Small primary classes fail to improve results, study finds

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Children who are taught in small primary school classes do no better than pupils educated in large groups, a government-funded study has found.

Children who are taught in small primary school classes do no better than pupils educated in large groups, a government-funded study has found.

The three-year study concluded that eight- to 11-year-olds in big classes were given less individual attention than pupils in small classes but this made no difference to results. Pupils in the largest classes did better in English than children in small groups during the last year of primary school.

The findings will surprise many parents who are keen for their children to be taught in the smallest available classes. Small classes are cited as one of the main reasons families pay thousands of pounds a year for their children to attend independent schools.

The study, by academics at London University's Institute of Education, tracked the progress of more than 8,700 eight- to 11-year-olds in more than 200 English state primary schools between 2000 and 2003.

It followed an earlier study by the same team which found that small class sizes had little effect on younger pupils. However, it found that the very youngest children - four- and five-year-olds - did better in small classes.

Surprisingly, the latest research found that factors such as teachers' experience and length of time at the school also had no influence on pupils' attainments in any subject.

The children from the poorest backgrounds made the least progress throughout - starting behind other children aged seven and falling further behind by the age of 11. Ethnic background was not found to influence children's progress.

The debate over the optimum class size has been a controversial one. After coming to power in 1997, the Labour Government pledged that no five-, six- or seven-year-old would be taught in classes of more than 30 children by 2002. This target was largely achieved, but ministers refused to set targets for even smaller classes or extend the pledge to older primary pupils.

The research acknowledged that the three-year study had been commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills because, "despite the vigorous debate" on class sizes, research had so far been unable to prove what was the best size for primary school classes. However, the academics argued that this latest study had come to the "clear conclusion" that there was "no evidence" that children in smaller classes made more progress.

It concluded that the Government should target its resources on ensuring that the youngest children were taught in small groups rather than trying to cut class sizes for all children.

The team also found that class size had a strong influence on the way children were taught and lessons were structured. But these different methods had no impact on children's progress.