Small impact of capping of class sizes, expert comment

If elected in May, the Labour Party plans to improve education by capping class sizes to 30 for pupils aged 5, 6 and 7. Here Rob Coe, Professor in the School of Education at Durham University, gives his expert reaction:

“On the face of it, the evidence does support what most people believe: smaller classes are better. However, research also adds some important caveats and qualifications.

One is the effects, at least on children’s learning, are very small. A cap at 30 is a very small change anyway, since there are not many infant classes much above this. If the practical effect is a reduction of one or two pupils in a few classes, the overall effect on attainment will be undetectable.

Another is we need to add, ‘other things being equal’. For example, a systematic decrease in class size would require more teachers; any benefits from smaller classes could easily be outweighed by even a small reduction in the overall quality of teaching.

The cost of reducing class size is generally large. If it can only be funded by not doing something else, there are likely to be better ways of spending the money – better in the sense that the same money could have more impact on children’s attainment if it were spent on things like teachers’ professional development.

A final qualification is that there is some evidence that, although the overall effect is still quite small, the effects on the learning of children from disadvantaged backgrounds is larger than for others. Hence class size reduction is a socially progressive policy, in the sense that it should help to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor.​”

Steve Higgins, Professor of Education at Durham University, gives his expert reaction:​

“Reducing class size to under 20, 15-17 pupils , would very likely make a difference, particularly for children from a disadvantaged background, but only if you can recruit sufficient capable teachers for the additional classes.

Reducing class sizes from 31 to 29 is very unlikely to make any difference, but from 40 to 20 would – so long as you can double the number of teachers without any reduction in quality.

Overall this is an expensive investment, other options such as an additional teacher per school to undertake intensive small group teaching – one teacher to two pupils or even one to one – may be more likely to lead to better learning results for the children in the school.”

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