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Does class size affect the academic outcome of students?

Does class size affect the academic outcome of students?
Children sitting in a classroom


Rising class sizes in schools have created much debate in the past few years. In this post we will look at:

  • What class sizes in the UK look like just now.
  • The evidence to whether this has an impact on educational attainment.
  • Other alternatives to school education.  

What are the current class sizes in UK schools?

Class sizes in the U.K. are on the rise. Recent figures show that the number of secondary school students that are being taught in classes of 36 or more pupils has trebled in the last five years. There are in fact some schools in the U.K. where class sizes are as many as a staggering 46 pupils. Unfortunately, every region in England in the past few years has seen large-scale cuts in school spending, leading to an increase in class sizes.

School census information from 2016 showed that there were 17,780 state secondary school children being taught in classes with 36 or more - the highest for a decade. In 2011, this number was 6,107.

It’s not only secondary school classes that are on the rise, primary class sizes in UK state schools are now the fifth highest out of 33 countries. Average class sizes in state primary schools are now at 26 pupils, this figure is only beaten by China, Japan, Israel and Chile. The European Union average is just 20 whilst the OECD average is 21. Despite the big increase, the Department for Education claims that class sizes remain within the legal limits.


Do class sizes impact educational attainment?

So we know that spending cuts have led to an increase in class sizes in U.K. Primary and Secondary schools, but that begs the question, does this matter, and does have any impact on the academic attainment of pupils?

In a recent study by The Guardian newspaper, the head of the OECD Program of International Student Assessment (Pisa) surveys, Andreas Schleicher set out to put the record straight on the ‘myth’ that small classes raise standards. “This can’t be right”, he argues, “because high-performing education systems like those in east Asia focus on better teachers, not class sizes.

Existing research indicates that small classes can work well at improving pupil’s performance and engagement in the classroom, although reducing class size does not improve outcomes in the classroom by itself. Over many years, academic research on reduced class sizes has been divided and uncertain: as to the extent of the impact, whether the impact is positive or negative, and whether overall it is cost-effective. This is because it is the extent to which reduced class sizes are used in conjunction with other initiatives and the specific teachers and pupils involved that determines the potential impact that it can have

The Education Endowment Foundation however argues that reducing class sizes will have a positive impact on the educational experience and outcome of children and young people. They state that reducing class size appears to result in around 3 months additional progress for pupils, on average. According to their research, they argue that reducing the number of pupils in a class will improve the quality of teaching and learning, for example by increasing the amount of high quality feedback or one to one attention learners receive. However, overall the evidence does not show particularly large or clear effects, until class size is reduced substantially, such as to below 20 or even below 15 pupils. It appears to be very hard to achieve improvements from modest class size reductions above 20, for example from 30 to 25.

Alternatives to school education

There is no doubt that there are differences of opinion when it comes to the subject of class size and academic attainment. I am a teacher of ten years myself, having taught in both the state and private sector. I have taught some classes of around 35 students and some classes of around 11 to 12. My personal belief is that students in smaller class sizes receive a much more quality learning experience being taught in smaller class sizes. From my perspective as the teacher, it was very evident that providing quality individualised learning and feedback, each day, to every child in classes of around 35 simply was unfeasible. In smaller classes I was able to tailor my teaching to individuals, therefore meeting their every need in the learning. Some students cope perfectly well in large classes, they generally rely on their independence skills which allow them to self study and use their own critical thinking techniques to complete tasks themselves. Others students however relish the one-on-one support of their class teacher. They perform better when they are able to ask questions, seek guidance and reassurance. Small class sizes also inhibit a quiet, calm learning environment where productivity is generally at its highest.

As class sizes in the UK continue to grow, some parents may be looking at an alternative pathway to their child’s education. Current government legislation on homeschooling states that a child must receive a full time education from someone at home (usually a parent or guardian), however there is no legal requirement to follow a curriculum. There are currently around 37,000 young people in the UK who are homeschooled for a number of reasons. This is a 65% increase over the past six years and the number continues to rise.

Faster broadband speeds, advances in technology and the number of young people owning and using devices has opened up a new chapter in homeschool education - online schools. Online schools allow a child to be educated from home by a qualified teacher through a ‘virtual classroom’. Students are taught in small classes and the range of interactive features means that they are able to communicate with their peers and teacher. Online schools, such as follow a the National Curriculum, meaning that students can sit examinations at a time and place of their choosing and it also allows for a seamless transition back to ‘traditional school’, if and when they choose to return. Online schooling in the US has seen many wonderful successes and the UK is now starting to follow suit and opening up a new avenue for the way in which young people are educated in the 21st century.

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