The 2016 school census showed that slightly over half of these children are in classes of either 29 of 30. Among classes with over 30 pupils, 95 per cent exceed that limit by only one or two pupils. Jeremy’s “super-size classes” turn out to be the exception. Indeed, average class sizes have changed little over the past decade. At Key Stage 1 they have grown a little – from 25.6 to 27.4 – but at Key Stage 2 the size has remained stable, averaging around 27.
Only in Labour-controlled Wales have we seen this stability being undermined. Over-sized infant class have increased by 18 per cent in the past three years!
That small classes are better than large classes appears so self-evident that is not up for debate. In truth, however, it is only when class size fall to around 15 that real benefits accrue. That, at least, is the admission of the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity that focuses on the attainment of underprivileged children. It also concluded that pupils in classes of 35 are not disadvantaged compared to those in classes of 30.
What does make a big difference, of course, is the quality of teaching. Would you prefer to have your child in small class with an ineffective teacher or in a large class with an effective teacher? And that brings me to an advantageous side effect of a larger class. It necessitates traditional ‘whole-class’ teaching with the teacher at the front of the class and the pupils facing him or her. Larger classes make the much less effective ‘child-centred’ group work approach more or less impractical. In other words, it forces teachers to deploy a much more effective teaching methodology.
The larger classes that are a feature of our educational ‘betters’ in the Asia-Pacific are, also, characterised by ‘whole-class’ teaching. According to an OECD report in 2013 the largest average class size at lower secondary level amongst developed countries was to be found in Singapore (35.5). The city state today sits at the top of the PISA pupil attainment table for 15-year-olds.
Close to Singapore, both in terms of class size and league table position, were South Korea and Japan. England was ranked below average for class size (23.9) and in mid-table mediocrity for attainment. China was not included in this particular analysis but at around 50 its average class size is more than double those here and, yet, PISA data places 15-year-olds in Shanghai around 3 years ahead of ours.
Larger classes in UK schools would require ‘whole-class’ teaching methodologies to be much more widely deployed. These methods are both easier and less stressful for the teacher and more effective. Children make more progress and, consequently, behave better. Larger classes mean fewer teachers are required, which solves the teacher shortage problem. Finally, employing fewer teachers would mean more money in the pot to give a hefty pay rise to those teachers who make the grade.
Such a radical change might not allow state school pupils to have an education that quite matches the experience of the pupils in the private sector. Good independent schools provide both whole class teaching and small classes. It would, however, help to narrow the educational gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ of our education system and it would put us in touch with the best school systems around the world.