Class Sizes

What are Class Sizes?

"Class size" is a statistical measure employed by the Department for Education which measures the number of pupils taught in a class during a single selected period of a particular school day. This day is usually set to be in January each year to coincide with the Annual School Census.

From 2003, all class sizes have been measured in the course of the Census. Previously, infant class sizes were measured in September.

Although apparently similar, class size is a distinct measure from "pupil-teacher ratio". This is calculated by taking the full-time equivalent (FTE) number of all pupils in a school (where a part-time pupil counts as one half) and dividing it by the number of FTE teachers employed (which is calculated by looking at the number of hours worked by teachers).

As such, it can be seen that class size provides much more of a snapshot figure, albeit one that corresponds more closely to the experience of pupils themselves.

The Labour Government elected in 1997 put class size firmly on the educational agenda, by promising to reduce the vast majority of primary class sizes to 30 or less. This target was imposed upon Local Education Authorities, which are required to draw up detailed class size plans and to restrict admissions or increase teaching capacity at particular schools to enable the targets to be met.

Background

Class size has been a significant issue for many years, with concerns long expressed about the quality of teaching possible when a single teacher is responsible for large numbers of pupils. Dwindling teacher retention and low schools funding had, by the mid-1990s, led class sizes, particularly in primary schools, to be regarded as something of a crisis.

In its 1997 election manifesto, the Labour Party pledged to cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds. This was one of the five key pledges that featured on Labour's "pledge cards". After its election the Government put this requirement on a statutory footing: Clause 1 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 placed a duty on Local Education Authorities (LEAs) and schools to restrict class sizes to 30 in Key Stage One classes from September 2002.

This date was subsequently brought forward to September 2001, when it was clear that it would be met. During the 2001 general election campaign, the Liberal Democrats pledged to cut primary school classes to 25 or less, but the success of the class size initiative to that time was widely viewed to Labour's credit, with clear public demands for more action limited.

However, launching the Liberal Democrats General Election Manifesto 2010 leader Nick Clegg once again pledged to cut class sizes saying: "under the Liberal Democrats, there will be more money in your local school to give your children the individual attention they need to thrive, cutting class sizes and providing more one-to-one tuition." And following the formation of the Coalition government, Mr Clegg remained consistent by promising "we will aim to cut class sizes."

Controversies

Class sizes is a highly emotive issue, which today has sunk into the background of the education debate somewhat. Common sense and extensive research suggest that the smaller the class a child is in, the more individual attention he or she can receive, which will presumably improve educational attainment.

While this is the academic orthodoxy, research is not unanimous on this point. A 2000 review of previous research by the London School Of Economics and Exeter University suggested that good teaching was a more important variable than class size as such. It was even claimed in 2000 by David Carter, the head of the 'National Remodelling Team' advising the Government on teachers' workloads - that larger class sizes - of up to 80 could in fact lead to improved standards.

Nonetheless, class size is perceived as a very important factor by parents. A May 2001 MORI survey for the Independent Schools Information Service showed it to be the biggest factor behind parents' decisions to send their children to private schools. The 36 per cent citing this factor was up from 25 per cent in 1997, moreover.

Critics of the Government alleged that reductions in primary class sizes had only been achieved at the expense of class sizes in secondary schools. The Government did acknowledge this initially, insisting that it was a necessary price to pay for achieving the desired goal in primary schools: " Either they want us to ring fence ear-marked money and say 'you can only spend it on class size' or they want the freedom to spend it in the school on raising standards", then Education Secretary David Blunkett argued in April 2000.

The Government later rejected the claim, presenting figures in April 2001 showing a year on year decline in the pupil-teacher ratio between January 2000 and 2001 from 17.2:1 to 17.1:1. Nonetheless, this figure had been 16.7:1 in May 1997, and had been 15 in 1990.

To date, no party has committed itself to introducing statutory requirements for secondary school class sizes, at least partly because of the different class teaching arrangements in secondary schools.

Efforts to reduce class sizes have also mitigated against other educational objectives on occasion. Parental choice was clearly restricted when LEAs were empowered to refuse admissions to particular schools on the grounds of reducing class sizes. This led to a number of High Court cases, notably against Surrey County Council in 2000, with parents claiming that their children had been discriminated against.

The class size question is closely linked to teacher recruitment and retention, both of which were widely regarded as being in a state of crisis in the late 1990s. The Government's efforts in this area, through incentives to enter teacher training and to go into schools afterwards, through reform of teachers' pay and other methods, had an impact on teacher supply.

Other proposals aimed at increasing the availability of one-to-one adult supervision, such as Classroom Assistants, were received less well, with teachers initially reacting  badly to the perceived de-skilling of their work and the belief that smaller class sizes were going to be achieved by diluting the role of qualified teachers.

A report published in December 2011 by the Department for Education looked at the impact of a rising birth rate on pupil numbers and how that could affect class sizes and educational outcomes.

One of the key findings of the 'Class Size and Education in England evidence report' was that taken as a whole, smaller class size had "a positive impact" on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school, but the effect "tends to be small and diminishes after a few years."

The projected rise in pupil numbers could also place excessive demands on LAs, according to the report which warned: "Even in LAs where there continues to be some Key Stage 1 classes with below 30 pupils, a higher proportion of classes are likely to be full to capacity without increases in the number of classes. This could result in a reduction in the proportion of parents getting their child into their first choice of school."
 

Statistics

The latest national statistics on Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics, January 2011 produced by the Department for Education were released on 22 June 2011 according to the arrangements approved by the UK Statistics Authority.

The average size of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 classes taught by one teacher increased.
The average size of classes taught by one teacher in state-funded primary schools increased slightly, while the average size of classes taught by one teacher in state-funded secondary schools decreased slightly.

Key Stage 1 Classes (including Reception) in State-Funded Primary Schools

The average size of Key Stage 1 classes taught by one teacher on the census day in January 2011 was 26.9, compared to 26.6 in January 2010.
The number of Key Stage 1 classes reported as having more than 30 pupils on the census day, lawfully and unlawfully, was 1,370 (from a total of 54,790 classes), 2.5 per cent of all Key Stage 1 classes, up from 1.8 per cent in January 2010.
The number of Key Stage 1 classes reported as unlawfully having more than 30 pupils on the census day was 310 (from a total of 54,790 classes), 0.6 per cent of all Key Stage 1 classes, up from 0.3 per cent in January 2010.
The number of Key Stage 1 classes reported as having more than 30 pupils, but which met legal requirements (which allow infant classes of more than 30 in very limited circumstances) on the census day was 1,060 (from a total of 54,790 classes), 1.9 per cent of all Key Stage 1 classes, up from 1.6 per cent in January 2010.
The most common reason for a Key Stage 1 class meeting legal requirements for having over 30 pupils was pupils admitted on the basis of an independent appeal panel’s decision or admitted having initially been refused entry as a result of an error. This accounted for 51.2 per cent of lawful classes with over 30 pupils. Pupils admitted outside the normal admission round were the second most common reason, accounting for 26.0 per cent of lawful classes with over 30 pupils. 

Key Stage 2 Classes in State-Funded Primary Schools

The average size of Key Stage 2 classes taught by one teacher on the census day in January 2011 was 27.0, compared to 26.8 in January 2010.
The proportion of Key Stage 2 classes reported as having more than 30 pupils on the census day was 14.5 per cent, down from 15.0 per cent in January 2010.

All Classes in State-Funded Primary Schools

The average size of classes taught by one teacher in state-funded primary schools was 26.6 in January 2011, up from 26.4 in January 2010.
In January 2011, 9.4 per cent of classes in state-funded primary schools contained more than 30 pupils, down from 9.5 per cent in January 2010.

Classes in State-Funded Secondary Schools

The average size of classes taught by one teacher in state-funded secondary schools was 20.4 in January 2011, down from 20.5 in January 2010.
In January 2011, 6.6 per cent of classes in state-funded secondary schools contained more than 30 pupils, down from 6.5 per cent in January 2010.

Source: Department for Education – June 2011
 

Quotes

"Overall, the available evidence…..suggests that class size reduction policies are not the best option in terms of value for money to raising pupil attainment, compared to others such as increasing teacher effectiveness.
"Broadly evidence suggests that class size reduction policies have an uncertain and diminishing effect on pupil achievement in the long run."

Department  for  Education  'Class Size and Education in England evidence report' – December 2011

"The idea that infant class sizes could go beyond 30 for whatever reason is a backward step. This is of no benefit to anyone, least of all children.
"Large class sizes will increase the dependency upon teaching assistants who, while providing very useful support and back up in the classroom, have been shown to have little effect on attainment.
"We need to see class sizes reduced to at least 20 to ensure pupils get the maximum support and attention from their teacher."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, commenting on the School Admissions Code Consultation – May 2011