More may be better in the classroom?

Many years ago I was travelling back from a conference in the USA on an Air New Zealand flight where the newspapers handed out to passengers were New Zealand daily papers a couple of days old. Among the articles in one paper was a review of an education conference at which a DfES official – I think it was during that period of initials – had noted that many Asian countries had larger classes than in England and perhaps we might want to consider whether or not to copy them. I passed the item on to the education press when I reached England. The resulting piece in the now long gone weekly Education duly appeared under the headline that appears at the top of this blog. I was reminded of that episode, and the unfortunate civil servant who no doubt thought going all the way round the world he would be safe to speculate on such issues without anyone back home noticing – note for younger readers, this was in TDBI, the days before the internet, when it was normally safe to say things at conferences down under without any comeback in London – on reading about a report on the BBC Education page.

All this is by way of introduction to the new research published today by GEMS Education Solutions, but not yet seemingly available on their web site. According to the BBC Report, the researchers looked at education indicators from around the world and raked the UK – note it was the UK and not England – in 11th place. Two of the indicators were class sizes and teachers’ pay. Assuming that smaller class sizes don’t bring better results is, as I have shown above, not a new discussion and neither is teachers’ pay and remuneration. Outside of Helsinki, I don’t know what the demand for graduates is like in the rest of Finland compared with the output of new graduates. Wages may be relatively low because demand isn’t strong or because the national labour market has narrower differentials between jobs requiring a higher degree of education and those that don’t. There is evidence here that in the past depressing the pay of teachers reduces interest in the profession. Indeed, teachers are one of the few groups that have not benefited from the extra holidays most workers now receive. Fourteen weeks without pupils does not equate to 14 weeks of holiday whatever some of the press think. Add in INSET days, the days before and after term, parents’ evenings, the hours it is generally agreed teachers work during term-time, and it soon dips below the 8 weeks many professionals receive after holiday entitlement, bank holidays and the Christmas closures.

The main argument against bigger classes is that the classrooms simply wouldn’t accommodate them in many schools. Also at the start of schooling there are already wide differences between the stages of development of many children. Making them learn in larger groups won’t reduce that gap. As the statistics show, and has been reported on this blog, average class sizes have reduced in the secondary sector over the past few years while results have improved. Does that fact counter evidence of larger classes elsewhere? How do the researchers account for the behaviour of the private sector in this respect? I believe that GEMS did have schools with different class sizes in The Gulf, but I have no knowledge of them trying such an idea here. Perhaps they might experiment with offering a school with larger classes, but lower fees than is normal in the private sector, in a UK city and examine the results. My hunch is that there wouldn’t be many takers, but I am willing to be proved wrong.


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