Should we raise class sizes and reduce the number of Teaching Assistants?

Peter Blatchford

Ask any teacher about whether class size matters and the chances are they will say that of course, a smaller class allows for better teaching and learning. Ask any teacher whether having a teaching assistant (TA) in the classroom is beneficial and it’s highly likely they will say they are a great help.

These points seem common sense and certainly correspond to the findings of the IOE’s large scale surveys of teachers’ views. Yet, recently the Think Tank ‘Reform’ has argued that class size and TAs are not important and in the case of the former can be raised without harm and in the case of the latter can be reduced in number. This conclusion is similar to that in several high profile and widely cited reports from OECD, McKinsey, Gratton Institute and Brookings. How do we reconcile these two different perspectives – the practitioner and policy perspectives? Are teachers wrong, as some commentators imply?

To address this question we need to examine the evidence on the relationships between class size and pupil performance, and TAs and pupil performance.

To take class size first: it is striking how much recent reports base their conclusions on three sources of data: cross country comparisons, meta analyses and econometric analysis. All of these, I believe, only offer a partial view and are therefore flawed as evidence of a causal role for class size.

Results from international assessments such as the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) show that students in the East Asia do very well and also have relatively large classes, and it is often therefore concluded that class size is not important to academic achievement. But the flaw in this argument is not considering the reasons why high performing education systems in places like Hong Kong do well, including high levels of parental support, cultural factors that favour education and the prevalence of private tutoring.

Meta analyses are based on a large scale statistical analysis of multiple studies related to the effects of class size. The conclusions have generally been that class size does not have a large influence on student learning. Yet often these analyses include studies of varying quality, age of pupil, research design, etc.

The same problem exists with econometric analyses – studies by economists who often take measures of class size, or more usually pupil teacher ratios, and develop statistical models of effects that take little account of what actually happens in school.

Interestingly these sources of data are also all secondary analyses, that is, they typically use data collected by other people. In contrast, evidence from two dedicated studies of class size – the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) experimental project from Tennessee and the Class Size and Pupil Adult Ratio (CSPAR) study, which I directed here at the IOE, arrive at similar conclusions: class size does matter for the younger pupils in school and small classes are particularly beneficial for the more disadvantaged and initially lower attaining pupils.

A limitation of the research examined so far is that it is all restricted to the relationships between class size and academic performance. There has been less research on class size and other aspects of classroom life, such as teaching approaches, teacher-pupil interactions and pupil behaviour. The research we have suggests that class size does affect the amount of individual attention pupils receive, and their engagement and active involvement in class. At the IOE we found in a recent study that lower attaining secondary pupils were more likely to be off task in larger classes, when compared to middle and high attaining pupils[1] Intriguingly, in several countries in Asia, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, class size reduction initiatives have been introduced – not so much to affect educational attainment (after all these countries perform very well in the PISA surveys) but to help teachers bring about higher order thinking and collaborative learning experiences.

And for me this helps explain the disparity between the views of teachers and policy commentators: when thinking about the effects of class size, teachers have in mind a broader and less easily measured set of qualities than simply scores on an achievement test. If teaching were simply about delivering a lecture then ‘Reform’ and others like them would have a strong case. But as all teachers know, teaching is not simply about presenting information.

And what about TAs? Interestingly, the research evidence on which most people draw seems to be the IOE’s Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project in which we found convincing evidence that pupils with more support from a TA made less progress at school compared to similar children who has less support. It is therefore quite understandable that some have concluded that investment in TAs, e.g. through the Pupil Premium, is not a good use of money. But what’s important here, is how one interprets the results; in a recent book[2] my colleagues and I argue that the most likely explanation for these results is the way that TAs are used in schools and prepared for their work. Put simply: TAs are not used to the best advantage. Often TAs, with little preparation or training, are assigned a one-to-one remedial role with low attaining pupils or those with special educational needs (SEN). We suggest that this is misguided and helps explain the negative impact on these pupils. Also in another recent book we show, on the basis of a two year long action research project, how schools can fundamentally rethink the way they use TAs, so that they add value to teachers rather than replace them in the case of the most disadvantaged pupils[3].

One of the problems with the debates over class size and TAs is the way that it is presented as a binary choice: either invest in class sizes or in teaching. But the point is these are not mutually exclusive. I suspect we all agree that the quality of teaching is vital, but smaller classes and TAs can help teachers provide a more effective education for pupils. This will not happen automatically, but requires careful attention in schools in order to make the most of the opportunities that smaller classes and TAs offer.

So my conclusion is clear: raising class sizes and reducing the number of TAs are very bad ideas!

Peter Blatchford is Professor of Psychology and Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

For more on the class size topic see: Blatchford, P. (2012) Class size: is small better? In Adey, P and Dillon, J. (Eds) Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education. Open University Press: Maidenhead, UK –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Class-Size-Debate-Small-Better/dp/0335211631

For more on Teaching Assistants see: www.schoolsupportstaff.net

References

1 Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., and Brown, P. (2011) Examining the effect of class size on classroom engagement and teacher-pupil interaction: differences in relation to prior pupil attainment and primary vs. secondary schools, Learning and Instruction, 21, 715-730

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959475211000260

2 Blatchford, P., Russell, A., and Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How Research Challenges Practice and Policy. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reassessing-Impact-Teaching-Assistants-Challenges/dp/0415687640/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_1 

3 Russell, A., Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (in press, 2013) Maximising the impact of teaching assistants: guidance for school leaders and teachers. Routledge 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Maximising-Impact-Teaching-Assistants-Guidance/dp/0415661285/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1353578662&sr=8-2-fkmr0

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “Should we raise class sizes and reduce the number of Teaching Assistants?

  1. Thank you for producing what seem like strong counter arguments to the Reform et al proposals, linked as they are to a pre-rationale for expected DfE spending cuts.

  2. Having just read the excellent ‘Maximising the Effectiveness of Teaching Assistants’, one of the publications referred to by Peter in this post, I can only concur with all that he writes. As a former primary headteacher I also agree with what Ofsted has said in its most recent report on the use of Pupil Premium funding, published in January 2013, and entitled ‘The Pupil Premium: How schools are spending the funding successfully to maximise achievement’. The section on ‘Ensuring that teaching assistants help to raise standards’ (p14) begins with five bullet-pointed principals that could easily draw on the IoE’s findings in the DISS and EDTA projects (which I admit to only skimming through), but have probably been distilled from the observed practice exemplified in a number of helpful case studies. I only wish that I’d been aware eighteen months ago of the research that Peter and his colleagues were undertaking, when I was headteacher of a primary school in very challenging circumstances. The audit for teachers and TAs, and the ideas about preparedness, practice and above all deployment, would have been invaluable to my leadership team and I. Let’s hope that Michael Gove, Sir Michael Wilshaw and the treasury officials who have set their sights on the £4bn that the country’s 232, 000 TAs are costing us (see the Sunday Times, June 2nd 2013). will also make time to read the book and the Ofsted report before deciding arbitrarily on another target for knee-jerk, swingeing cuts to a workforce that could, with a little extra thought, be a universal asset to our children and young people’s education.

  3. Pingback: Five reasons why any government should think twice about getting rid of teaching assistants | IOE London blog

  4. I am a HLTA working at a large inner city school. Support staff are deployed according to their skills. For example I specialise in supporting in literacy. This year I have taken a group of very able year 6 pupils for reading. I have also supported in middle and higher ability literacy classes in years 5 and 6. We also have TAs who specialise in numeracy, PE. EAL and SEN support.Teachers and support staff make time to plan together and work as part of a team. This approach has worked very well. In fact last year we were awarded an Outstanding in every category from Ofsted. CPD for support staff is also given high priority. Teachers and pupils both benefit from a well trained, skilled group of support staff. Rather than phasing out TAs their skills need to be properly assessed and how they are deployed needs to given careful thought. A well trained, appropriately deployed TA is an asset.

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