Why class sizes matter

Teachers need to fight for quality education in their classrooms.
Friday, May 3, 2013

In an article in the Australian on April 20, Adam Creighton asserted that: “Teachers’ unions in Australia and worldwide have been astonishingly successful at hoodwinking the public into thinking smaller classes matter.”

As a teacher with over 30 years’ experience and a member of the Australian Education Union, I can say articles such as that display ignorance about what it is really like to be a teacher in front of a class.

Classes are not homogenous groups of robots who all unquestioningly follow teacher instructions. They consist of individuals with individual needs, abilities, interests, concerns and social skills. Teachers have to manage these differences so that all have the best educational opportunities as well as a rewarding and rich social life.

Studies worldwide support the view that smaller class sizes improve the learning environment in a classroom and consequently academic achievement.

In a 2011 study into class sizes in the US, researchers concluded that students who were taught in a small class in primary school were more likely to attend university. The positive effects of small class sizes were largest among students from low-income families.

Another study in 2010 which examined students from a Latino background in the US evaluated variables such as school funding expenditures, tests scores, ethnicity, and teacher qualification, teacher-student ratio and degree obtainment to identify any impact on student achievement. It found “the most powerful predictor of changes in reading and math in all models was decreasing the student-teacher ratio”.

One of the most powerful examples supporting the benefits of smaller classes is the education outcomes achieved by Finland, which has been ranked at the top for educational results internationally for the past decade.

Finland’s average class size at primary and secondary levels is 20 students per teacher. Additionally, about 40% of students in Finnish secondary schools receive some kind of special intervention. School faculties include a "special teacher" who is assigned to identify students who need extra help and then provide it.

Finland's graduation rate for upper secondary students was 93% in 2008. It has scored either first or second out of OECD countries for scientific literacy, math literacy, and reading literacy in the past decade.

There is no credible evidence that smaller classes offer no benefits to the learner or to the teacher, but the issue is debated because politicians do not want to commit resources to allow for the extra teachers and classrooms that it would require.

Creighton writes: “Analysis by Inquirer estimates that lifting the average primary and secondary class size from about 23 to 27 — about where they were in 1980 — would save the NSW government more than $1bn a year.”

Small classes cost more resources in the short-term, but the costs to society of not engaging students are huge; welfare payments, teen pregnancy, crime, health care costs — these are all inevitable consequences when quality in education is compromised.

Christopher Pyne, the opposition education spokesperson, also frequently argues that class sizes don’t matter.

Pyne was educated at a private school where the average class size is 12. If small classes are not important than why do elite schools promote themselves by advertising that they have small classes? One could conclude that small classes matter only if you can afford to pay for them, otherwise it’s the “factory method” for you.

When teachers have time to give individual attention to students, in addition to having the opportunity for clarification or more help with their work, most students appreciate the recognition, the connection with the teacher and the respect they feel. Many studies have shown — and many parents can attest to the fact — that if a child has a positive relationship with their teacher they enjoy going to school.

Teachers want positive relationships with their students but they need the time to be able to develop such relationships with every student in their classes. This discussion must also be about nurturing the dreams and aspirations of each student.

These are important elements in a quality education. It is not merely a matter of dollars or numbers. Quality education is about providing the best possible learning conditions in which all young people, not just those who can afford it, thrive.