Leading Article: Size isn't everything in the classroom

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The Independent Online
MANY readers must have been astonished to read in yesterday's Independent that a senior official of the Department for Education believes that bigger class sizes lead to higher standards in schools. But those who pay to send their children to independent schools were probably the most astonished of all. For it is not only the attraction of higher-quality education that draws parents to the private sector; it is also the quantity of teaching that will be devoted exclusively to their own offspring. Could both independent schools and the parents they serve be labouring under a delusion?

The case for bigger classes rests primarily on the statistical evidence from societies in the Far East - notably Japan, China and the industrialised nations of Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These have both a tradition of large classes and an impressive performance in international comparisons of achievement, mainly at mathematics.

Yet class size is only one of many differences between the lives of school pupils in Britain and their equivalents in East Asia. Not only is it hard to establish a casual relationship between class size and achievement across such different countries; there is not even a common notion of education from which to start. Compared with their British counterparts, East Asian teachers spend more time on teaching facts to pupils, which they write down in silence and then memorise at home, and less on drawing out their ideas and expanding their imaginations. Under such systems, it is no wonder that class sizes matter less.

When this debate surfaces in Britain, vested interests are all too easy to detect. The Treasury will always be receptive to the suggestion that there are better ways to improve British education than to hire more teachers; teaching unions will inevitably wish the reduction of student-teacher ratios to be a primary aim of education policy, and will lobby for increases in teacher numbers on that basis.

The truth, as most parents know from their own workplaces, is that other things being equal, it is easier to communicate with fewer people than with more. The trouble is that in education, other things are not equal. And that is why we should shrink from drawing sweeping conclusions from unsubstantiated statistics.