Smaller isn’t necessarily better when it comes to school class sizes
There are many truisms for what constitutes a better school education. One of them is that smaller class sizes lead to better academic performance.
It may be true, but it’s not proven. It’s possibly a reaction to constant upward pressure on class sizes and number of classes per year in state education.
There is some evidence that smaller class sizes can help pupils in Reception to Year 2, those with lower attainment and those performing practical tasks.
But outside these groups analyses have failed to isolate class size from other success factors such as parental support, a pupil’s innate ability, out-of-school tutoring, and cultural attitudes.
Furthermore, pupils in Asia, particularly China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore achieve better academic results than British children…with much bigger class sizes.
Why do we think smaller class sizes are better?
Intuitively “smaller is better” makes sense. A smaller class should mean more attention for each pupil. The ideal class size should therefore be one pupil, who gets all the teacher’s attention. Some parents are good to their word and take it upon themselves to deliver the ideal teaching ratio. 0.5% of children in the UK are schooled at home by their parents. Others pay for the one-to-one relationship with private tutoring. Usually for one subject and for a short period of time. Private tutoring is a £1-2Bn a year business in the UK.
Also, in a smaller class, pupils should behave better. Pupils are more visible and the teacher has a greater span of control. Business practice tells us that a manager should have 5-6 direct reports in a change environment. That number progresses to 15-20 for a stable environment. Quite how the business organisation translates to a teacher teaching pupils is a matter of conjecture. But, I would suggest that teaching new skills is closer to a change than stable environment. More so for younger pupils. But this span of control argument suggests a class size of 10-13 on average, 20-26 if there is a teaching assistant.
What is a smaller class size?
Some schools claim to have smaller class sizes. Parents want smaller class sizes. But, and it’s a big but, smaller than what? There’s not often a number associated the statement. So here are a few.
In 2016 the average state primary school class size was 27.4 pupils in England, 23.5 in Scotland and 25.6 in Wales. For mainstream independent primary schools the average class size was 16.1.
In state education, because a class size of 30 is a statutory maximum, there is periodic press coverage about the number of classes exceeding that number. Currently it’s one in 20 in England. Perhaps more interesting is the 44% of all state primary pupils in classes of 30.
Also in 2016, the average state secondary school class (11-16) size was 20.4 pupils in England and 23.0 in Wales. Secondary school classes vary greatly within schools according to subjects taken.
So what is a smaller class size? Is it 25, 20, 15, 10 or even 5? Or is it just a class that is smaller than average? What average? There’s no answer to this. But schools market themselves on it, and those class sizes can be similar to or even higher than the UK average. Maybe 30, the statutory maximum, is the magic number. If you have a class of 30 you can’t claim to be smaller, but you can with a class size of 29.
How small should a class be? The economic consideration
If 29 is the unproven consensus for the upper end of smaller class sizes, what about the lower end?
Theoretically it’s one; a one to one teaching ratio, but for nearly everyone that’s unaffordable. No-one pays for individual tutoring on a one-to-one basis for all subjects, unless they are home schooling. We all opt for the co-operative that is the school.
An average mainstream state primary class with a teacher and an assistant needs 16 pupils to break even on direct salaries alone. For the average independent primary the number is 10 pupils because income per pupil is higher. If we gross up by 40% for management, ancilliary staff and overheads we get a breakeven of 23 pupils for the average state primary and 14 pupils for the independent.
There are loads of caveats with these numbers. This is a bare bone provision, and what exactly is an average school with an average pupil mix? And it is not to suggest that schools with higher numbers of pupils are raking it in. To the contrary. The current school funding debate shows that overheads and extras are far greater that the 40% allowed for here.
But it does suggest a minimum class size for the average school at which the school is economically viable. Any lower and the school will have to either increase its funding/fees, merge classes or somehow cut costs. In other words, if the school you are looking at has an average class size of less than 23 (state) or 14 (independent) pupils you need to ask questions.
How small should a class be? The social consideration
Secondly, there is the social consideration. A class is much more than a group of pupils. It is also a social mix of young people who are interacting with each other on many different levels. All of these interactions are a valuable part of education.
There must be an theoretical class size below which the social educational experience decreases. I’ve not seen any particular study on this. But there are anthropological studies which suggest how many friends we can really cope with. One particular scientist, Robin Dunbar, has suggested that on average we have five closest friends and ten next closest friends. This is within an average acquaintance network of 150. For an average primary school pupil, if the five closest is family, let me suggest that the minimum class size for social educational experience is the ten next closest friends. And that assumes that he or she interacts with them all.
Pupil to teacher ratios are different to class sizes
It is important to note pupil to teacher ratio too. The term is often used interchangeably with class sizes. Incorrectly, as the pupil to teacher ratio also includes the additional teaching staff that teach your children. A low pupil to teacher ratio either means that the pupils are being taught by specialist staff for certain subjects or the classes are split into smaller teaching groups; possibly sets. Either way, and economics aside, the lower the better for the pupil to teacher ratio. As a reference, the average UK state primary school has a pupil to teacher ratio of 20. The average UK independent primary school has a pupil to teacher ratio of 11.8.
There are political reasons why 44% of state primaries have exactly 30 pupils per class just as there are commercial reasons why independent schools’ choose the class sizes they have. Whatever the ideal class size is, the popular belief that smaller class sizes will improve educational outcomes is dangerously simplistic and misguided.