Why do smaller classes improve academic outcomes?

 
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Some children come bounding into school ready to learn. Others are less eager and do just enough to get by.

Maybe you have a child who’s a consistent high achiever. But most children go through different phases. Do you see something of your child in one of these descriptions?

Conscientious and high-achieving? Smart but distracted? Sensitive and perfectionist? Quiet and compliant? Lost somewhere in the middle? Able but uninspired? Convinced they’re not ‘academic’? Coasting and under-achieving? Struggling and discouraged? Disinterested and demotivated?

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Small classes have most value at primary school stage

How can a school cater best to children’s different personality types, teaching approach preferences and developmental stages? Part of the answer lies in smaller class sizes.

Research by the Education Endowment Foundation shows that a class group of under 20 students gives the best results. It states that it’s during the primary school years that children get the most benefit.

This fact is backed too by the Department for Education’s Class Size and Education in England Evidence Report which states: “The evidence base on the link between class size and attainment, taken as a whole, finds that a smaller class size has a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school.”

Small classes are better for both less able and more able children

In our school, class size is capped at under 20 and we see better results. The more able children get the challenge they need. The 'coasters' are galvanised. The less able children – or those with SEND (special educational needs) – are given the extra help they need.

Importantly, no child gets 'lost in the middle' or ‘forgotten in the crowd’.

At primary school age, children are still developing the independent learning skills and self-discipline that they’ll have by the time they’re ready for secondary school. It is at this learning stage that smaller classes give them the biggest benefit.

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Small classes enable the teacher to manage discipline better

In recent years, primary-school class sizes in the UK state sector have increased due to current funding cuts, putting additional pressure on teachers.

It is a tough ask for teachers to oversee a class of 30+ young children. It is difficult to do, even with the presence of a teaching assistant.

‘Managing’ is what you end up doing as a teacher when you’re confronted with a large class. Often, you have to gear your teaching to the middle ability to keep all children on task.

Small classes give space to uncover strengths and weaknesses

Spurts and dips are normal for children. They learn at different rates and it’s not always linear. ‘Plateaus’ are not uncommon.

This could be because it is the way the child is developing right now. Or because other life issues are having an impact. Teachers in a small class can judge this and respond in a measured way. This kind of stable support can be a big help when students are feeling overwhelmed by personal problems outside of school.

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Small classes permit a more supportive learning arena

In a small class, the teacher has space and time to uncover children’s strengths, weaknesses and personality traits.

They can create a learning environment that is supportive and non-threatening and, importantly, where mistakes are viewed as inevitable and useful. This is why behavioural problems in a small class are the exception rather than the rule.

More time with each child also means more time to listen to them properly: to hear their news, answer questions and explain tricky concepts.

Small classes allow children to be stretched more carefully

According to the Department of Education, the UK has one of the largest average primary school class sizes of the OECD countries.

Between 2011 and 2018, every region outside of London saw a growth in the number of state school infant class sizes over 30.

The number of children in Years 1 and 2 taught by a single teacher in ‘super-size’ classes (over 30) increased by 91% nationwide.

Every child deserves to be stretched (carefully – they’re not pizza dough...).
— Stuart Douch, Headmaster, Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School
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In small classes, teachers can be nuanced beyond average ability

Teachers in smaller classes are less inclined to assume ability in their classroom follows a ‘bell-curved’ distribution. They don't plan on the basis that there'll always be roughly three groups of children: the below average, average and above average.

They can be more nuanced to fine-tune teaching to unlock children’s motivations to succeed. The best teachers are the ones who believe in the success of every student they encounter.

Because all children deserve to be stretched. Carefully – they're not pizza dough. So they can achieve their full potential – whether their strengths are academic, music, sports, drama or art.

All teaching and learning takes place within a context, and one important feature of school classrooms is the number of pupils in a class. Smaller classes can help teachers provide a more effective education.
— Peter Blatchford, Professor of Psychology and Education at the UCL Institute of Education
Smaller classes at primary school stage allows greater individualisation.

Smaller classes at primary school stage allows greater individualisation.

But push aside the academics. School is also a social experience.

Collaborative learning activities in small groups promote positive social interaction.

Collaborative learning activities in small groups promote positive social interaction.

Small classes promote better social and communication skills

Emotional and social skills will be just as important in life ahead for children as their eventual exam results.

We’ve noticed that small classes benefit the quieter and less-motivated child and the confident and outgoing child because they favour participation.

In a small class, there’s full incentive for pupils to pay attention and get involved because it’s obvious when they don’t.

Small classes help less confident children feel more secure

Often, the reason a quieter child doesn’t contribute is down to self-belief, not disinterest. In a large setting, when they feel insecure, they find it ‘scarey’ to put their hands up. So they let the self-assured ones hold sway.

But with the more relaxed atmosphere of a small class, a teacher can bring all children into group discussions.

For the confident child, the close collaboration of the smaller class also has benefits. They have to learn to be respectful – to listen, share ideas and be tolerant and patient.

These are useful skills. The World Economic Forum says the most in-demand future workplace skills will be these: critical thinking; problem-solving; collaboration; co-operation; adaptability; communication; initiative and curiosity.

Class discussion in Year 2 class at Sompting Abbotts. The average teacher-child ratio at the school is 1:15

Class discussion in Year 2 class at Sompting Abbotts. The average teacher-child ratio at the school is 1:15

The gains from smaller class sizes are likely to come from the increased flexibility for organising learners and the quality and quantity of feedback the pupils receive.
— Education Endowment Foundation

Small classes enable children to get better quality feedback

Do smaller classes lead to better outcomes? In our experience, they do.

I believe that the foundation for children's future success are laid down during the crucial primary school years.

Giving children ‘the best start in life’ is a cliché (it features on a lot of school prospectuses!). But I am convinced that equipping children young is a longstanding gift. There is truth in the saying: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old, they will not turn from it.”

Small classes at primary stage give best developmental value

I agree with Peter Blatchford, Professor of Psychology and Education at the UCL Institute of Education. He states: “Careful moment-by-moment systematic observation of pupils shows that class size affects the amount of individual attention pupils receive, and their engagement and active involvement in class.”

As the Education Endowment Foundation reports: “The gains from smaller class sizes are likely to come from the increased flexibility for organising learners and the quality and quantity of feedback the pupils receive.”

However, the real evidence comes for my staff from our own parents. "I can't believe how well you know my child," is something at parents evenings that we often hear them say.

And for me, that’s the greatest proof.

Author: Stuart Douch, Headmaster, Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School

What's it like to be a pupil at Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School? Annabelle, Year 8, won the Ken Shearwood All Rounder Scholarship Award to Lancing College. She says that she benefitted from the small class sizes at Sompting Abbotts and her "inspiring and supportive" teachers.

Intuitively, it seems obvious that reducing the number of pupils in a class will improve the quality of teaching and learning, for example by increasing the amount of high quality feedback or 1-1 attention learners receive. However, overall, the evidence does not show particularly large or clear effects until class size is reduced substantially to fewer than 20 or even 15 pupils. It appears to be very hard to achieve improvements from modest reductions in class size to numbers above 20, for example from 30 to 25. Overall the evidence does not show particularly large or clear effects, until class size is reduced substantially. The key issue appears to be whether the reduction is large enough to permit the teacher to change their teaching approach.
— Education Endowment Foundation