Class sizes in the UK (maintained sector) are amongst some of the largest in the developed world. In recognition of this, in 1998, the then Labour government introduced a cap on the number of pupils per class in Key Stage One to be no greater than 30. There is no cap at key stage two. American research, STAR, supported the argument for small classes, concluding that children who are taught in small classes at primary school level are 20% more likely to do well at secondary level and, in the main, outperformed their peers in larger classes with many of them achieving significantly higher exam grades.
The Conservative and Liberal coalition government amended this directive to include the ability for schools to apply for an exemption limit. This amended appears to have enabled local authorities to accommodate the ever growing primary school numbers without expanding school or indeed building new ones.
A recent article in The Independent declared that more than half a million primary school children are now being taught in ‘super-size’ classes. This certainly appears to be supported by data released by the 2015 School Census which stated that the number of pupils in reception and key stage one being taught in ‘lawfully large’ classes has risen from 76,000 in 2014 to 96,000 in 2015. Not surprising when the number of primary school pupils has also risen by two per cent equating to an extra 94,000 children requiring places.
Understandably, larger classes are more cost effective and provide an argument for effective spending choice. The larger the class, the lower the costs per pupil therefore, more money is available to employ better teachers who demand higher salaries.
However, better teachers do not come with extra sets of eyes, ears and hands and the impact for larger classes on pupil development is significant. Not only for the very obvious reason of the higher the teacher/pupil ration the less individual attention a child will receive but because this also makes it harder to give close contact and immediate feedback to a child. It means the in depth marking capability is beyond that of a single teacher. All of which are logistics but clear predictors of positive pupil engagement.
I would suggest that many pupils who join us from schools with large classes come with a surface approach to learning where they have memorised knowledge rather than that of the deeper approach to learning which, facilitates a gathering of knowledge and provides opportunity for them to make sense of their learning. They also lack positive habits and skills such as hand writing and regular reading habits, all of which are necessary for effective learning.
That is not to say there is not impressive teaching taking place in larger classrooms – undoubtedly there is. However, in my view this is in spite of the challenges these teachers face. The Independent reported that every study on why parents choose independent schools has class size near the top of the list. Recent research from Exeter University shows the growth in class size is a paramount concern among parents, headteachers and teachers. I believe what our colleagues in state schools envy most about independent education is not their facilities, certainly many can match facilities, nor the impressive historic buildings but the ability to simply teach. They recognise that the true strength of Independent education is in the ability to give every individual pupil the attention they are entitled to and to spend time in the classroom teaching rather than managing social issues with the often accompanying demands, of poor behaviour and conduct.
Heather Cavanagh is Head of Junior School at Burgess Hill Girls