Education Quandary: The Lib Dems want to reduce class sizes but how much difference would this actually make to educational standards?

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Hilary's advice

This is an excellent question because although it seems obvious that smaller classes must mean better schooling, the equation is not nearly as straightforward as it looks.

First, it's important to recognise that there is no such thing as a standard class. A class of 30 settled, hard-working children is an entirely different kettle of fish from a class of 30 deprived and troubled ones. And a class of 30 children with one teacher and a raft of great support staff is in a very different position to a class of 30 with just one unsupported teacher. Likewise, reducing class sizes substantially means something very different from simply shaving a pupil off here and there for the sake of meeting some arbitrary political target.

Having said all that, the best evidence we have on class sizes comes from Peter Blatchford, a professor of psychology at the Institute of Education in London, whose work shows that smaller class sizes bring a definite improvement in education for five- to seven-year-olds, although the evidence is less clear for older pupils. Smaller classes mean that pupils behave better and spend more time doing what they are supposed to do, and this is particularly true for lower achievers.

Research from around the world also shows that smaller classes means that teachers are less stressed, and are offered more opportunities to help pupils better. However smaller classes do not turn poor teachers into good ones, and it is also unclear what effect they have on important aspects of learning such as the degree to which pupils understand what they have been taught, or their ability to work independently.

In short, if money were to be spent on reducing class sizes, by far the best place to do this would be at the bottom end of school, and this is exactly what the Lib Dems have been proposing, with their promise to allow all infant schools the freedom to reduce their classes to 15.

However, since there is no money in the system to do anything, and as it would take a volcano the size of Eyjafjallajokull to propel Nick Clegg to the door of Number Ten tomorrow, all this will most probably have to remain hypothetical.

Readers' advice

Our daughter was struggling in a class of 31 at our local primary school, where there was also a group of boys who tried to disrupt every lesson. Her poor teacher was at her wits' end, and when we said we were thinking of moving our daughter she encouraged us. We moved her last September. She is now in a class of 16 and flourishing. The fees are a big struggle for us, but they are worth it.

Jill Whiteread, Hertfordshire

Class sizes in Japan and other Asian countries are often 40 or more yet these pupils do well in international comparisons of achievement. My question is: is it the class sizes that make a difference, or the attitudes that pupils come to school with?

Greg Finn, Cumbria

For teachers in primary schools, it probably makes a big difference. Younger children need a lot of attention which you just wouldn't be able to give if you had too many pupils. But in my secondary school classes I've had numbers between 24 and 36 and I can't honestly say it has made much of a difference. It's much more important what the mix of pupils is in the class, and how supportive your school is. The worst teaching I ever did was at the start of my career – not because of big classes but because of a really bad head and department head.

Cynthia Britton, Bournemouth

Next week's quandary

I'm a teacher who is very unhappy about my union's vote to boycott this year's SATs tests. It's not that I support the tests, but I have always believed that teaching is a profession and teachers should behave like professionals. Surely, boycotts and strikes undermine our authority by making us look like factory workers?

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