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)
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
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
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
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.