Not all bigger classes are wrong

Let me wind you up this morning, by supporting a Labour Minister who is thought to have made a gaffe.
Jim Knight dared to say he saw a very good lesson being taught by a charismatic teacher to a large class – I think he may have said as many as 70 pupils.
He did not say he wanted all classes to be that size. He did not say small classes were bad. He merely offended against the iron law of the British public sector – things can only get better if productivity falls. Quality is said to increase as you apply more teachers to the same number of pupils, or more nurses and doctors to the same number of patients. The public sector cannot, according to it own rules, do more with less or better with fewer.
It was especially rash of the Minister to give this errant opinion just before the main Spring teachers’ conferences. It leaves him and his view open to easy ritual denunciation.
It would be welcome instead if the intelligent people charged with the duty to educate our young would apply some of their own thought to the conundrum of class size.
Of course it is often good to be able to teach a small class, offering more individual attention. But isn’t it also sometimes a good idea to have a very large class, so more can hear the brilliant lecture, the person with unusual experience or the challenging point of view?
I am often invited into schools or universities to give a lecture about economics or politics. Quite often I am asked to teach far more than 30 in one go rather than the more normal 20-30 in a typical class. No-one thinks that is wrong, or suggests I am wasting my time because so many have come to hear. It is still possible to take questions from those who are most interested and have a point they want me to consider.
So why can’t trained teachers sometimes do the same to good effect? Jim Knight is for once right. He now needs to be brave enough to think it through with the teachers – and maybe ask why standards of literacy are so good in some overseas countries where average class sizes are bigger than here in the UK.


  1. Neil Craig
    March 21, 2008

    The statistical evidence across the world is that, within broad limits, class size is not a significant determinant of results. Classroom discipline is.

    However it is unsurprising that the teachers unions want smaller classes & therefore more teachers, particularly when school rolls are falling. It is also an easy thing to measure & thus, while it may an accurate measure of quality it is an easy one & likely to appeal to simplistic political mesages.

  2. Allan
    March 21, 2008


    You make a fair point, but one that is trivial in the larger context of the question. The debate is rightly over increasing the number of teachers and cutting the number of standardised tests students must take every year. Although it may be fun, we should not let the exceptionally bright fellow of All Souls with 30+ years of political and business experience distract us from the greater point.

  3. Puncheon
    March 21, 2008

    Good blog. I belong to the bulge or baby boom generation and was never in a class of fewer than 40-45 throughout my schooldays. Good teachers, and most were, had no problems holding our attention. The small class argument is a typical public sector union red herring, designed to swell the teaching and therefore their membership, ranks. More means worse applies here in spades. The standard of teaching started to go downhill with the Wilson Labour Government ruling that all teachers had to attend teacher training colleges. That was where they imbibed all the trendy lefty, ignorant claptrap that has destroyed public sector schools. If you want to improve teaching in the public sector just abolish teacher training colleges, ban the unions, allow anyone with a degree or relevant skills to apply for a teaching post and encourage people from the world of work, ie the real world, to teach in schools on a short term basis.

  4. a-tracy
    March 21, 2008

    Take care with what you are suggesting, the next thing you know an MP will be suggesting all children get the same lecture each week, in say Geography to start with, delivered by video conference with lower grade classroom assistants to monitor behaviour and assist with questions.

  5. DiscoveredJoys
    March 22, 2008

    I went through the school system in the fifties and sixties, and as part of the post war bulge I was in classes of around 40 in primary and junior school, and 30 or so in grammar school.

    No this is not some old geezer rambling on about how it didn't do me any harm. It is some old geezer pointing out that family and school expectations and discipline were very different. Not neccessarily better or worse but belonging to a different time, a different society.

    I don't think it would be easy to go back to larger classes today without a major change in the way children are expected to behave, and major changes in the willingness of parents to support schools.

    In the past entry into grammar schools was seen as a 'prize' for excellence, and it opened doors for later good employment. Similarly only 'the few' from the working class made it to University, with the promise of a really good job later.

    It will be hard to bring back an environment where hard work and merit count for something, especially against charges of elitism and the idea that 'every child wins a prize' – but I do wonder what the educational regime is in India and China, and how our kids will compete.

  6. mikestallard
    March 22, 2008

    I have been a teacher all my life.
    Sometimes we doubled up our classes – especially for a film or a good lecture by an outsider. Also, of course, the head used to take assembly. In the 6th form (those were the days) we had only a handful of people in a class, while in the first form, we could have up to and slightly over 30. They behaved, you see, then, so numbers, if controlled carefully, were our business.
    The point was that the classroom teacher was completely in charge of the operation. That meant that, if a child went to the toilet and then bunked off home, you were personally responsible for them.
    Different today. You are not allowed out of the classroom under any excuse if you are the teacher. All doubling up is done (if at all) by the Department. On the other hand, bunking off children are nothing to do with the school: they are the responsibility of the Police. I checked this when I saw a group of children from the local Comp stoning cars in the road outside the school.

    Against this background, you have the NuLab promise to reduce class sizes to under thirty across the board by cancelling the assisted places scheme (remember that?) Nowadays the government are into every classroom and, apparently, some teachers even have to teach with cameras, one way mirrors and microphones INSIDE the classroom! Woe betide you if they consider that you have made, say, a racist remark, or, say, questioned global warming!

    So if I say that the wretched minister didn't actually say that he wanted to increase class sizes to 70 across the board, you can still see why there was a frisson.
    The thing I object to very much is the pretence that things are like they were in the Olden Days when the classroom teacher was still in charge of the classroom. It is another NuLab lie.

  7. Bazman
    March 26, 2008

    All very interesting and no doubt valid points. I wonder though. How many are in Tarquin and Crispins class at Eton and the expensive prep schools.
    Packing them in for maximum profit and efficiency?
    The same arguments could apply to tower blocks, and how many architects lived in them?

  8. Chris Thompson
    March 28, 2008

    Calling for smaller class sizes is more than a convenient slogan they are the mechanism to improving attainment in the state sector. John you are like a lot of commentators and politicians as you seem to live in a different universe to the rest of us. Unfortunately the majority of people live in the real world where things aren’t perfect and so class size matters more than they appreciate.

    John without sounding rude you ‘visit’ schools you don’t teach in them. Yes no doubt deliver fascinating talks to captive audiences especially in the privileged sector. Try delivering your talk to a mixed ability class in a better than average comprehensive school. Then do it four my times a day without feeling exhausted and trying to captivate the indifferent.

    I do, I teach in the state sector and achieve outstanding results in GCSE and A level in classes of 30. But I know I would do even better for every pupil if I had smaller class sizes. Wealthy parents are astute enough to realise this. That’s why they send their children to fee-paying schools.

    Privileged parents use their economic advantage to purchase better teacher/pupil ratios and the associated benefits. The smaller the class the more time a teacher has with the individual child hence the better their attainment. That’s why unions and some politicians go on about it so much John. Indeed that’s why Jim Knight’s parents sent their son to Eltham College – need I say more!

  9. Rose
    March 29, 2008

    It would be interesting to know how many of us are taking part in this cyber-seminar of yours. The standard of teaching seems quite high to me, and the pupils seem ruly.

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