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Do smaller class sizes make a difference?

Do smaller class sizes make a difference?

3 min read
  • The science of learning

Ask parents and they will almost certainly say that they would prefer their child to go to a school that has smaller class sizes. Intuitively, it makes sense: smaller classes equal more personal attention, which equals more learning.

But does it actually make much difference? As education budgets are tight, the potential costs vs the potential gains must be weighed up. So, what impact, if any, do small class sizes have?

The benefits of smaller class sizes

Improvements in academic achievement

One of the most well-known studies that investigated class sizes compared lessons in a small class (13-17 students) with those in a regular sized class (22-26 students) over a four-year period. The researchers found that students who were in the smaller class made more improvement than their peers in the regular class. This impact was worth an additional 3 months of schooling, with this effect being even larger amongst minority students. Therefore, it seems that smaller class sizes have the potential to enhance academic achievement.

Greater teacher retention

A recent survey conducted by TES found that workload drove 81% of teachers to consider quitting, whilst a third of teachers argued that their workload had never once been manageable during the last year.

Marking is one of the biggest factors in this; it therefore is logical that if there were fewer students’ work to mark, there would be a reduction in workload and as such improve teacher retention rates.

Better staff-student interaction

Research has demonstrated that smaller class sizes give teachers more time to get to know each of their students on a personal level, allowing them to better understand what students need them to do to help enhance their learning.

This interaction also improves the relationship between the teacher and their student, which subsequently increases the respect students have. In turn, they are more engaged in lessons and more likely to ask for assistance should they need it.

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It’s not all that straightforward

No relationship between class size and PISA score

PISA is a global international measure of how well each country is doing in education. Research has shown there to be no relationship between class size and a country’s PISA score.

East Asian countries consistently have very high PISA scores and often have the largest classroom size. For example, they have larger classroom sizes but teach fewer lessons per week (720 minutes on average per week, in comparison to an average around 1200 per week in the Western world). This means that they have more time available for preparation and marking, enhancing the quality of both.

Lack of value for money

Research from the Education Endowment Foundation found that for class sizes to have an impact on student’s progression, the reduction needs to be down to 15-20 students. The cost of doing this (in terms of additional teacher salary and building new classrooms) would suggest that, pound for pound, this is one of the least cost-effective interventions a school can implement.

Final thoughts

Having smaller class sizes has many potential benefits. These include better grades, better teacher well-being and better communication within the class.

However, what is good in theory isn’t always the same in practice. The sheer cost of reducing classroom sizes to make a meaningful difference makes it a lot less feasible. With budgets being so tight, other interventions offer better bang for your buck.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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