Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 06 May 2010

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

Hillary'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

Firstly, itís 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 from 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 some arbitrary political target.

Having said all that, the best evidence we have on class sizes comes from Peter Blatchford, a professor of psychology 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 be doing, and this is particular 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 then 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 since it would take a volcano the size of Eyjafjallajokull to propel Nick Clegg to the door of Number Ten tomorrow, all this will have to remain hypothetical.