‘Talking tough over class sizes’

School's out for summer - but there is a lot of angry rhetoric still rumbling around the corridors. Scotland's largest teaching union has threatened to ballot for a strike if the Scottish Executive fails to accept its demand for maximum class sizes of 20 across the board. Its members say this will lead to better attainment, especially for disadvantaged children.

And yet the Scottish Executive argues that research into the educational benefits of small classes is inconclusive and that it may not be the best use of resources.

Other education experts say it is “unrealistic” and should not be the top priority.

Many of Scotland’s education authorities are already struggling to meet the latest executive pledges on class size which must be put into place by next year. All primary one pupils in 2007 must start in classes of fewer than 25 and children in the first two years of secondary must be taught maths and English in groups of an average of 20.

Some authorities are finding it hard to attract enough new teachers to replace those who are retiring, and to free up teachers who now need to have five hours a week for meetings and projects with colleagues, and seven-and-a-half hours for planning and marking, some of these in school time. This “McCrone time” for secondary teachers goes up by an hour each next session, creating the need for an extra teacher to cover it in most schools.

On top of this, many authorities say they simply would be unable to meet a new demand for 20 in a class on space grounds.

Willie Clark, the McCrone project manager for Falkirk Council, is concerned.

“In my view, it is unrealistic in the medium term. This area has a growing population and to accommodate classes of no more than 20, as well as hiring many more teachers, we would have to increase our building estate by as much as half. I can’t see central government stepping in with the money to build several new schools. About half of our teachers are due to retire in the next few years. The teaching colleges are bursting at the seams, but most of those students will be needed just to replace the ones that are due for retirement, ” he said.

Falkirk Council can point to one of the highest-performing primary schools in Scotland in terms of attainment – Comely Park. It is a popular school, attracting house-price premiums in its catchment area – despite large classes.

One mother, who would not be named, said: “We would love smaller classes – until it meant we couldn’t get our kids into this school. Then World War Three would break out.”

The school, which was built 10 years ago, has room for only two classes in each year. Margaret Marshall’s son, Louis, is five and has just finished P1 in a class of 33.

“There are two classes of 33 and an extra teacher who moves between the classes. But as they go up the school, they will lose the extra teacher and just be a class of 33.

“I think that is too big. It is still a good school but there is only so much they can do. The teachers are up against it with those numbers.”

Natalie Miller, whose son Jake, six, is in P2, agrees. “I would like the classes to be smaller. But it seems to be fine, the teacher seems to know a lot about him and he is doing well. He loves school. I think they really challenge the children. He gets a fair bit of homework but I don’t mind that because it sends the signal that they think his education is important, and so do I.”

Headteacher Janice Collins said: “Comely Park is a popular school with many placing requests turned down. Many of our classes are at maximum numbers. Our academic attainment across reading, writing and mathematics sits well within the top 10per cent of all primary schools across Scotland.

“I believe that this is down to the skills of our teaching and support staff as well as how we deploy these resources.

“I consider myself fortunate to have pupils who are eager to learn.”

Bill McGregor of the Association of Head Teachers makes the point that, while the Association supported more resources going into schools for smaller classes, headteachers wanted to retain some flexibility. “They may decide, for instance, to put very able children in a group of 25 or 26 and to keep those needing more support in a smaller group of 14.”

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), however, which represents 80per cent of teachers, is not happy with the existence of classes of 33, even if an extra teacher is employed.

Willie Hart, of the union’s Glasgow Branch, said: “The whole issue of raising attainment revolves around the issue of class size, particularly for disadvantaged children.”

The EIS quotes research from the US which proved that black, disadvantaged children in the state of Tennessee did better in small classes – the Star project.

Its briefing document for MSPs says: “Large class sizes are not merely associated with lower attainment: they impact negatively on pupil behaviour, on pupil motivation, on pupil self-image.”

It also refers to the work of Edinburgh University professor Pamela Munn, who finds that teachers think behaviour is easier to control in smaller classes.

The EIS points out that Scottish primary class sizes are larger than in almost all other European countries in the state sector, at 23.9, although smaller than south of the border, where the average is 26.2 and that private schools make a feature of offering smaller classes, averaging 18.9 in Scotland.

The EIS recently passed a motion that called for “a ballot for industrial action if the Scottish Executive’s response to the interim report of the Ministerial Working Group . . . fails to show a clear commitment to reducing class sizes in line with institute policy.” Following the interim report’s publication last week, the executive ruled out any more class size commitments before next year’s elections. The full report is due next summer.

For Hart, falling rolls in many areas of Scotland and investment in education create a historic opportunity to reduce class size. “We recognise that the executive has made some real progress on the issue of class size. But that needs to be seen as a step in the right direction, not the whole journey. We have been very patient on this but if we don’t see some real commitment I think there will be support for industrial action.”

A Scottish Executive spokesperson said: “Class sizes aren’t an end in themselves. A more useful way to put it in perspective is to look at the amount of money we invest in each pupil. On expenditure per pupil we are above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average for secondary pupils and about the OECD average for primary pupils.

“We’d be disappointed if EIS members took industrial action. There is no research evidence to suggest that a blanket reduction to 20 would bring across-the-board educational benefits. You might want to look at the work of Peter Blatchford in London.”

Peter Blatchford completed the biggest ever study of class size in the UK in 2003. He told The Herald: “It is very, very hard to measure. You can’t put children of similar background and ability in big and small classes and see what happens. All you can do is to observe, and children change schools and move between classes of different size.”

He said he felt the famous Star study was of limited relevance in Britain. “In that study, small classes were of around 17 and what they called regular classes were 24.”

He said his study had been unable to prove any impact of smaller classes on attainment after the early years. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t an effect, just that we couldn’t prove one. When we observed the classes we did note that teaching appeared more effective in smaller classes, there was more interaction between teachers and pupils, the children were more on task and they spent less time in ‘audience mode’. But there was no observable effect on end-of-year attainment.”

On the down side: “We did actually observe less group discussion in the smaller classes and it did appear that there may be slightly more problems between the children. I don’t know if there were more problems or if there was just greater awareness.”

Children in Scotland director Bronwen Cohen said there was a worldwide trend towards bringing adults other than teachers into the classroom. “In Denmark, they have degree-educated pedagogues working alongside teachers who are trained to support the children’s emotional and physical needs through play and so on, and not just to think about their attainment. My personal view is that hiring thousands more teachers to reduce class sizes would not be the top priority for improving education in this country.”

The Scottish Herald
July 4th 2006