Essay: Does size matter? Teachers’ perceptions on whether class size has an effect on pupil attainment

Abstract

This research study focuses on teachers’ perceptions on class size and its effect on pupil achievement in Key Stage 1. The research was undertaken in a small Church of England Village school with eleven participants in total. Questionnaires and interviews were used to determine whether teachers perceive class size to be a problem on pupil achievement or whether it does not matter. Findings show that the perceptions are very much towards class size effecting pupil achievement but with different opinions as to why. Teaching assistants appear to play a role in improving pupil achievement.

Does size matter? Teachers’ perceptions on whether class size has an effect on pupil attainment

Introduction

This research study examines the perceptions teachers have on class size and pupil attainment. Literature, specifically the STAR report, Ofsted report in 1995 and The Class Size Debate by Peter Blatchford were used to identify issues. The research was carried out in a Church of England village school on the teachers. The research undertaken was a small scale study aiming towards solving one problem. (Locastro, 1994). Strengths of a small scale research project is it could prompt someone else to start another research project on a bigger scale if the findings are interesting and more research is needed to get more concrete evidence. Limitations of small scale research is that there could not be enough information as only one school was used together with and only doing interviews which could limit the findings.
Literature review

This review analyses literature on class size and attainment in education. The review identifies whether class size has any impact on pupil achievement, as well as the views of researchers and educational practitioners. Class size is defined as ‘Class size is the average number of students per class, calculated by dividing the number of students enrolled by the number of classes. In order to ensure comparability between countries, special needs programmes have been excluded’ (OECD, 2003).

‘Every time we ask for smaller classes, my colleagues and I are told that class size doesn’t affect pupil achievement. All teachers, on the other hand, who live with the problem of large classes on a day-to-day basis realise that class size is, actually, the main problem. This inability to prove what all experience shows has to be the great failure of educational research.’ (Payne, 1976.)

To date class size versus pupil achievement has failed to make any lasting impression or impact on education. This could be due to a lack of results or the way the results have been analysed and reported.

The review will consider government research, such as Ofsted reviews into class size and also The School Standards Framework Act (1998) legislation to make sure that infant class sizes for reception and key stage one should not exceed the maximum class size of 30 children per teacher. The Ofsted report in 1995 was based on reports of what was seen during different inspections and suggests that class size my not have the largest impact on achievement. Instead teaching methods and forms of classroom organization had more of an impact. This is supported by Blatchford (2003) who suggests that there may not be any impact from class size but a link between class size and the quality of teaching.

The debate about whether class size has any impact on a child’s learning is something that has been debated for a long time. According to Burstall (1979) it has gone on ‘for more than eight decades’. Gene Glass put class size back on the agenda with his research about class size in 1982. He stated that class size did have an effect on pupils’ achievement, but Slavin (1984, 1986) criticised Glass’s research on the basis he used meta-analysis for not being selective in terms of the methodological quality of studies.

Peter Blatchford noted that the presumption that children do better in smaller classes could be a myth as the results he collected while doing his research showed that the evidence is not clear-cut. This is stated in his book The Class Size Debate is small better? (2003). Another point made was lower level children tend to be put into smaller classes with other less abled children (Blatchford, 2003). Bennett (1996) surveyed teachers and head teachers in the UK and found they thought class sizes do affect teaching and learning. Bennett (1994 et al) survey that stated 94% of teachers strongly agreed that having smaller class sizes would increase the amount of individual attention they could give each child.

A research project taken in America called the STAR (Student- Teacher Achievement Ratio) project was designed to place children and teachers into random classes. This research was undertaken to decide whether class size does impact on the learning of pupils. (TSDE, 1990). It was also used to bring attention back to the class size debate. (Blatchford et al, 1998). They set this research and class sizes into three different sizes. The first class size which was deemed as small with (13-17) pupils, there was then two regular classes they were both (22-25) pupils but one had a full time teaching aide helping them. (Wilson 2002). In the STAR project it found that the gains for minority children were two to three times as large as those of white students (Finn & Achilles, 1999; Mosteller, 1995). Reanalysis of the data from the STAR report supported the finding there is a difference between smaller and larger classes. (Blatchford and Goldstein, 1998). During this research project teachers were found to have a different attitude to teaching a smaller class size. This could in turn mean teachers find it easier to focus on teaching the children with a smaller class size (Johnston, 1989). A criticism that was made by OfSted in their 1995 report class size and the quality of education looks at an overnight change and the changing of the classes and it didn’t collect any pre-measures which could have meant they could gauge whether it had a sufficient data to put any critics to rest (Ofsted, 1995). Grissmer (1999) concluded that because of the lack of coherent theories to guide work on class size effects.

” why the gap

(Blatchford, 2003).

This above shows how a smaller class impacts pupils behaviour. Smaller classes have less behavioural issues in comparison to the larger classes as shown above. The behavioural issues have been reduced by nearly half as much. Could this be a result of a teacher having better control over the class? It might also be because there is a smaller pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) meaning more control is gained, as well as more eyes to watch for bad behaviour and stop it before it begins to be a problem.

Also having a smaller class size should make the classroom more manageable for the teacher therefore reducing behavioural issues that are associated with a larger class size and not being able to see everything that is going on. This graph below shows that the behaviour problems were reduced by half in research that was found in the class size research project.

Better behaviour could be a result of the child being able to get more support from teachers if and when they may require it. It means a teacher has more time to engage with the pupils. (Achilles, 1999) This goes for all classes a reduction in class size means more child centred learning and more child teacher interaction. (Lou et al, 1996). This means that an exercise can be described to them in more detail so they fully understand what they need to know to be able to do the task set, after all each child is unique and not everyone will learn in the same way. (Glass et al, (1982); Cooper, 1989) Giving teachers more time can lead to ‘better’ planned lessons and more focus on teaching with smaller classes can use different teaching methods or can offer better opportunities for teachers to teach (Anderson, 2000). This way there are less pupils to accommodate meaning teaching styles and methods can be adapted to the children that are being taught. (Galton & Patrick, 1990)

Another impact would be whether or not the class is a mixed ability set of children, for example if there is a big class but they are all of a higher ability. They could be easier to teach as they are all at the same level. This means that they will only be planning for one ability group. (Lou et al, 1996).

Looking into the STAR report it has aided the focus of the research study. The research that was undertaken in the STAR report is not being replicated. Using this report to help look for what teachers’ perception of whether class size does have an impact on pupil achievement. The research Question in to find out teachers perceptions if class size effects pupil attainment in Key stage 1.
Methodology
From the research methods used there are strengths and weaknesses that come from questionnaires and using interviews. Before completing the questionnaires and the interviews the participants were all told that the data was going to be kept confidential and anonymous. (NEDARC, 2010)

The research was completed in a Church of England primary school. The research was based on the research question of Does Size Matter? – Teachers’ perceptions on Does Class size affect attainment. One of the research methods used to collect data was a questionnaire that was handed to all teachers in the school. Questionnaires were used to collect data. When given the questionnaire they were told that it would take them no longer than 10 or 15 minutes to complete this. This is because teachers know they don’t have a lot of time to do them because of having to do other things such as break and lunch duties and other duties they need to fulfil. Another method used was interviewing the teachers that were in the schools after filling in the questionnaires .
The interview was used to clarify what they had put on their questionnaire as well as being able to get any more information that they may have missed. (Barlett and Burton, 2005). Questionnaires were the first data collection method used, then the interview followed to gauge teachers perceptions on whether class size has an impact on pupil achievement. Using questionnaires and interviews can align the data collected by both if them. (Bergmann et al.’s, 2004) To analyse all of the responses from each of the teachers that gave back the questionnaires via comparing them all. The data was collected to see what feedback was given at each section. Using this it was clear to see what concerns or views were more common among the people that had the questionnaires using a spreadsheet to collect all of the data and group it. They were grouped into different sections and marked how many had this view. After a discussion with the teachers that were going to be interviewed they were told that they had no obligation to be there and they could get up and leave when they wanted. Beforehand the questions that were going to be asked were given to them so they could prepare answers. During the interviews answers and notes were recorded. These notes and answers were used to compare the results with the answers that they gave when completing the questionnaire beforehand.

The strengths of using questionnaires to get data from teachers is that they are easy to hand all all the teachers a questionnaire for them all to do. It was quick and easy and not time consuming for the person giving the questionnaires out and if not completed then a polite reminder could be sent out to ask if they would complete and then hand the questionnaire back. The ability to ask a variety of different questions closed and open questions. (Arthur et al, 2012) Closed questions limit the respondent to the set of alternatives being offered, while open-ended questions allow the respondent to express an opinion without being influenced by the researcher (Foddy, 1993: 127). They knew beforehand that it wouldn’t take them long to complete the questionnaire as it only had 13 questions on it. The limits of taking data via questionnaires is that they can be handed out well but only a few can be handed back in because they might feel they are waste of time or could fill them out and lose them or just not hand them back in and forget about them. So this means that their could be a very low return rate. While questionnaires can provide evidence of patterns amongst large populations, qualitative interview data often gather more in-depth insights on participant attitudes, thoughts, and actions (Kendall, 2008). The strengths of collecting data via interviews is that you are collecting data face to face with a person and you are able to hear what they have to say on the questions and then able to put each thing into different categories to record what has been said. To conduct the interview we had to find a quiet place so I was able to ask the questions, also so the answers could be written down as they were given to me (Barlett and Burton, 2005). Limitations of doing interviews would be the interviewer could have misheard an answer that was given changing the meaning of the answer, or asking the interviewee to state their answer again and they could forget what they were trying to say in the first place.(Bartlett and Burton,2005). Before going into the interview I had looked at the questionnaires and tried to tailor my interview to get more depth on answers without leading the interviewee with leading questions and being biased. (Hammersley, 2000; Bryman, 2008). On the other hand some researches will skew the data to get the answers to get what they want rather than not getting it. (Gitlin et al, 1989: 245)

Before being able to collect the data for the research study to begin a form had to be completed meaning to get consent from both the personal tutor and the participants. This was done by the use of a research and ethics form that was completed with details of what was going to happen in the research study, it stated the question that was being researched and also the two different research methods. These methods were the data collection methods going to be used. Getting this signed meant that the research was ethical and that date collection for research could commence. (BGU 2013)

My Findings

In my research it was found that the perceptions that teachers have on class size are all similar in the way they feel that a smaller class size means that they are more able to spend time giving help to all the children equally. Robinson (1990) suggested there is definitely benefits to having a smaller class. They stated that having lots of children in a class means that they have to divide up their time meaning they have less time trying to help each individual child. The ideal class size that the answers gave were between 20 and 25 children in each class. This is between the range that two of the classes in the STAR report.(TSDE, 1990). The reasons they gave for wanting a smaller class were to make the class sizes and pupils more manageable for them and also because it gives them time to explain to individuals and small groups. Another statement was bigger classes necessitates whole class teaching rather than individual groups. As captured by Alexander et al (1992) and Ofsted 1995b.

One question that was asked on their perception of class size and attainment it was answered the same by all. larger class sizes affects them adversely due to the teachers not being able to get around to each of the different groups and less teacher pupil interaction. One of the teachers answered by stating that when class sizes are more than 25 it is less manageable and harder to control everything that the children are doing especially when she was trying to take another group and explain to them the tasks that they were being set, but on the other side of this discussion another teachers answer argues that when there is a larger class it can be just as effective with the correct amount of teaching assistants that have the correct qualifications. Teaching assistants can help take pressure off of the teachers and help with any tasks that they need help. The term teaching assistant was mentioned in the Green paper (DfEE, 1998).

captures the essential ‘active ingredient’ of their work; in particular, it acknowledges the contribution which well-trained and well-managed assistants can make to the teaching and learning process and to pupil achievement.
(DfEE 2000:4)

When asked why class size has an impact on class size it is mainly answered by stating that teachers haven’t got enough time to explain everything in as much detail to every child or group. The pupil and teacher relationship is not as strong in a larger class than a smaller class because there is more child-teacher interaction, but in the opposite direction their is more socialisation in and peer to peer interaction a larger classroom so more peer-peer learning can happen. Also finding there was a strong desire for wanting to provide a more personalised learning that can be given when in a smaller classroom meaning the teacher is more able to give children that need extra help the support that they need. (Hargreaves et al, 1998, p. 789). Issues for behaviour were also mentioned in my findings, larger classes were more at risk for the behavioural issues as discussed in the literature review about finding by Blatchford (2003) smaller classes proved to half the behavioural issues and the children were paying more attention in class spending less time ‘acting up’. (Cooper, 1989).

Above in the findings about teaching assistants being helpful when they have a large class and are more able to help with teaching groups of pupils or help a child on a 1:1 basis to explain what they are being asked to do and help them in anyway to try and get the best out of the child. (Slavin 1987). Not every teaching assistant will have the same qualifications as each other meaning that the same quality of learning is not always going to be consistent due to some of them being volunteer helpers and student teachers. In a study it was found 25 percent of employed adults and 22 percent of volunteer staff working in the class room had not qualifications. (Batchford et al, 2002b). On the other hand a teaching assistants very useful for taking readers meaning the teacher doesn’t have to listen too loads of children reading to them, for example with 30 children in the class and listening to them read for ten minutes means that five hours of their time that could have been spent explaining tasks to children and making sure they have the support that they need maximizing teaching time as well. (Brophy and Good, 1986; Creemers, 1994; Pellegrini and Blatchford, 2000).

When asked about whether they would plan their lessons differently if they had a smaller class most stated that their planning would change. They would make the learning more active, creative and practical for a smaller class. (Creemers, 1994; Galton, Hargreaves, & Pell, 1996). Larger classes that have 8 different groups means there has to be a lot more planning involved. This is because they have to plan different activities for different lessons of the day making it heavy on resources, this also makes it difficult to in any realistic time frame making lessons rushed. (Drabble, 2013; Punton, 2014). With smaller class sizes it makes everything easier for example time management would be easier to hit, as well as teaching assistants that are helping are able to help each group giving more pupil teacher interactions which is linked to better learning. (Galton & Patrick, 1990)

During the interview the interviewee’s were asked a series of questions to get more information on their perception on whether class size has an impact on a pupils achievement. This gave more in-depth answers about their views than what answers were put on the questionnaire. Open questions and closed questions during this interview to help try and get more information on the interviewee’s perception on class sizes impacting on class size. The questions used in the interview are in the appendix.

During the interviews one interviewee was quoted saying:

‘ As a teacher a smaller class size would have an impact on a pupils achievement as i get more interactions with my pupils and I am able to help them through questioning but with a bigger class I am not able to to get around the class and help groups as much as I would like to. As well as having to teach whole class with bigger classes.’

This quote highlights that some teachers perceptions on class sizes is focussed on not being able to spend enough time with different groups and helping explain tasks in more depth. The teaching is whole class orientated rather than being able to do group tasks.

After the interviews there were more in-depth answers about behaviour and the impact it has on teaching, also discloses whether or not teaching assistants were a big help or if they don’t help at all. When behaviour was discussed it was mentioned that behaviour changed in larger classes. When asked why she responded with because children think they can get away with it because I might be occupied with helping other children. Smaller classes can get, more individual teaching and attention. (Harder, 1990; Turner, 1990; Pate-bain et al, 1992). Helping them to get support from the teacher in a desired subject. Although the teaching assistant was able to maintain control of the room if I was helping a group or doing another task. (Blatchford, 2003). When in smaller classes the interviewee noticed children were better behaved and were on task a lot more of the time. With it being a smaller class bad behaviour is more noticeable for the teacher as they have less children and can keep a better eye on all of the children even when occupied. Larger classes were more boisterous than the smaller ones more examples of loud and aggressive behaviour towards others. (Day et al, 1996), on the other hand smaller classes had the opposite effect on children according to Smith et al (1989).

During the interview one teacher was very grateful to be having teaching assistants to help her with her teaching. She said that the teaching assistant took precision learning for two of the pupils that needed extra help. These pupils had their own numeracy and literacy lessons away from the rest of the class. Most lessons they had 1 to 1 with the teaching assistant. Also took readers everyday which meant that she could use more of her time focussing on walking round and helping any children with any work and marking the work with the pupils. Marking the work with the pupil she was able to gauge whether they got the task or not. Traffic lights are also used so a pupil can tell her what they do and don’t understand and with the free time that she gets because of the teaching assistant taking readers she is able to spend time going through and helping the pupils to understand what they didn’t understand meaning more teacher pupil interactions being able to get more feedback. (Cooper 1989; Pate-bain et al, 1992)
In the findings of the research project it was found that the perception teachers have on whether class size effects pupils attainment in key stage 1 is it does have an effect. This is because it impacts on the amount of time a teacher has to explain and help pupils or groups and give them the help they need and make lessons effective. (Bennett, 1996; Pate-Bain, Achilles, Boyd-Zaharias, & McKenna, 1992). Smaller class sizes can help facilitate more conditions for teachers to teach and for learners to learn. (Wang and Finn, 2000). The key findings are time, teaching assistants and behaviour in smaller classes. So much of a teachers time is taken up by marking and planning meaning that effective teaching can’t take place because they don’t have enough time to get to each children and guide them. Less teacher- pupil interactions decrease the amount of ‘good’ learning that could be happening if a class size was smaller, time could be better used questioning children to enhance their learning experience. (FTGO, 2012; Betts & Shkolnik, 1999). While spending more time on different activities and while trying to spread the time between pupils evenly there isn’t enough time to do it and deadlines can be rushed towards giving pupils less time to get information in meaning vital lessons and basics could mean a child’s chances in future could be hindered, as class sizes were too big and weren’t able to get the help they needed. Behaviour can be a problem in larger classes as seen by a graph in the literature review. The behaviour and children being off tasks halved when the classes were reduced. Behaviour can have an impact on pupil achievement by causing distractions for other children taking them off task making learning difficult because the teacher then has to deal with the child that was misbehaving meaning the teacher can’t help any child. Dealing with the misbehaving child takes up a teachers time as well as stopping the learning of other children. (Blatchford, 2003a; Blatchford, Bassett, Goldstein & Martin, 2003; Pate-Bain et al 1992). Finally another finding that was not really mentioned in the literature review was the importance that teaching assistants and volunteer helpers have when it comes to class size. More teaching assistants means the teacher has help when it comes to explaining tasks to children. This can take some pressure off of the teacher in different activities such as listening to the children read to them. This means less time can be spent of listening to children read and more time can be spent on planning lessons, marking work and also giving children extra help where and when it is needed.

The findings were not as expected. Due to finding out about how reliant some teachers can be on their teaching assistant to give them the extra help they need and offer them more time to help other pupils that need it.

Conclusion

To conclude this research project. The findings of this research project have been expected other than for one which involved teaching assistants and what their role in helping the teacher can be so important to get good teaching and help take groups as said by teachers that were surveyed in The Class Size Debate by Peter Blatchford (2003). Finding that teachers perceive the class size to have a greater impact on pupils achievement because of not getting enough child-teacher interactions as well as not have the time to plan more effective lessons was exactly the kind of results the research was looking, when it was started. (Lou et al, 1996) These have a huge relevance on teachers working hard and fast trying to plan and make lessons good, time is of the essence and teachers are always against the clock to achieve the desired results in a short amount of time. The findings could in turn influence schools to take on more teaching assistants and volunteers to help with taking readers to lighten the load the teachers have to do and give them a chance to help groups and individual children which in turn can increase a child’s chances to achieve. (Blatchford, 2003). One finding that could be acted upon is using a smaller class to find if teaching methods are changed to teach a smaller class, if this did happen then they would be able to compare the teaching methods and also means they can compare if using the same teaching methods can impact in both smaller and larger classes. The research that was undertaken could be used further to look into more detail about the behavioural differences between smaller class sizes and whether that can impact the data. A different approach could be taken rather than questionnaires which can be unreliable more interviews can be taken instead or use the questionnaire and can also use the interviews to clarify anything the questionnaires don’t answer. (Kendall, 2008; Brookhart & Durkin, 2003; Lai and Waltman, 2008). Something that could have been found if research was to be continued would be a more in depth results and if acted on by creating a study which could show the perceptions of the teachers of the differences between attainment in small class compared to the larger classes. This could even lead to a study that finds out whether class size does in fact effect pupil attainment. Using further research could also help to determine if having more teaching assistants can help with teacher pupil interactions and if they are effective in their helping of the teacher. In conclusion the findings were what I was looking for in teachers perceptions of class size came to be true, the teachers perceived the problems to be more on time being sent with the pupils, teaching assistants and the time frame in which they have to teach everything to the children. This proves that their perceptions lean towards class size effecting the attainment for the pupils.

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