Cpurtesy of The Economist:
WHEN parents look for a school for their child, those that offer small classes appeal. Close supervision might stop Tilly from being distracted from her work by little Johnny’s clownish antics, the thinking goes, or allow the teacher to identify shy Sue’s true ability. Yet few academic studies have found that class size makes any difference to how well children perform in exams. Indeed, international comparisons suggest that Britain could benefit from having much larger classes.
Ever since 2000 when the OECD, a think-tank, first rated how well 15-year-olds in different countries were able to use what they had learned at school, Britain has been sliding down the rankings. The problem is not that its teenagers are doing much worse than in the past, rather that their rivals are doing better. While Britain’s performance stagnates, East Asian schoolchildren surge ahead. In 2000 the gap between British and South Korean teenagers was negligible; by 2009, it was yawning.
Pouring more money into the British system has failed to perk up its youngsters: spending per pupil doubled in real terms during Labour’s 13 years in power, even as those pupils fell behind their Asian counterparts. The countries that have overtaken Britain have spent less money per pupil but invested it better, ensuring that students received high-quality teaching even if their classrooms were crowded.
Countries in which children are taught in large classes tend to limit the hours that teachers spend in the classroom, says Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute, a think-tank in Melbourne, Australia. Children attend school for the same length of time but, in Shanghai and South Korea, teachers spend only 10-15 hours at the chalkface each week in front of classes of 35-40 students. In America, Australia and Britain, teachers usually spend 20-30 hours in the classroom teaching classes of 20-25 pupils.
In East Asian countries teachers have much more time to prepare lessons, mark classwork and reflect on how best to improve children’s learning. That enables them to narrow the range of achievement even within large classes, according to a study by Mr Jensen published on February 16th. It also liberates teachers to act as researchers who continually develop and evaluate new teaching methods, and who keep tabs on one another’s performance.
Andreas Schleicher of the OECD reckons that countries seeking to boost pupils’ attainment should put their best teachers in front of much bigger classes. They can use technology to deliver personalised lessons and get timely feedback on whether a pupil has grasped a concept or is struggling. Students misbehave when they are not engaged in learning, he says, not because they are in a big class.
Increasing class sizes and offering teachers more opportunities for professional development is unlikely to transform Britain’s sullen youth instantly into South Korean’s swotty teenagers. But there is certainly pressure for reform. After years of plenty, funds are being choked off in Britain: the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, believes that many schools will suffer real funding cuts over the coming years. Meanwhile population growth is fuelling demand for more school places. For pupils aged over eight, there is no legal limit on how many can be taught together.
Michael Gove, the education secretary, likes learning from countries with outstanding school systems. If he manages to persuade parents that big classes can help their offspring, he may be able to use the present fiscal crisis to trigger reforms that could help Britain’s youngsters regain their international standing of yore.