Why do smaller classes improve academic outcomes?


Some children always 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. The chances are that now you’ll 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

So how can a school cater best to children’s different personality types, teaching approach preferences and developmental stages?

A big 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 across the board. 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 gently brought on or given the extra help they need.

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

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. So it’s at this learning stage that small classes give the biggest gain.

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In a small class, the more able children get the challenge they need; the less able children get the extra attention they require. No child gets ‘lost in the middle’ or ‘forgotten in the crowd’.

Small classes enable the teacher to manage discipline better

The truth is it’s a tough ask for teachers to be overseeing a large class of 30+ young children. It's difficult to do, even with a teaching assistant to take some of the pressure off.

‘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 as you struggle to keep all the 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. So don’t worry if you think your child has hit a ‘plateau’.

This could be because it's just the way they're developing now. It might be because other life issues are ‘going on’. But teachers in a small class can get to know their pupils well 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 enough space and time to uncover all the children’s strengths, weaknesses and personality traits.

They can create a learning environment that's supportive and non-threatening and, importantly, one where mistakes are viewed as inevitable and useful. It’s also why behaviour 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.

In recent years, primary-school class sizes in the UK state sector have been getting bigger due to current funding cuts.

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

The number of children in Years One and Two taught by a single teacher in 'what has become known as ‘super-size’ classes (over 30) has increased by 91% nationwide.

This is regardless of the fact that school admission regulations dictate that: “No infant class may contain more than 30 pupils while an ordinary teaching session is conducted by a single school teacher”.

Every child deserves to be stretched. (Carefully – they’re not pizza dough!). So they can achieve their full potential for life ahead.
— Stuart Douch, Headmaster, Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School
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In small classes, teachers can be nuanced beyond average ability

So do teachers in smaller classes teach differently? Yes, they do.

They’re 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. They can fine-tune their teaching to unlock the children’s motivations to succeed. The best teachers, after all, 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 for life ahead – 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. We can all agree that the quality of teaching is vital, but 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 let’s push aside the academics for the moment. Because school is also a social experience. A growing experience. And we’ve seen that smaller classes don’t only bring academic gains. They’re better for character-building and personal development too.

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 our 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! There’s nowhere to ‘hide’ and less chance to get overlooked.

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, the teacher can gently bring all the children into group discussions. They can make sure that everyone has a voice and joins in.

For the confident child, the close collaboration of the smaller class has benefits too. They have to learn to be respectful of everyone’s needs and views – to listen, share ideas and be tolerant and patient.

These are crucial 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

So do smaller classes lead to better outcomes? If you’ve read this far, you’ll know that we’ve seen for ourselves that they do.

We also believe that all the essential foundations and good habits for children's future success are laid down during the crucial primary school years.

Giving children ‘the best start in life’ is, yes, a bit of cliché (it features on a lot of school prospectuses!). But I do believe that equipping children young is a longstanding gift. And that there’s 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

We agree with Peter Blatchford, Professor of Psychology and Education at the UCL Institute of Education, who writes: “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.”

We’re on-message, too, with the Education Endowment Foundation which puts it succinctly: “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 us 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

Watch one of our Forest School-inspired sessions! All Early Years children have regular sessions across the week. Learning about nature is part of everyday life at Sompting Abbotts. The school uses its 30 acres of grounds, mature woodland, conservation ponds and wild areas as one big ‘outdoor classroom’ that’s adapted to nature, science, art and many other Forest-School-style lessons.