Class sizes, it’s a numbers game…..and being lucky, for this year at least

Its the start of another school year.  Everyone returns rested after an unusually warm summer holiday.  This year though, for me at least , something has changed a bit and it is leaving me feeling a little more positive than this time last year.

The reason for this optimism is simple, It lies in the way that the pupil numbers cookie has crumbled this year for me, I have been fortunate.  Across the seven classes that I teach the average number of pupils in the classes has dropped by five.  Last year my biggest class was a whopping 32 and the smallest one of 24.  This year that has become a biggest of 27 and the smallest a tiny group of 17.  (All my classes fall in the 12-16 year age group)

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Wow, what an improvement you might say! And this year it certainly is. But I did have the experience of last year first and I have been doing this long enough to know that next year will almost certainly spring back to more normal levels.

Class sizes are, in most cases, simply a numbers game.  There are ‘good’ numbers and numbers that are less desirable. If, in a given cluster or year layer within the school there are 90 children, that means three classes of 30 will be made.  However, if there are 75 in the cluster the result will be a much more attractive three groups of 25.  A disaster number for most of my colleagues would be 96, as I work at a school where we have been known to create classes of 32 on occasions. My mini class of 17 this year is the product of a particular cluster counting 34 children…..too many (just!) for one class to be created, but seemingly extremely generous when two of seventeen are the result.

Like I said, it is a numbers game of balancing the class sizes as much as possible, but then there is the other numbers game of the financial consequences (extra teaching hours and other resources) of having to create an extra or unexpected class also playing a significant part.

There is research that suggests that class sizes has little impact on pupils’ learning.  If I’m honest, when I’m up the front explaining something to the whole group it makes little difference if the class is 17 or 32.  Maybe it could even be more than 32.  Equally if everyone is simply getting on with an assignment quietly and I’m marking or preparing the next activity, then the group size is of little significance.

However, and it is a big however, this doesn’t explain why the class sizes that I have got this year have left me with a feeling of relief. Let me list a few positives of smaller class sizes. Some are general to most teachers, some are more specific to me as a teacher whose work involves a significant amount of practical activities:

Classroom individual contact time

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As an art teacher a significant amount of my teaching is done one on one, walking around the classroom helping, assisting, guiding and encouraging individual pupils. Smaller classes means more opportunity for this sort of teaching. More personal contact can only be good for the quality of the education.

Materials practicalities and limitations

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Most art teachers work without technician to support them. The smaller the class means that more complex practical variations can be offered. You can move away from the tendency towards a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The teacher becomes less of the technician shuffling and preparing materials at the expense of the actual content and teaching that they should be involved with.  Choices and differentiation within the lesson and the materials on offer are increased.

More effective lesson time

The start-up and clear-up phases of lessons with a smaller class are reduced and invade on the lesson time less. The result is simply more effective education time at the core of the lesson.

Admin and marking reductions

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If I am honest, it is here that my smaller classes this year give me the best feeling.  One of the subjects I teach has particular benefits in this area.  In this subject the pupils have to produce written reports of cultural activities that they have completed. Think film reports, theatre reports, exhibition reports and so on.  If I ask 80 pupils (like I had last year) to produce a 1000 word report…..yes, do the maths, that’s 80000 words……and giving eighty times written feedback on top.  46 (like this year) is obviously a significant saving in the time that I will be ploughing through the work my classes produce.  This freeing up of time obviously also opens the chance to maybe do other things that benefit my pupils further.

For me these are four pretty convincing reasons why class sizes are a serious issue in the eyes of so many who work in education.  It results in conflict and disagreements within schools, where leadership groups are asked to balance budgets using the resources that have been allocated.  Their hands are often tied by the financial restraints imposed on them.

There are many things that can be done to improve the quality of education.  Class sizes is certainly one of them.  But national educational budgets are generally failing to recognize this.

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When you have time on your hands…..

In the days when I was a student I had the habit for a while of watching old movies on a Sunday afternoon. As a young art-student I had the feeling that I had a whole load of culture to catch up on and dipping into the history of film making was part of that. It was kind of a weekend luxury that I enjoyed, and in a way, whenever I watch films from the Hollywood output of the 1940s and 50s I am taken back to my Sunday afternoon student days in London when college was over for the week.  I had time on my hands and enjoyed familiarizing myself with the cinema of the past, it was all a little like reading a good book on holiday.

I still like watching old movies and regularly dip into watching one when I have time. Mostly that will be online or on a DVD at home. The chance to watch them on the big screen comes along less often. But in the last week of the school holidays, a day in Amsterdam visiting the museums ended with a trip to the Amsterdam Eye to see Double Indemnity, part of the Billie Wilder season being shown there. Screen 3 wasn’t full, but there was a pretty good turnout for the early evening screening. The lights dimmed and instead of the curtains pulling back for the full wide screen effect as they normally do, they shuffled almost apologetically to a slightly narrower aspect for the old screen format……before the black and white film began to roll.

In my work in education I have to work hard at times to convince the 15-year olds that the technological advances, that are a constant feature of the film world, aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to quality. Many at times seem convinced that the newest films, with all their computer aided opportunities and effects are, by definition, going to be a better film. Why anyone would choose to watch a black and white movie when vivid colour is so obviously so much better is beyond them. They are only fifteen, and maybe at least in part thanks to the lessons we are able to spend looking at films outside of their normal film consumption, some of them at least will open up to a broader and richer view of the cinematic world that is on offer.

Whether this will ever result in any of the turning up to watch an early evening showing of a film noir classic such as Double Indemnity I’ll probably never know. But if they don’t they’ll be missing the performances of Fred MacMurray and the captivating Barbara Stanwyck and the razorsharp Raymond Chandler script.