CLASS SIZE AND PUPIL PERFORMANCE
Reducing class sizes has mixed results-is it the most cost effective option to improve performance?
Many parents, and indeed politicians , perhaps most, feel that smaller class sizes must be better for a childs education : a smaller class will, after all, mean each child receives a greater proportion of the teacher’s time. One of Tony Blair’s initial pledges to the electorate , one of only five, was to reduce class sizes in Primary schools. For a real difference to be made in the classroom it is essential that the Government commits to achieving a maximum target of 20 pupils per teacher by 2020, according to the NUT. Nonsense, responds the centre right think tank Reform, saying that what is crucial is the quality of teaching, not class size. Dale Bassett who heads their Education team says that The Institute of Education found “no clear evidence” that extra adults in 5-to-7 year olds’ classrooms “had an effect on children’s progress”. Unions also it should be noted have a vested interest in reducing class sizes because it means recruting more teachers. Indeed in the United States where various class size reduction programmes have taken place Professor Eric Hanushek, and others, have argued that the real beneficiaries of class size reduction are the teacher unions who collect more revenue and gain more political clout with each new teacher. He states, “before the political popularity to voters of reductions in class size became known, most educational researchers and policy makers had discarded such policies as both too expensive and generally ineffective, leaving only teachers unions and others with clear vested interests in the policies to support such ideas.” Here there has been a surge in the size (and cost) of the school workforce. There are now 10 per cent more teachers and two-and-a-half times as many teaching assistants as there were a decade ago, and this increase has come despite falling pupil numbers. Teaching assistants (TAs) now number 194,000 and cost in excess of £1.7 billion a year. But evidence suggests their effect on education is limited. Indeed Professor Dylan Wiliam of the Institute of Education has found that teaching assistants if they have any effect on performance at all, it is probably negative. The Institute of Education, Ofsted and the OECD have all shown a negligible correlation between class size and outcomes. One study shows that the effect of reducing class sizes from 23 to 15 pupils improves the average student’s performance by only eight percentile points. Comparing countries’ performance in education league tables, it is clear that larger class sizes do not automatically lead to lower performance. Korea and Japan have bigger class sizes but do far better at maths than England. Luxembourg, which has particularly small class sizes, has much lower reading and maths attainment than England. What is clear though is that reducing class sizes is a costly business too, so a cost benefit analysis should take place.
What about international practice? In Australia a Grattan Institute study shows that reducing class sizes does not necessarily improve schooling. The study’s author, Dr Ben Jensen, says that while the drive to reduce class sizes is well intentioned, his research suggests that it has little impact on the quality of education for children. He says that more effective teachers would produce a better result. Professor Jensen referred to a recent example in Florida showing that the government spent $1 million per school per year reducing class sizes by about two and a half to three students. That was found to have no impact not only on student learning but on other factors such as bullying in schools and crime and absenteeism. California’s Class Size Reduction initiative (CSR) involved all schools in the state (voluntarily) and nearly 1.9 million students. Following its introduction in 1996, it was implemented statewide with extraordinary rapidity, but it currently costs the state upwards of $1.5 billion a year. However significant numbers of new teachers also led to accusations that many under-qualified teachers were employed to fill the supply gap. But behaviour problems did decrease over the period . Student test scores rose too. From the 1997-1998 to 2000-2001 school years, standardized test scores rose 13.4 points for the 2nd grade cohort, 12.1 points for the 3rd grade cohort. But research cannot definitively demonstrate a clear causal link between class sizes and performance improvements, as there were a host of other school reforms being implemented over this period aimed at improving performance. A Capstone Study Report on Class Size Reduction in California (2002) found that ‘ While student test scores have continued to improve in the elementary grades in California since CSR implementation, our evaluation, for a variety of reasons, is not able to determine what portion of those gains may be attributable to CSR.’
Some academics, for example, suggest that increased student and teacher familiarity with tests was one of the most significant factors affecting this increased performance. Professor Eric Hanushek, and others, have argued that the real beneficiaries of class size reduction are the teacher unions who collect more revenue and gain more political clout with each new teacher. He states, “[b]efore the political popularity to voters of reductions in class size became known, most educational researchers and policy makers had discarded such policies as both too expensive and generally ineffective, leaving only teachers unions and others with clear vested interests in the policies to support such ideas.”
Class Size reduction is certainly popular with parents but evidence is at best mixed about its effects on performance. It is no stand alone panacea for school improvement and if a programme is introduced it must be combined with other initiatives . It is also expensive, so politicians have got to establish whether the costs and benefits tally and if the goal is improved pupil performance, what other measures are most likely to secure the best returns in the form of improved pupil and schools performance. For example wouldn’t improved teacher training and CPD be a better investment of relatively scarce funds. As ever, evidence must inform policy.