The impact of class sizes on teaching standards

Class sizes in primary schools is something that has been a hot topic for over seventy years, and one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast. Many feel that larger classes mean lower standards in teaching and that this will have a negative effect on children’s learning, whilst others don’t see it as a problem at all.

Even back in 1944 there were limits imposed on schools as to how many pupils were allowed in each class, when the Education Act stated that primary classes be no bigger than 40, and secondary no more than 30, however these were then revised in 1959.

A drop in pupil numbers eased the pressure during the eighties but this was quickly reversed going into the early nineties, with over a million primary school children in classes of more than 30 and even 11,000 with over 40 pupils.

Advantages to bigger class sizes include the fact that children have a large range of other children to mix with, which can not only aid their education, but also help them to learn and develop their social and interaction skills. Often class work at a primary level is delivered through group work so having 30 or more children in a class simply gives the opportunity to interact with a wider and more diverse range of people. It can also help children who are naturally shy grow in confidence as they are not in the spotlight as much. And if they get an answer that others do it will boost their self belief.


There are also obvious disadvantages to increasing class sizing including the chance of disruption as teachers have a high ratio of children to look after, as well as the risk that children who struggle will be left behind. If a child cannot get the teachers attention, or in fact the teacher simply does not have time to spend individual time with pupils, those who need extra help will fall behind, a trend which unfortunately can then continue into their later education. There are also extra pressures put on teachers such as more marking, lesson planning and preparation for every lesson, which can lead to increased stress.

There is also the question of whether splitting core subjects such as English and Maths into sets will ease the problem or increase it. Whilst splitting can help those who are struggling to improve and pose an extra challenge for those succeeding, it can also create a hierarchy which can often have a negative effect on pupil performance and moral.

Money is also an issue, and often large classes are by necessity rather than design as teachers pay is cut and budgets are getting smaller meaning no additional teachers can be hired to ease the pressure.

I remember at school having class sizes of 30 and more, and I don’t feel that my education suffered for it. In fact I enjoyed having so many children as it gave me the opportunity to discuss and learn from a large pool of people. There were a few pupils in my classes who were disruptive, but I feel this wasn’t due to the amount of people in the class, it more to do with their personalities and attention spans. I feel it meant that even if the teacher had to speak to them directly, it left the rest of us to get on with the task, which I feel helped me to learn how to work independently as well as how to interact with others to get the required information.

Very young children do better in smaller classes, however there is no proof that this is true of secondary school children, so maybe the issue needs to be based on a school by school or area basis rather than trying to tar everyone with the same brush. It also depends on the teachers themselves, some may feel more comfortable with a smaller group of children to care for whereas others may revel in the challenge of proving that class sizes shouldn’t be a direct correlation to performance.


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