Smaller classes add value to learning - and teaching

CLOSER WORKING: Keith Taylor, headteacher at Escomb Primary School, near Bishop Auckland, helps children with a project

CLOSER WORKING: Keith Taylor, headteacher at Escomb Primary School, near Bishop Auckland, helps children with a project

First published in News

In 1997, Tony Blair swept to power promising to cut class sizes. Ten years on Olivia Richwald and Stuart Arnold visit a primary school to see first-hand the impct smaller classes is having on pupils and teachers.

CLASS sizes are getting smaller in the North, but headteachers and unions say more should be done, as 43,000 children are still in classes of more than 30.

Of those 43,000, about 23,000 are aged seven to 11 - and it is this group that the Government must tackle, The Northern Echo has been told.

Across the region, the number of school-age children is falling every year and this has helped to reduce class sizes.

This falling roll means that ten per cent fewer teachers will be needed across the region by 2015.

The average class size in County Durham is now 25 - however in the county alone, more than 7,600 primary school children and 4,200 secondary school children are still in classes of more than 30.

At Escomb Primary School, near Bishop Auckland, headteacher of 24 years Keith Taylor remembers classes of 35 and, on one occasion, 36.

The limit at his school is 30 now, but that is broken in exceptional cases - for example when children win a place at the school on appeal.

The year six class at the school has 33 pupils.

Mr Taylor says a few extra children has a major impact on learning.

"We had up to 36 in the past and those extra few children make a big difference.

"Smaller classes are vastly better for the children and vastly better for the teachers.

"Teachers can get to know the children better and the children get more individual attention," he said.

The Government has made it illegal to have class sizes of more than 30 in key stage one (five to seven-year-olds).

However, that changes at key stage two (seven to 11 years).

Mr Taylor believes this limit of 30 should be extended to all primary school children.

He said: "It is very important for the older children, those aged ten and 11. They produce so much work and some of them are as big as adults, so there is less space.

"Class size affects pupil contact and quality of marking, and it enables teachers to run more classroom activities. It improves behaviour and helps social development."

Mr Taylor said that since the classes were limited to 30 in key stage one, test results have been excellent. However, at key stage two, where there is no limit and class numbers often exceed 30, pupils are not always meeting Government targets.

Mr Taylor said: "Class size is a contributory factor and, if classes were limited to below 30, it would add a tremendous value to education."

His views are echoed by Ivor Williams, headteacher at Pelton Community School, near Stanley, County Durham.

Mr Williams has two classes at key stage two where there are more than 30 pupils.

Mr Williams said: "The problem with key stage two is that there is no upper limit to the number of pupils you can have in a class.

"This is something that allegedly the Government has been looking at and they are always saying in the near future there will be limits, but so far there hasn't been.

"Whether this is because they feel a lot of the problems are disappearing because of falling rolls, I don't know."

Mr Williams said 32 pupils in a class was the highest number he was happy working with.

He said: "If you want to get the best out of staff and the best out of the pupils, the less children in class the better.

"The situation we have here with these two particular classes does concern me, but you have just got to ride with it.

"The advantage in this school is that we have a high level of support from the additional teaching assistants we have because of the special needs requirements we have.

"When we had the school built, we also fought for extra space in the classrooms and that helps when you have classes over 30."

Asked whether he felt Labour had kept its pledge to cut class sizes after coming to power in 1997, Mr Williams added: "They have certainly achieved this in key stage one.

"Extra money has come in to get that balance so you have classes below 30. But at key stage two there seems to have been delay after delay with regards to a class size limit."

Class sizes across the world vary tremendously. In the Far East, class sizes of up to 50 are common, but can be as small as 20 in Belgium and Iceland.

The 2005 census showed the average Scottish primary had 23.6 pupils per class. In 2001, the average American primary school had classes of 21.

When The Northern Echo asked experts what the ideal class size was, several figures were mentioned.

The National Union of Teachers believes there should be no classes with more than 30 pupils, and North-East regional secretary Elaine Kay would prefer to see a limit of 27.

And Mick Lyons, of union NASUWT, says it could be ten to 15 - like most private schools.

The average class size at Polam Hall School, a private school in Darlington, is only 16.

Angela Foster, junior school headmistress, said: "Small numbers in each class ensure that every child is treated as an individual and is encouraged to achieve her full potential.

"All children benefit from different styles of teaching and when class sizes are small teachers are able to differentiate and accommodate each child's needs."

At another private school - Barnard Castle School - prep school headteacher Ted Haslam says class size is one of the first things parents ask about.

Back at Escomb, Mr Taylor says progress has been made in funding and resources, as well as class sizes.

"British primary schools as a whole do a tremendous job," he said."I would like to see the Government extend their limits to include all primary school children and legally restrict classes of more than 30."

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