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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Why was it teachers want smaller classes again…?

A few month ago on this blog I wrote a piece about the unique situation (at least unique for me), I found myself in of having one class of just sixteen pupils. I found myself reflecting on the educational opportunities such a small group offered me as an art teacher.

This week I return to school and it is fair to say that normality has returned with a bang, at least in terms of the numbers in my classes, except somewhat worse than every other year I can remember in my 13 years of teaching. The forthcoming year I am teaching six different classes, three younger classes for art and design and three slightly older classes for a broader art and cultural studies class. All these lessons involve a mixture of theory and practical lessons.

The overall picture is as follows:

1st years (12-13 year olds), one class of 30 pupils

3rd years (14-15 year olds), one class of 25 pupils and one class of 29 pupils

4th years (15-16 year olds), one class of 28 pupils  and two of 32 pupils

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Thirty two is more than I’ve ever taught. I don’t like to start the year with a moan or a rant, but how can this be good for the quality of education that we offer?  Way too much of my time in these situations is spent simply being a sort of technician, ensuring everyone has their work and their materials at the start and that everything gets cleared up and put away at the end of the hour. Where’s the space for the teaching? Well it’s in there somewhere squeezed in between the start-up and the closing down phase.  Needless to say, it’s not so much time, and spread between thirty two pupils there is not a lot of space for differentiation towards the abilities of the various types of pupils in the group. Individual assistance…..so often needed in a practical art class is close to impossible for more than just a few seconds!

I said in my earlier piece that education quality has everything to do with class size and class size has everything to do with quality. I find myself right at the beginning of the school year looking at my course plans, particularly for those two classes of thirty two and thinking how can I slim this down, what can I get rid of?  This simply being to make it possible to cope with the deluge of written marking work that such a class produce and to make the lessons themselves work practically with thirty two sixteen year olds filling a classroom to a level of over capacity.

From the very first lesson of the year the education is being compromised and the quality reduced. This is why we need smaller classes.

If anyone has similar problems or suggestions on how to deal with these challenges I’d be only too glad to hear them!

So why do teachers want smaller classes?

Many of the classes I teach are groups of thirty pupils. Much is written in the media about the significance of large classes and the negative effect it has on the quality of education offered to pupils. My own personal opinion is that thirty is for most teachers in most situations simply too many.

As a teacher of a practical subject that involves an assortment of materials, setting up at the start of a lesson and clearing up at the end this is definitely the case. Add to this that fact that teachers are encouraged to offer lesson material that reflects varied abilities in a class, allowing individuals to play to their own strengths, resulting in even more one on one teaching being necessary and, well, I’m sure you get the picture.

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With this being the prevalent situation there is one particular type of assignment that often falls victim to this pressure of numbers. That assignment being the three dimensional assignment.  Whether you are working with clay, wood, papier-mâché or some other material, the sheer logistics of it is hard enough in a one hour lesson, let alone when you are trying to shepherd and guide thirty thirteen year olds…..and this is of course before we even get onto the potential safety issues that arise from such a group working with band saws, sanding disks, knives or other tools.

With all this in mind it can be incredibly refreshing when through a quirk in the timetable you unexpectedly end up with a radically small class, as is the case this year with my group of 14 year olds in 2hvq. It is a class of just sixteen children and has opened the door on a chance to try out a few things that in a larger class I might not have embarked on.

With a larger class the temptation is to often rely on assignments that the whole class can work through step by step together. This is all well and good but such an approach often places limitations on the creativity that pupils themselves bring to the project. My smaller 2hvq class has allowed me to put such limitations aside and we have worked on an insect building project that grown and developed through ideas that the group themselves have brought to the table. A large range of materials have been used, conventional and found materials. The resulting work has been surprising to watch develop and interesting to see just how engaged the class has been.

So why would I generally like smaller classes? It really is pretty simple, my pupils would be better served by it. In most lines of work you deal with one customer at a time, in teaching it is often thirty, it would be fine if they all wanted the same thing at the same time, but believe me this is not the case, and in the art room I wouldn’t want it to be either.