We look at the issue of class sizes, with reports from the UK and Italy, and talk to Matthew Chingos, an expert on education policy from the Brookings Institution in the US, for insight into the ideal classroom size.
Two years ago, the Viola primary school in Italy was on the verge of closing down because there simply were not enough children to fill the classrooms. It was saved because the local policeman offered to provide school transport, and because the parents agreed to the school providing just one classroom with two teachers.
Teacher Renata Maestro explained how it works: “We manage all these different levels by being very patient, always moving around and trying to make everybody work properly. We choose subjects which work for everybody. It’s tiring but also rewarding.”
The town’s mayor Paolo Rossi gave us the background: “The village was depopulated in the 1960s when people began moving away from mountain villages to industrial cities to find work. The reality of schools in the mountains is that there are very few children here. But we have succeeded in keeping this special classroom open because families need a school near their homes. It’s an effort on our part to motivate the few people who are left to stay here, not to break away from their roots in this area.”
Expert Mathew Chingos believes there is no ideal class size: “The answer is it depends, but the bigger and more important question is not just the effectiveness of smaller classes but the cost effectiveness of smaller classes. Smaller classes are very expensive because you have to hire more teachers and build more classrooms and so on. You might say: instead of spending all of this money to hire extra teachers to have smaller class sizes maybe I want to pay teachers more to get better teachers. Maybe I want to put money into textbooks or technology or extracurricular programmes or all the other things that school resources can go to.
“The model of having a group of kids in one classroom with one teacher, that’s a model we’ve had for the last couple of centuries. But now, with the advent of new technologies and new ideas about education, possibly that’s not the model we should stick with. I mean some folks are talking about moving towards a model where you have more students in a classroom but you integrate technology. You have some time spent on computers with some interactive learning that way. The teacher serves as a guide and at other times and in other contexts you have more one-on-one time with the teacher.
“There are certainly cases where class size reduction can be useful. I think the best way to think about it is you don’t want to have a one-size-fits-all mentality where you are doing smaller classes across the board. That’s very expensive and probably unaffordable. What you can think about, is for example that research says that students from disadvantaged backgrounds (poor families for example) are more likely to benefit from a smaller class. You might focus the resources that way, or you might focus the smaller class resources on certain teachers. Maybe you have a brand new teacher who needs some help developing classroom management skills so you give them a smaller class, while a teacher who has more experience or a highly effective teacher can handle a larger class – and maybe you can give them extra compensation. There are certainly benefits, but the benefits vary in certain circumstances so you want to take the decisions accordingly.”
One primary school in Norfolk in the UK uses supersized classrooms, collaborative teaching and dialogue to improve learning. Teaching is open-plan. Sixty-nine Year-Four pupils listen to a lesson before dividing into two groups. Two teachers lead the lessons, helped by three teaching assistants.
The school’s headteacher, John Starling, said: “Our philosophy is one of learning above teaching. I think what we’re about is working collaboratively and learning from one another and the teachers modelling learning. In that respect it was based on our philosophy. Opening these doors and working together as a team was very firmly based on that. I guess it’s a happy accident that we had people in the school who were capable of leading that.”
Teachers share teaching and assessment duties. The teacher who is strongest in a given subject teaches it while the other supports. This collaborative teaching helps develop social skills because the pupils watch the interaction amongst the teaching staff.
Abby Lowe, a teacher at the school, said: “We tend to plan to our strengths. So we teach the things that we’re more comfortable with and luckily because of how we’ve been paired up, my colleague Nicola teaches a lot of the maths and I lead a lot of the English. The way that we work now with open doors, open discussions about what’s going on, means it’s so much more fun coming to work. We’re both learning the whole time, we bounce ideas off each other.”
Flexibility is the key here and the results include a larger shared space for pupils and the opportunity for more interaction.
Helen Pope, the assistant headteacher, said: “The flexibility that we’ve got here includes five adults and three or more spaces – depending on which part of the school we’re in. So at any time for example, I can be leading a maths lesson with the 70 children all together, and my teaching partner could be taking let’s say 15-20 of them – who maybe missed yesterday’s lesson or maybe they understood it really well and need some extension -she can have them and work with them next door on very specific needs.”