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The Inconvenient Truth about Class Size

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Gouldian Finch | June 3, 2019
The Inconvenient Truth about Class Size

Quick Take: UK schools like schools around the world are facing a shortage of teachers and growing class sizes. Take a look at the reasons and effects of larger class sizes on teacher and students.  

How class size is affected if you are missing 30,000 teachers?  The falling number of teachers within UK schools and the potential impact this will have has been at the forefront of people’s mind and gained a lot of attention in the media.

Staffing levels within schools have been affected, most notably, due to difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff. This is not just because of workload and pressurised conditions making some teachers want to leave the profession, but is also the result of funding cuts that mean schools simply can no longer afford to employ the same number of teachers as they had previously.

While euphemisms like ‘restructuring' can be placed upon these processes, what such terms really reflect is a need to cut back to beyond the bare essentials for safe, let alone effective education.

As schools across the country are affected by the changes, ranging from poorly performing schools to ‘outstanding’ ones, we have witnessed many that are no longer able to replace staff because they simply cannot afford to.

Larger class sizes to fill in the gaps

Whilst this raises many concerns and questions regarding the health of our education system, some research has indicated that the biggest concern in this area, and perhaps one of the most immediately felt of current changes, is that of increasingly large class sizes.

Surprisingly, research has suggested that class size doesn’t act as such a wide differentiator for pupil performance as previously thought. However, even with the knowledge that academic performance might not be affected, it is of great importance to consider, beyond the grades, how larger classes might affect pupils.

When does big become ‘too big’? Will we begin to see primary and secondary schools classes reaching 50 and 60 pupils, reflecting sizes more like those seen within Universities? Already, in some areas, schools are reporting climbing class sizes as staff numbers fall.

Teacher workload and class size problem

5 Effects of larger classes on teachers & students 

  1. Lower meaningful relationships
  2. Lower pupil engagement
  3. Increase in workload
  4. Harder teacher recruitment 
  5. Harder teacher retention

With such high-class numbers starting to become a reality within British schools, we need to be looking at whether the benefits of larger classes appropriately dilute any negative outcomes that might be seen because of larger class sizes.

It is difficult to see how teachers would be able to have any kind of meaningful relationship with students as class sizes increase since time per pupil would ultimately decrease. Beyond this, it is to be expected that pupil engagement would be reduced too, giving children less opportunity to develop critical thinking as they would not have the same capacity to participate and explore their activities or environments.

Furthermore, larger class sizes would mean an increase in workload through an increase in marking and preparation. Ultimately, this would create a negative cycle for teacher recruitment and retention as it would create a more pressurised environment, which may encourage fewer people to enter the profession and more teachers to leave.

Further to this, we need to question why University lecture sizes are able to have such high numbers while it’s expected that primary and secondary school classes are respectively smaller. One reason is undoubtedly is University students have the comprehension and maturity to learn in this way and grasp concepts on a more theoretical basis. Is this something that we should really expect of our younger students? And if it’s perhaps not affecting them academically, it is possible that it may be affecting their self-worth and well-being as they are unable to create secure attachments with their teachers; the adults they spend a large part of their lives with.

How to answer a hard question – more teachers

Unfortunately, like most people, we don’t have an easy answer because there are no easy answers for difficult situations, and any solution will take time, patience and cooperation to fully realise.

With any answer offered, one thing that is evident is that more people are needed in the profession, as well as people who will be able to take supporting roles that perhaps aren’t available at the moment. The hope in this is that they will be able to take some of the burdens off teachers as well as giving students some opportunity to develop the positive and engaging relationships that they deserve and need.

We owe it to our young people to ensure that they have more opportunities than we had or, at the very least have the same ones. However, we can see that the education system is in danger of failing them in this way. This is despite the hard work of teachers and the head teachers in particular, who are trying to maintain high levels of education, even in the face of some of the worst cuts we have ever experienced.

This article was contributed by Leon Hady, the former Headteacher of an ‘Outstanding’ school in the UK. He now focuses on online learning having created an online video personalisation portal; helping over 100,000 students pass exams at and also helping teachers become qualified alongside a nationwide recruitment agency to combat the teacher shortage in the UK

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