Does class size matter?

Class size is one of the first things many parents think about when considering the quality of a school. Parents are naturally attracted to small class sizes because, in Australia at least, there has been a concerted campaign in recent years telling us that smaller classes matter! Whether marketing spin, educational union activism or political expediency rather than policy, the notion of a smaller class appeals to us if only from a practical sense. Logically,  a smaller class will make it easier for the teacher to manage the classroom and hopefully provide individual attention to each child.

But is this the right way to think about class size? How much does class size really matter? What does the research tell us? And how is class size calculated, what does it mean?

Many studies have looked at the influence of class size on academic progress, social-emotional development, and student motivation. The results suggest that parents should be careful about putting too much emphasis on class size.

How is class size calculated?

This is a very good question! All schools in Australia have something called an Enterprise Agreement (EA) with their staff – government or non-government school, everyone has one. Part of this agreement clearly outlines the number of students allowed in any particular year level to the number of teachers required. The EA also contains things like the number of teaching hours, holidays, other benefits and non-teaching load duties and so on.

Schools also take into account the age of their students and the complexity of the learning or subjects. In simple terms, the first three years of school regardless of type – public or private – will generally have a class size of around 24, the upper primary/early middle years will be around 28 and the senior years may be anything from 5 to 35! Some schools will have a team teaching approach in the junior years where two or even three teachers will be in charge of 50 – 100 students. It is usual in the high school years for schools to have home room or houses for pastoral care of students and then smaller or larger classes for specific subjects depending on the take up by students or the particular focus of the school. In short, class size is an ever changing landscape even within systems or states.

When is a staff:student ratio not a staff:student ratio?

Beware any promotion of staff to student ratios – read the fine print. All staff are reported in the data according to their role so for example, when looking at MySchool data you will notice a distinction between teaching and non-teaching staff. They are also broken down into their Full Time Equivalence (FTE). Some schools will report an impressive staff to student ratio of say 1:15 but the teaching staff to student ratio may actually be 1:28. The devil is in the detail. If in doubt, ask the school specifically for their teaching staff to student ratio or the total class size.

Sometimes the school (public or private) will have a small class simply because enrolments are lower than their capacity. A good indicator is the size of the classes in year levels either side of the smaller class – if they are bigger it is likely that is the real number the school would like for the class!

Teachers like small classes

Teachers definitely prefer lower class sizes, although size can be relative – too small and for some subjects the learning opportunities diminish. Students may also have mixed views – there may be fewer like-minded peers to collaborate or form social bonds with, or the class may have a higher ratio of disruptive students making it difficult to learn.

The research shows class size matters less to student learning that you might think and that other factors can often be more important. After reading several of the studies and reflecting on our own experience with schools, we suggest parents/carers keep three issues in mind when choosing a school.

Key points:

  1. Class size generally matters less than teacher quality.
  2. Smaller classes are more important for some children than for others.
  3. The wider the range of student ability in a class, the more class size matters for all students.

Let’s consider these issues one at a time.

Class size generally matters less than teacher quality

Finland, Shanghai and Singapore all feature large class sizes, but top the educational achievement charts across the OECDs. The average class size in China is 55 students, while in Japan it is 42 students per class and many Japanese and Chinese schools outperform Australian schools on raw metrics – including rote learning and maths. But do Australian parents want their child to be in a large class or even a large school for that matter? Is it the size of the class or the quality of instruction along with the abilities, needs, behaviours and attitudes of the students?

One of the strongest findings from research is that your child will generally be better off in a larger class with a really good teacher than a smaller class with a mediocre one. As long as class sizes aren’t too large, it makes more sense for schools to focus effort on attracting and developing great teachers than reducing class size. Good teachers are so much better than mediocre teachers at designing instruction, managing classrooms, and motivating students.

Smaller classes matter more for some students than others

If you have two classrooms with equally talented teachers and one has 18 students and the other has 28 students, of course the smaller classroom should be better. But as there is no such thing as a free lunch — the price of admission to the smaller class may be thousands of dollars in private school tuition OR a reduction in the social/relational opportunities presented for your child — it’s important to ask how much better and for whom.

The answer depends in part on your child. The further they are from the average level of performance in the classroom, whether more advanced or in need of extra support, the more they’ll likely benefit from small class sizes. In addition, the more social and emotional challenges your child experiences at school, the more they have to gain from smaller classes. If you have a child whose achievement is fairly typical and they’re well adjusted at school and the teachers are good, class size matters less.

Throw in gender combinations – too few of one gender in a co-ed class room or very small classes in a single sex setting which limits options for friendships – and small class size may become a disadvantage rather than a bonus.

A wider range of ability, the more valuable small classes are — for all students

The typical Australian school has some students who are two years ahead of their year level, others who are two years behind, and plenty in between. One of the hardest parts about being a teacher is designing and delivering instruction that works for all the students.

The wider the range of student abilities within a classroom, the harder the task for the teacher. The more extreme the differences — for example, if some students are three years ahead and others are three years behind — the more difficult it is for the teacher to serve all children well. Regardless of your child’s particular situation, the wider the range of student ability in a classroom, the more valuable small classes are for everyone.

Finally, it is also worth remembering your child will likely be in some form of schooling for around 15 years, allowing for early childhood education through to Year 12. A lot can change in a year let along a decade and half, maybe they won’t/don’t need a classroom at all!

More reading