Eric Forth, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Schools, insisted in the House of Commons on Tuesday that there was no proven connection between class size and quality of education. The Labour party and many state school teachers counter that small classes are one of the main reasons why parents choose private schools.
Latest figures from the Government show that classes are getting bigger. Nearly a quarter of England's 3.6 million primary children are in classes of more than 30, and the numbers in classes of more than 40 have risen to nearly 11,300.
A paper published today by the National Commission on Education suggests that Mr Forth is wrong: the latest research from America shows that pupils educated in smaller classes during the first years of school have a head start over their peers. In a study of 7,000 pupils in 79 schools in Tennessee, researchers followed pupils from the ages of five to eight in small classes (13-17), regular classes (22-25) and regular classes with a full-time helper as well as the teacher.
At every stage, pupils in the smaller classes outperformed those in the other two in both reading and mathematics. Class size appears to be particularly important for younger pupils, whose places are traditionally less well funded than older ones. Those in the first year of compulsory schooling (six-year-olds) and those from disadvantaged backgrounds benefited most. Pupils maintained their progress for at least two years after they returned to larger classes.
However, Peter Mortimore and Peter Blatchford, of London University's Institute of Education, point out in the Commission's paper that evidence about class size is not clear-cut. Researchers find it difficult to evaluate its effect on pupils' education. How do you disentangle class size from other factors affecting progress, such as a school's intake? For instance, popular schools in middle-class areas tend to be full, while children in struggling inner-city schools may be in smaller classes.
The National Commission paper says there is a dearth of British research about class size, and existing studies are contradictory. In a report published in 1979, Professor Michael Rutter, then with the Institute of Education, found little evidence of the impact of class size in secondary schools. But a decade later Professor Mortimore showed that the youngest eight-year-olds progressed more quickly and performed better in maths if they were in smaller classes. Most recently, a study of the first national curriculum tests for seven-year-olds found that children in smaller classes were likely to score better, though these results are difficult to interpret because no allowance was made for pupils' ability, and less able pupils are sometimes taught in smaller classes.
Much more research has been done in America. A study published in California in 1982 argued that 'a clear and strong relationship between class size and achievement has emerged'. It said that teachers' morale improved if they taught smaller classes, and children were better motivated. However, a later US study suggested that within a range of between 23 and 30 pupils, class size seemed to have little effect on pupil performance beyond the early years.
Professor Mortimore and Dr Blatchford point out that primary school children in Britain are in bigger classes than their counterparts in almost every other industrialised country. Figures for 1988 show that Turkey, Ireland, Japan and the United Kingdom were the only industrialised countries where the average number of primary children per teacher was more than 20. Sweden had the lowest pupil/teacher ratio (11.1) and Turkey the highest (31.1). The figure for the UK was 22, compared with the average for 15 countries of 18.5. In most, including Britain, secondary schools are more generously staffed than are primaries.
The researchers conclude that the 'research from the US offers little doubt that very small classes can help attainment'. They add: 'Given that one important component of any learning situation is the time of the teacher available for individual pupils, it is hard to believe that smaller teaching units cannot promote better progress.'
Yet even the American research has not settled the argument. Critics say that the improvement in pupils' progress does not justify the extra expense of employing more teachers, and that the effect of smaller classes declines after the first year.
Professor Mortimore and Dr Blatchford say that one reason past studies have shown no clear benefits from small classes may be that teachers do not take advantage of what they offer. For example, they do not always provide more individual attention or more opportunities for pupils to carry out practical tasks.
Finally, they suggest that researchers should consult the only group that has not yet given its opinion about the importance of class size: the pupils. Someone, they say, should ask them if they feel less likely to be bullied, more confident about speaking out or simply happier if they are in smaller classes.
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