When my mother (now 92 years old) started teaching, it was just after the Second World War. Some of the first classes she faced in north London had 50 pupils. She found it very difficult to keep discipline, and very difficult to keep the attention of every student. The reason the classes were so big was that school buildings were bombed out and teachers in short supply, both because of wartime losses.
With reports suggesting that an extra 250,000 primary school places will be needed this year, and with budgets cut and inner city land costs escalating, it is possible that we will be approaching a similar sort of crisis soon. The same thing happened when there was a boom in numbers during the 1990s. And we can’t blame it on the war.
Labour Leader Ed Miliband has chosen to make pursuing small classes part of his election platform, and that feels like a good idea. The amount of money he has promised to deal with it probably won’t scratch the surface, however. Most classrooms are designed for 30 children. To meet the high demand for places and couple this with low class sizes of 20, the Government would need a third as much classroom space again, which isn’t achievable overnight, if it were achievable at all on current finances.
Does it matter that class sizes are big?
Academic research into the achievement of children in different size classes tends towards the conclusion that student numbers don’t make much difference – unless you can reduce to around 15 children per class, which is not financially viable, especially in crowded city schools. But the marginal difference between achievement in a class of 35 compared to 30, say, is difficult to measure and may appear statistically insignificant.
The effect that the difference of a few pupils per class might have on a teacher is also hard to gauge: how much more stress does five or ten extra pupils create for a teacher who has the extra books, study materials and class control to deal with? What is the tipping point which will cause that teacher, and all the resources it has taken to train them, to leave the profession?
Think back to your own schooling. Remember when you were in a small group for a project, or someone came in to help, and suddenly there was a group of ten of you, with the chance to actually talk to the teacher and discuss things? You would be engaged, pleased with the attention, and determined to learn. Imagine, or remember, what it would be like at the back of a class of 40, unable to see or hear properly: disengagement.
There must be a middle way. Whatever the academic studies show, all common sense leans towards the fact that young children are likely to be more interested and focused if they are in a relatively smaller group where a teacher can keep their attention more easily. Yes, of course, there are brilliant teachers who can hold a class of 40 in the palm of their hand, but most teachers are mere humans. What can be done, if slowly, to stave off the growth of huge classes?