The National Union of Teachers is threatening to strike unless the Government introduces a legal maximum class size of 20. Meanwhile, schools minister Jim Knight was booed at another teaching union conference when he suggested that larger classes might sometimes be acceptable, leading to predictable groans that the Government favoured "classes of 70".
The debate about class size is always emotional. Cutting classes is an easy sell to parents and teachers. It is why many parents who can afford it choose private schools. And it was why Labour made cutting infant class sizes one of its five key commitments on its 1997 pledge cards.
It is now illegal to have five- to seven-year-olds in classes of over 30, though there are legal exceptions such as mid-year admissions. The numbers in such classes have fallen as a result, from 470,000 in 1997 to 23,000 last year, with only 4,300 in "unlawfully large" classes. So one can see why the NUT might argue that it makes sense to extend and lower this legal limit.
Moreover, average classes are larger in England than in other developed nations. The OECD reported last year that just six countries (Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Brazil, Chile and Israel) had larger primary classes than our average of just over 26. (The average secondary class size is 21.)
But class size is not the only measure of manageability. After meeting its infant class pledge, Labour focused on improving teaching quality and providing far better support for teachers. There are 35,000 more teachers in schools than in 1997, but there has been an even bigger expansion in support staff. A decade ago, there were 60,000 teaching assistants in English schools; last year, there were 163,000. The number of other support staff, including IT technicians and lab assistants, has doubled too. The result is that, while there are about 22 pupils to every teacher in primary schools, there is one adult for every 12.4 pupils, compared with 1:18 a decade ago.
And the evidence suggests that cutting class sizes is not the best way to get results. Professor Dylan Williams of the Institute of Education has calculated that a 30 per cent reduction in class sizes would give children the equivalent of four extra months of educational development, but at a cost of £20,000 per class per year. However, formative assessment – monitoring, feedback and responsiveness to student needs – provides an eight extra months of development for only £2,000 per classroom per year. In other words, improved assessment would be 20 times more cost-effective in pupil achievement.
Williams accepts that smaller classes are easier to manage when there are disruptive pupils. But there are tried and tested behaviour management regimes that are much more cost-effective than expensive class size cuts. And teaching assistants play an important role in making classes more manageable.
The NUT might be on stronger ground were they calling for smaller infant class sizes, though Williams – and American studies – suggest that further real benefits for this age group require classes of below 15.
But the biggest problem with the NUT ultimatum is that it wants the Government, rather than head teachers, to micro-manage schools. It was, after all, schools and their leaders who decided to use the extra money they got from government to employ more support staff.
And it is schools that occasionally opt to use classes of 70 to teach in different ways. Contrary to the more excitable headlines, such classes are usually well-run and are used to enrich students' learning experiences rather than to save money.
One such class that I saw in an excellent West Midlands school used a large classroom with computers to set a range of challenges to a mixed age-group; it stretched able students and it allowed very personalised learning, regulated by a teacher supported by a host of teaching assistants. There was no evidence that pupils – or teachers – were losing out; in fact, quite the contrary.
Of course, such classes are not for all – or even most – situations. But they can play a part in a rich teaching and learning programme, just as masterclasses or lectures from university dons may mix several classes together. And the possibilities of broadband technology allow distance learning to widen A-level choices across groups of more than 20 students.
The point is not that these should become standard practice, but that they should not be outlawed in favour of a measure for which there is little beneficial evidence. What matters most is to enable every student to maximise their potential. And for that to happen, head teachers should have the freedom to try approaches that work best for their schools.
The writer was senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He has edited a book on 14-19 education, 'Staying the Course', published last month by the Social Market Foundation
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