Tom Bennett

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Class Sizes Probably Don’t matter, claims people who don’t teach in classrooms

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Michael Gove, yesterday.

There are lies, damn lies, and of course, educational research. In science fiction you often find the alternate-earth trope, where history diverges from our own in significant and reflective ways. I feel like I inhabit one of these Bizarro worlds, where the evidence of my senses is contradicted every time I read anything that talks about classroom sizes.

I’m a teacher. I teach kids. There is one of me, and in an average room, 20-30 of them. That’s a reasonable optimal number, I think for large scale education systems that have the task of educating the children of a nation. No doubt one day we’ll be able to afford intervention quartets, tutored in personalised virtual bubbles. Not yet. On the odd day that some kids are out on trips/ kidnapped by pirates, the dynamic is very different, you get more time to spend with the kids individually, and you can have discussions and Q&As etc that genuinely address each student’s curiosity. Behaviour is inevitably better, as no one can hide in the tall grass of the crowd. Small classes are great, for teacher and student.

He am not get my vote.

Big classes are trickier. They take more handling, and certainly more effort from the teacher, particularly at the start of the relationship, keeping them on track. On one hand it’s a question of probability- if you increase the number of people in a room, you increase the chance that one or two of them will find it amusing to text unimaginative insults to other pupils in the room, or chat, or swing, or plot revolution in a million ways. And on another level, it’s about tipping points; the more people in the room, the more chance of confrontation between people, competing for the same resources, time, space, attention. A teacher’s focal point is finite- pour more kids into their sights, and detail is lost. Behaviour goes unchallenged by sheer volume; good and bad.

This is all axiomatic in my experience. I genuinely don’t know a single teacher who would substantially demur from my findings. My evidence is of course experiential, but from another perspective it’s broadly deductive, given what most of us accept about human nature.

Why bitches be trippin’ ’bout class sizes?

But apparently, this is all wrong. Apparently bigger class sizes are just fine. Apparently the more the merrier, like some enormous conga-line of education, happily side kicking through the assembly hall and into Oxbridge. Da-da-da-da- CONGA! Welcome to Yale, Darren.

Who says so? At ease, citizens, it’s the DfE. Sleep easy, it must be true. They’ve just published this report which repeats among other things, the claim (made in the past) that bigger can be better. It’s a long document, so allow me to summarise it for you:

1. Good morning citizens. I trust you slept well?
2. Comrades have been busy, and birth rates are UP
3. This means that more junior members of the community will be coming to a school near you
4. This leads to more students per teacher
5. Regrettably, previous administrations have made it illegal to have KS1 classes larger than 30
6. This oversight on their part is a result of revisionist panic, and is unpatriotic.
7. Because we know this to be true, we have cherry-picked research that confirms our belief that large class sizes are unremarkable. We call this type of research ‘robust’. Research that disagrees with our beliefs is called ‘unsubstantiated’. Then it is deleted from the records. What research? Do you LIKE living with your family, citizen? One thing we did agree was that making teachers work harder was cheaper than maintaining smaller classes. Isn’t that nice?
8. We looked at some other countries that have completely different education systems and found that we couldn’t draw any conclusions from them either.
9. Therefore, there is nothing to worry about. And there never was.
10. England prevails, citizens. Tomorrow the weather will be fine, with a mild Easterly breeze at 10:14pm, which will last for approximately fifteen minutes.

The main thrust of the argument is that- and I am NOT MAKING THIS UP- is that the research is generaly inconclusive about whether larger class sizes have a negative impact on attainment levels and progression beyond school. That’s it: ‘we don’t know’. Which is a rather fabulous way of saying, ‘So let’s just crank up the heat on the teachers, because large classes are jess’ fine.’

Seriously, that’s what this document says, only it uses style and diction purdier than a five-dollar cabaret gal. Notice the appalling way that it drop kicks a steel-toed tap shoe right into the collective charlies of teachers in not one, but two ways:

Your class, soon.

1. Everything you lot say about class sizes can safely be ignored. Why? Because the evidence shows it. Our research is more valid than your professional judgement. It trumps the collective wisdom of your entire profession. You see, we have data, and the data cannot lie. It is sacred. The bones have spoken. Unfortunately, only we, the chosen, can hear what they say. It is no surprise that among the tumultuous cry for student voice, parent power, and anonymously triggered Ofsteds, the only group that is no longer represented by a significant collective mouthpiece, are teachers. The last time I was asked my opinion as a teacher was….ah, never. I had more say at the General Election

2. The kids are at the gates, and they all need taught. So, you’ll just have to work jolly well harder, rather than get any more funding for more teachers. Gee, thanks, Ministry of Funny Teaching. You are all heart. Is is Christmas?

I’m not Moses, but I have been to the mountain top, in this case, a classroom. My experience, and the experience of every teacher I know trumps your research every damned time. EVERY time. Once again, educational research wears a mask of propriety and causal certainty, while in reality it is little more than values dressed as facts. So, one more Christmas wish for Santa Gove:

Dear Santa. 

Please can education climb out of the enormous intellectual abyss into which it has fallen, and stop making me think that the enlightenment is potentially a two way process? That would be DANDY.


Tom

I’m off now to prepare my megaphone and cinema sized lecture screen so that I can teach a stadium full of children about Socratic dialogues. When my classroom resembles the crowd scene from The Life of Brian (‘Yes, we’re all individuals!’) then I will reflect on this document and remember that really, size doesn’t matter. Excuse me, I have to go forget who your child is.


10 Comments

  1. Andrew Scott says:

    Ahh but I have substantial evidence to prove that posts by anyone with the initials TB, posted between 07.05 and 07.07, can safely be ignored, as they are not data from which any firm conclusions may safely be drawn…

  2. Shanti Lall says:

    Wonderful points, of course. Can I use this as a style model for spoof writing with English Language students as it's so witty and clever?

  3. Would you mind paraphrasing ALL government docs relating to education in the future? much more informative, and entertaining (if it wasn't so depressing!)

  4. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Andrew

    I ALWAYS ignore evidence from that source. I'm unreliable. Even my anecdotes are suspicious.

  5. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Shanti

    Thanks. Good God, I would be honoured, of course. Let them pick it apart and spot all the childish errors.

  6. Tom Bennett says:

    @ Music Education Life

    I would, but I would fear for my sanity.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Yes, and as an English teacher it SO much easier to mark 10 sets of 30 papers with lots of feedback than 10 sets of 22 . . . then write all the reports 🙂

  8. Jonathan explains it all says:

    In my experience the classes with the most students always get the best results. This is because top sets full of A grade students have 33 in them and bottom sets full of EFG grade students have about 12. Could this be skewing the data? By the way, this is why comprehensive schools will never be able to compete with competitive entry schools who teach their A grade students in smaller classes with teachers who have lots of high-level students and so are usually better at stretching them.

  9. Anonymous3 says:

    I've just come round from a blog-induced flashback.
    Wowsers. That was close.

    Nice work, as ever TB.

  10. Auburn-21 says:

    I have a class of 40 :(…SIZE MATTERS!!!

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