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Review of Class Size Control Mechanisms: Report of the Working Group

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Background

1.1 The Review Group was established to consider how best class sizes might be determined in Scottish schools. This was in response to the complex situation, which exists currently, where there is a mixture of mechanisms involved in the setting of class sizes. The agreed remit of the group is attached as Appendix 1 along with the membership of the group.

1.2 The Review Group considered a summary of practice internationally. This is attached as Appendix 2. It also considered the current position in Scotland from the various points of view represented within the group. The issue is a challenging one, which has become politically significant in Scotland. Some of the organisations represented on the group had made public statements on class sizes so it was important for the group to pursue approaches that would open up discussion and seek consensus on possible recommendations

1.3 The Review Group agreed to look at the rationales for the setting of class sizes. The view of the group was that, if there was clarity about the purposes of setting class sizes that might inform the mechanisms best used to fulfill these purposes. This report sets out these rationales for limiting class sizes and considers some of the issues associated with each. It also tries to identify the constraints that currently affect class size. These are factors, including health and safety advice and regulation, which have an impact on class sizes, but have not previously been identified as "mechanisms" for the setting of class sizes

1.4 The report also considers whether changes, and potential further changes in education, mean that we need to rethink the way that we organise the experiences of students. It could be argued that the concept of a set class undertaking all its activities together is not as important as it was and may become less so. In these circumstances class size will become less important as a mechanism for regulating the educational experience of young people. This is, to some extent already the case in secondary schools where it is recognised that practical activities require a different grouping from other educational activities. It is likely that the concept of a set class in all settings will be subject to variation in the years ahead. This is a significant issue, which is explored further in para. 4 of this report.

1.5 The Review Group acknowledged the formal consultation undertaken by the Scottish Government on the introduction of a class size limit of 25 in P1. The outcome of that is likely to have implications for this report.

1.6 In considering the current class size maxima and the different mechanisms by which these are set, the review group supports greater coherence across all stages when setting class size limits.

1.7 Finally, the report sets out the mechanisms that the review group believes best respond to the key purposes that it has identified.

Rationales

2.1 More effective learning

Much of the recent discussion that there has been about limiting class sizes has been based on the belief that smaller class sizes benefit learners.

This argument would appear to make sense. Smaller class sizes should allow more individual attention to be given to learners. This should reduce potential difficulties related to behaviour. Smaller classes reduce the workload on the teacher and thereby minimise stress and allow more time and energy to be invested in key teaching activities such as providing feedback to learners both verbally and in writing.

Despite the strength of the intuitive arguments about the benefits to learners, the research base to validate these is limited. There is some stronger evidence that suggests that reduced class sizes can have particular benefits for young people experiencing difficulty or disadvantage. This is reflected in practice where class sizes are often reduced well below any set limits in order to address such issues. This does not mean that the arguments for smaller classes are invalid, but suggests that other factors are also of considerable significance. The quality of teaching is an example that is consistently cited in educational research as having an impact on pupil achievement. It is also difficult to create a situation in educational research where all variables, which my have an impact on results, are controlled.

Nonetheless, the opinion of the Review Group is that class sizes are one of the important factors that are likely to benefit learners, in particular, it is likely to have a particularly positive impact on learners experiencing difficulties of all kinds. Achieving class sizes within current limits should be given priority alongside other factors that are also likely to have an impact. These could include improved pupil/teacher staffing ratios, improved pre-service and in-service training, or enhanced support for teachers.

However, it is difficult to make a strong case for there being a specific class size on the basis of educational research.

2.2 Teacher workload

While teacher workload is likely to be related to the effectiveness of learning, it is a specific issue in relation to class size. Regardless of how learning takes place, there will be a need for teachers to assess work done in a variety of ways. These will include observation and recording of activities, marking and correction of written work, the devising and administration of specific assessment activities and ongoing assessment during class or group activity. There will also be a need to monitor attendance and to provide personal support.

We need to ensure that we are not creating unmanageable workloads for teachers and this is likely to require some restriction on the number of learners for whom they are responsible. The Review Group was aware that research undertaken by the University of Glasgow on behalf of the SNCT (Teacher Working Time Research (2006) Menter et al.) noted that the workload of teachers remained above the contractual limit of 35 hours set out in "A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century". Limiting class size is one means of doing this, however it would seem to be a relatively crude one. Teacher workload, therefore, may be more likely to be an argument for the restriction of class size rather than for a specific limit to be set.

2.3 Parental preference

The argument has been put forward that parents and carers are in favour of limiting class sizes and that this should be part of a rationale for the setting of specific limits. The reality would appear to be more complex. There are examples of parents arguing against the maintenance of class size limits where their application would prevent their children entering a particular school or being allocated to a particular class. There would appear to be few parents who would not support the view that smaller classes were more likely to promote better care and more effective learning for their children. That said, parents recognise that a number of factors can affect the achievement and well-being of their children and do not always see class size as being pre-eminent among these factors.

2.4 Health and Safety

The General Schools (Scotland) Regulations 1975 (Regulation 8) outlines the recommended method by which the maximum number of pupils for whom every room is suitable should be calculated. These are set out in Appendix 3. Such health and Safety factors are addressed below as a constraint.

2.5 Consistency

There is a very important argument that, whatever the rationale for, or the perceived benefits of, setting class size limits, there should be consistency across Scotland. If there are benefits from reduced class size limits, children should benefit from these regardless of where they are educated.

Constraints

3.1 Physical issues/health and safety

While such issues may appear more banal than those considered above, they are nonetheless important. Both schools and classrooms have capacity limits determined on the basis of health and safety. These have clear implications for class sizes. There are schools where different class sizes apply in different rooms in the school because of room size. In general schools in Scotland have been designed with class size as a factor and this has a limiting effect before any other mechanisms are considered. Some of these limits are reinforced through building regulations and other mechanisms.

While the group recognised that these factors would militate against class sizes going beyond those currently set, they would not require a general reduction of class sizes below those set through Teachers' Terms and Conditions

3.2 Staffing levels/terms and conditions

These are also important factors that will inevitably have an impact on class organization and class size. There are limits on how many staff require to be allocated and limits on how much time they can spend teaching. These create inbuilt restraints that limit potential class sizes. Again, the Review Group felt that these factors were a constraint, but would not have a significant impact on class sizes beyond those set in Teachers Terms and Conditions. Terms and Conditions currently provide a ceiling for the determination of class sizes.

The nature of learning

4.1 The group recognised that the nature of learning was continually developing. Technology was having a major impact on how students were learning and this is often being reflected in school design, with a greater variety of learning spaces and increased flexibility in the use of buildings. There is far greater scope for students to learn individually and in different groupings. This is encouraged by the changes that are taking place within the curriculum where there is far greater encouragement of personalisation and choice at all stages in the school curriculum. The idea of a "class" as a consistent learning grouping is becoming far less common. The Group accepted that this needs to be kept under review and that there is a need for flexibility in response to different learning activities. However, we are also committed to the concept of education as a social experience and to the importance of learning in groups and of relationships between teachers and learners. We feel that this militates towards the continuation of class size maxima.

4.2 Curriculum for Excellence is likely to have a significant impact on the organisation of learning. There are indications that it will strengthen the tendency to establish mixed age classes that has followed from the relaxation of age and stage restrictions. There will be issues as to whether or not such classes should be considered to be composite classes. There will be a need to consider how the organisation of learning is addressed on an ongoing basis and the importance of class size as a mechanism diminishes. At this point, the Review Group takes the view that there is still a need to prescribe upper class size limits. If there were to be an attempt to set limits on groups involved in particular learning activity, it would be a complex task and would require more detailed consideration than this Group has been able to give. However, we recommend that this issue is considered as curricular change and learning approaches develop.

Key issues

5.1 The Review Group was of the view that the most important basis for any decision affecting young people in had to be the their best interests. We agreed that any proposals that we made had to be likely to have a positive impact on the achievement and well being of young people.

5.2 The Review Group were clear that we needed to have mechanisms in place that ensured that young people experienced sufficiently close attention from teaching staff especially in the early years of education. While the group recognised that all learning may not need to be offered to the same groupings of learners all the time, some limits needed to be set to ensure that learners could experience the attention and support that they required to benefit fully from their experience of school.

5.3 As indicated in para. 1.3, and discussed in para. 4, students are not always educated in the same classes. There is a strong argument that we need to think more flexibly about how we lead and support learning, rather than always considering the class as the basic unit of learning. While the Group have agreed that this a task going beyond its remit, this more flexible approach would militate towards ensuring that staffing levels were such as to allow different pupil/teacher staffing ratios to be applied as is most appropriate to best serve the needs of pupils within a school.

5.4 If the key rationale for setting class size limits is education benefit, decisions should be taken and controls applied in a way that ensure that advantage is extended consistently to young people. While the Review Group supported using smaller classes or groups to benefit younger learners or those with particular support needs, this should be within a framework where a maximum class size limit was set.

5.5 Given the range of stakeholders with an interest in class size limits, the view of the group is that a maximum class size limit should be set through legislation or regulation. This would address the concern of the group that there should not be breaches of set limits on the basis of "excepted pupils". If consensus can be established through democratic processes as about class size limits, these must not be breached to accommodate the preferences of individual children and families, except where families moved in to a catchment area during term time

5.6 While the Group seeks for class size limits to be set through legislation or regulation at national level, it recognises that these would be achievable maxima. Local Authorities would have scope within that to set policies on class sizes. These may involve setting limits well below the prescribed maxima in order to achieve local priorities, for example, early intervention or addressing disadvantage. The consequence of this would be that other classes would be consistently close to the maximum. Such policies should be based on full consultation with parents, learners and other key stakeholders in the school community. Where schools wished to set particular class sizes, their arrangements should also be subject to consultation within the school community. The Parent Council should play a key role in that consultation.

5.7 The Review Group recognised that workload issues were important and that teachers could not be effective if they were overburdened. Nothing in this report is intended to undermine the principle of collective bargaining through the SNCT. The Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers and the Local Negotiating Committees should have a continuing role in reaching agreement on terms and conditions for teachers, including class sizes. However, the Review Group is of the view that all current agreements should be subsumed into legislation or regulation while remaining part of teachers terms and conditions as set out int SNCT handbook. Such a move would simplify the landscape in terms of mechanisms in the short term. There would still be the possibility of further reductions resulting from negotiation within the SNCT.

5.8 It is difficult to see how any rationale would support the setting of specific class size limits, whether at 18 or another level, other than the desire for greater consistency. The review group felt that there required to be an element of flexibility to allow Local Authorities and schools to have some autonomy in organising learning for pupils. For this to be achieved, class size limits should be set nationally at a level that allows for this. This should be supported by a set pupil/teacher ratio that would determine a minimum level for school staffing. The combination of these two actions would give schools, within parameters, the flexibility to set class sizes, which reflected the school's circumstances and priorities. The benefit would be that such decisions would not be open to legal challenge. The Early Years Framework and the well-established consensus about the importance of early intervention would be sufficient to ensure that class sizes were maintained at the lowest level achievable while safeguarding the interests of pupils at all stages in the school.

Recommendations

In making recommendations, the Review Group is conscious that it is not part of its remit to say what class size limits should be, we are restricted to recommendations about the way in which they are set. However, the Group is strongly of the view that class size matters and any limits set, by whatever mechanisms, should be at or lower than those set through current teachers terms and conditions.

The Review Group is also determined that class size limits, once set, should be capable of being defended successfully against any subsequent legal challenge. Decisions based on educational benefit should be applied in the best interests of all young people and should not be breached to accommodate individuals' perceived interests. The Group was opposed to the principle of the "excepted pupil" as deployed in the recent East Lothian judgement. Students from outwith the catchment areas of a school should not be added to a class that was already at the class size limit. The only instances where the concept should be considered is to allow catchment pupils access to their local school if they move into the area after classes have been set.

The Review Group stress that class size is only one factor in school effectiveness and would welcome a restatement of the commitment to school improvement through staff development, self-review high quality pre-service training and constructive engagement with schools that has characterized Scottish education in recent years.

Our recommendations are made on that basis

1. Legislation should be used to set an upper limit for class sizes.

2. This should be supported by clear references to teacher /pupil ratios that enable schools and Authorities to establish classes smaller than the maximum limit

3. The legislation should recognise the range of learning activities in which pupils are likely to engage and set an upper limit for practical activities

4. It should also make clear that pupils could be engaged in larger groupings for appropriate activities - assemblies, lectures, etc.

5. There should be a commitment to the ongoing review of the organisation of learning as the nature of learning develops