Ask any teacher about whether class size matters and the chances are they will say that of course, a smaller class allows for better teaching and learning. Ask any teacher whether having a teaching assistant (TA) in the classroom is beneficial and it’s highly likely they will say they are a great help.
These points seem common sense and certainly correspond to the findings of the IOE’s large scale surveys of teachers’ views. Yet, recently the Think Tank ‘Reform’ has argued that class size and TAs are not important and in the case of the former can be raised without harm and in the case of the latter can be reduced in number. This conclusion is similar to that in several high profile and widely cited reports from OECD, McKinsey, Gratton Institute and Brookings. How do we reconcile these two different perspectives – the practitioner and policy perspectives? Are teachers wrong, as some commentators imply?
To address this question we need to examine the evidence on the relationships between class size and pupil performance, and TAs and pupil performance.
To take class size first: it is striking how much recent reports base their conclusions on three sources of data: cross country comparisons, meta analyses and econometric analysis. All of these, I believe, only offer a partial view and are therefore flawed as evidence of a causal role for class size.
Results from international assessments such as the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) show that students in the East Asia do very well and also have relatively large classes, and it is often therefore concluded that class size is not important to academic achievement. But the flaw in this argument is not considering the reasons why high performing education systems in places like Hong Kong do well, including high levels of parental support, cultural factors that favour education and the prevalence of private tutoring.
Meta analyses are based on a large scale statistical analysis of multiple studies related to the effects of class size. The conclusions have generally been that class size does not have a large influence on student learning. Yet often these analyses include studies of varying quality, age of pupil, research design, etc.
The same problem exists with econometric analyses – studies by economists who often take measures of class size, or more usually pupil teacher ratios, and develop statistical models of effects that take little account of what actually happens in school.
Interestingly these sources of data are also all secondary analyses, that is, they typically use data collected by other people. In contrast, evidence from two dedicated studies of class size – the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) experimental project from Tennessee and the Class Size and Pupil Adult Ratio (CSPAR) study, which I directed here at the IOE, arrive at similar conclusions: class size does matter for the younger pupils in school and small classes are particularly beneficial for the more disadvantaged and initially lower attaining pupils.
A limitation of the research examined so far is that it is all restricted to the relationships between class size and academic performance. There has been less research on class size and other aspects of classroom life, such as teaching approaches, teacher-pupil interactions and pupil behaviour. The research we have suggests that class size does affect the amount of individual attention pupils receive, and their engagement and active involvement in class. At the IOE we found in a recent study that lower attaining secondary pupils were more likely to be off task in larger classes, when compared to middle and high attaining pupils Intriguingly, in several countries in Asia, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, class size reduction initiatives have been introduced – not so much to affect educational attainment (after all these countries perform very well in the PISA surveys) but to help teachers bring about higher order thinking and collaborative learning experiences.
And for me this helps explain the disparity between the views of teachers and policy commentators: when thinking about the effects of class size, teachers have in mind a broader and less easily measured set of qualities than simply scores on an achievement test. If teaching were simply about delivering a lecture then ‘Reform’ and others like them would have a strong case. But as all teachers know, teaching is not simply about presenting information.
And what about TAs? Interestingly, the research evidence on which most people draw seems to be the IOE’s Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project in which we found convincing evidence that pupils with more support from a TA made less progress at school compared to similar children who has less support. It is therefore quite understandable that some have concluded that investment in TAs, e.g. through the Pupil Premium, is not a good use of money. But what’s important here, is how one interprets the results; in a recent book my colleagues and I argue that the most likely explanation for these results is the way that TAs are used in schools and prepared for their work. Put simply: TAs are not used to the best advantage. Often TAs, with little preparation or training, are assigned a one-to-one remedial role with low attaining pupils or those with special educational needs (SEN). We suggest that this is misguided and helps explain the negative impact on these pupils. Also in another recent book we show, on the basis of a two year long action research project, how schools can fundamentally rethink the way they use TAs, so that they add value to teachers rather than replace them in the case of the most disadvantaged pupils.
One of the problems with the debates over class size and TAs is the way that it is presented as a binary choice: either invest in class sizes or in teaching. But the point is these are not mutually exclusive. I suspect we all agree that the quality of teaching is vital, but smaller classes and TAs can help teachers provide a more effective education for pupils. This will not happen automatically, but requires careful attention in schools in order to make the most of the opportunities that smaller classes and TAs offer.
So my conclusion is clear: raising class sizes and reducing the number of TAs are very bad ideas!
Peter Blatchford is Professor of Psychology and Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.
For more on the class size topic see: Blatchford, P. (2012) Class size: is small better? In Adey, P and Dillon, J. (Eds) Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education. Open University Press: Maidenhead, UK –
For more on Teaching Assistants see: www.schoolsupportstaff.net
1 Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., and Brown, P. (2011) Examining the effect of class size on classroom engagement and teacher-pupil interaction: differences in relation to prior pupil attainment and primary vs. secondary schools, Learning and Instruction, 21, 715-730
2 Blatchford, P., Russell, A., and Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How Research Challenges Practice and Policy. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge
3 Russell, A., Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (in press, 2013) Maximising the impact of teaching assistants: guidance for school leaders and teachers. Routledge