Is class size really irrelevant?

I find this very thorough piece of research (pdf) from the Institute of Education very disturbing. After observing almost 20,000 students in over 800 separate classes, the authors concluded that, at KS2 at least, class size doesn’t make any difference.

To put the research in context, it’s the latest contribution to a long debate about class size. I’ll resist the temptation to cite you a list of sources (you can use Google as well as I can) but I will summarise what I got from my overview this morning:

  • Most of the research is in Primary and may or may not pertain to Secondary. Adolescence must be a factor in managing large classes, surely?
  • All the research I’ve seen has restricted itself to a class-size range of 15-40, which is a shame. What about class sizes of 2 or 200?
  • Overall results are mixed, but nobody’s been able to show a really big benefit to small classes. The biggest claimed benefit I could find was a 6% economic benefit to the nation in the long term, for example.
  • Teachers, parents and politicians generally believe in the benefits of small classes to an extent way beyond what is supported in any research.

Reading through the research, I find my prejudice in favour of small classes challenged beyond the point of recovery. This is particularly embarrassing for me as I’ve been promoting elearning services such as Yacapaca (demo here) through the idea that by reducing teachers’ admin workload we can give each teacher more time in the classroom, thus enabling reduced class sizes.

Now I’m asking myself how attainment levels are maintained in large classes. Students definitely get less teacher attention in large classes, so what’s compensating for that? Drawing on memories of my own schooldays, I suspect that they will spontaneously support each other unless the teachers’ presence disrupts the dynamic.

If I’m right, then we need a radical rethink that puts peer support, not teacher leadership, at the centre of classroom practice. The teacher’s role becomes to set the frame and then stay out of the way, intervening only when the peer support process has visibly broken down.

This won’t come as a surprise to champions of collaborative learning, but to the rest of us, it’s a bit of a shock.

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