Growing Class Sizes: A Cause For Concern?

Numbers Of New Pupils At Breaking Point

The Local Government Association (LGA) have warned that the cost of creating places for the additional 880,000 extra pupils expected in England by 2023 could lead many schools to a tipping point. Annual official figures from 2014 revealed that more super-size primary schools and infant classes had overrun legal limits on the number of students and that 77 primary schools had a student body of more than 800 pupils (Department for Education, 2014a). The LGA has highlighted the lack of space and funding required to extend schools further, and the resulting effect this will have on the availability of school places. They have estimated that the predicted costs for creating these extra places will be in the region of £12 billion, and official government figures project that by 2023 there will be at least eight million students in England’s schools; an extra million in comparison to current figures (Department for Education, 2014b).

Quality of Education

There is a clear concern regarding the impact that larger classes will have on the quality of teaching and learning within lessons. With upwards of thirty pupils to manage at any given time, many teachers have reported feeling overwhelmed and unable to offer the same standard of education as they would with smaller classes. Educators may not have time to develop the same individual relationships with all students, some pupils may feel too intimidated to ask questions or participate in discussions in a larger class, preparation and marking of assignments will obviously take longer than usual, and an increase in low level disruption may be evident as teachers try and engage, enthuse and challenge over 30 students.

The research appears to support such concerns. Studies on the effects of class size on student academic achievement suggest that there is a definite positive impact when students are taught in smaller groups. One study by Nye, Hedges and Konstantopoulos (2000) found that the benefits of a smaller class size were applicable to all students and schools, and this benefit was large enough to be of importance to educational policy. The long-term effects were also noted by Fredriksson, Ockert and Oosterbeek (2013) in their evaluation of the correlation between class size in the last three years of primary school and the benefits on cognitive and non-cognitive ability at age 13. The research found that smaller classes led to improved achievement at age 16, higher rates of completed education, and an increase in wages between the ages of 27 and 42.

The Wider Impact

January saw the deadline for applications to primary schools for over 370,000 new students. Although councils have stated they are doing everything they can do ensure there are places for every child, many schools have admitted they are already over capacity with lessons taking place in makeshift classrooms and with difficult to manage class sizes. This can add to the already stressful experience that parents face when trying to secure a place for their child. Gone are the days when children simply attended the primary school closest to the family home. Although the local authorities allocate places as fairly as possible (siblings tend to be offered a place, for example), if the near by schools are over subscribed these days, parents and children can face a long commute in the mornings to school. Many young couples planning to start a family must now take into account the availability of local schools, or face having to move house in the future. House prices in locality of good state schools have increased significantly in response, with research by estate agents showing a premium of up to 16.6 per cent for homes near the top schools (Knight Frank, 2014). This additional amount can add to the already expensive cost of education and put extra pressure on families.

Dealing With A Larger Class

Alongside additional funding from central government, the LGA has argued for councils to be given the authority to open new schools in order to meet a growing local need. The government has suggested that part of the solution will come from the creation of academies and free schools, which should provide over 200,000 new places across England. However, this will only be a temporary and incomplete measure. In the meantime, many teachers will still be faced with a growing problem.

UNESCO (2006) released a free downloadable resource full of practical teaching tips for large classes, which many educators will find useful. The guide contains useful recommendations on organising the physical classroom environment to maximise space, using psycho-social tools to make a large class feel smaller, techniques to build better relationships with individual students, involving students as class assistants or peer teachers, dealing with potentially shy students in group or classroom discussions, managing pupil behaviour, effective lesson planning and structure, and managing assignments and homework.



Photo: Moaksey

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