Dani Garavelli: Size matters in school classrooms

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council said there was no substantive evidence to suggest smaller class sizes would improve pupil outcomes. Picture: AP
The Scottish Parent Teacher Council said there was no substantive evidence to suggest smaller class sizes would improve pupil outcomes. Picture: AP
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EVERY time my youngest son comes home from school and tells me a new boy or girl has joined his class, my heart sinks a little.

I am not averse to him gaining a potential playmate, but the room he uses in a prefab hut detached from the main building is already heaving. I’ve lost track of the exact number it is currently required to accommodate, but his class has never had fewer than 27 ­pupils in it and now has more than 30.

Having seen similar numbers of children stream out of other rooms, I wasn’t surprised to discover the Scottish Government had failed to meet its targets on reducing class sizes. Last week, it emerged the average number of pupils in Primaries 1 to 3 is now 23.2, up from 22.7 in 2012 and 22.8 when the SNP came to power in 2007, although almost all P1s are now in classes of 25 or less – up from 33 per cent in 2006.

While these figures compare favourably to my son’s P5 class, they have to be set against early SNP pledges to reduce all P1-3 classes to 18 (a proposal it backed away from in 2009 on the grounds it was unattainable) and falling teacher numbers.

The government’s failure to deliver on its policy has been blamed on the cuts. This may be true in some areas, but the jam-packed East Renfrewshire classrooms have little to do with stretched budgets; they are caused by parental choice. With a reputation for producing good results, the local authority’s schools attract placement requests from pupils outside the catchment area and, unless the class involved has reached its legal limit of 33, they have little choice but to accept them.

Even if the money were available, there is no spare land on which to build new classrooms or to expand existing ones, so the extra pupils have to be packed into an already cramped environment. Furthermore, as each classroom fills up, the whole school starts to feel the strain, with children jostling for a space to play and lunch halls barely able to get everyone fed before the bell rings. Such schools are, it seems, victims of their own success.

There is a contradiction here; while aspirational parents who choose private schools cite smaller class sizes as one of their primary motivations, aspirational parents who choose popular state schools prioritise other factors, such as the quality of teaching and league table rankings, over basic numbers. They would rather their children attended a “good” school with large classes, than a “poor” one with small classes. Indeed, since the scale of demand could be seen as an indicator of quality, such parents may be particularly attracted to those schools which will find it most difficult to fit them in.

When the SNP reduced the legal limit for P1 classes to 25 in 2011, many parents were up in arms because it meant they were having placement requests turned down by their preferred school which was now oversubscribed and obliged to take catchment children first. As a result, some families were forced to choose between splitting siblings up or removing an older child from a school in which they were happy. Meanwhile, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council said there was no substantive evidence to suggest smaller class sizes would improve pupil outcomes.

This claim is borne out empirically.­ Since those schools whose classes regularly­ reach their legal limit as a result of their popularity continue to rank among the top performers in the country, large classes cannot be an automatic barrier to success. But academic research also suggests the SNP’s faith in smaller class sizes may be misplaced. It is logical to assume that the fewer children are in your child’s class, the better he or she will do. In smaller classes, individual children will get more one-to-one attention. Teachers will know them better and there will be less disruption to lessons. This is the ­theory peddled on the websites of independent schools. But studies suggest that while P1 children do better in an intimate setting, higher up the school, the importance of smaller class sizes may be superseded, or at least diluted, by other factors, such as the quality of the teaching, parental involvement and how well the curriculum is thought out and delivered.

It has to be said, the findings of academic studies are contradictory, probably because there are so many variables in any given classroom it is difficult to compare like with like. Some suggest smaller class sizes may help low-achieving children, but most conclude there are better ways of raising grades than reducing the number of pupils. Research conducted by Durham University, for example, suggests quality feedback from teachers is more effective in improving performance than smaller classes, uniforms or homework.

The unions, naturally, back smaller classes which are easier to manage, produce less work for marking and require a greater number of personnel overall. But, while the Durham study found that once numbers fell below 20, teachers altered their approach, helping pupils learn more effectively, they concluded there was little to be gained from a reduction from 30 to 25.

I’d have to say I’d still rather my own children were in slightly smaller classes. With more than 30, it’s difficult to throw off the perception they may be overlooked. Yet my own experience suggests the amount of progress they make has far more to do with the personality and skills of their teacher than how many others they have to share him/her with.

Reducing class sizes is arguably the most expensive of all educational policies. Perhaps we should just accept that it is not attainable in the current climate and start looking at cheaper and more creative ways of enhancing our children’s education. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1