When I first started teaching and ventured tentatively into the territory known as the staff room, it was like stepping into a society segregated by subject where the language of the Science site was alien to the habitat of the History faculty, where Maths teachers shot quizzical looks towards their lesser-logical colleagues in the English zone and where nobody but the most determined countrymen ventured into the vibrant and colourful corner known as the Art area. But despite their cliquishness, there was one matter that united all staff and which was a regular topic of the staff room rants – student behaviour – and it was a frequently heard assertion that if only class sizes were smaller, behaviour would improve and results would get better.
If I had a pound for every time I heard how from the green fields of Eton you could glimpse through the latticed-windows and witness the tiny classes where the privileged few were lucky enough to be learning their Latin, I’d be rich enough to pay their fees. But maybe this was just a case of carping teachers “passing the buck”? As according to an Organisation for the Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on Radio 4 last week, class size is not a determining factor in achieving a good education. It’s nothing to do with culture, buildings or technology either. The differences in educational outcomes it said, is due to the quality of the teachers.
In fact, the report says that it would be better if class sizes were increased and some of the savings invested in paying for better quality teachers and quoted the results of a Florida case study that found that reducing class size was the most expensive and inefficient way of improving school grades. I can hear the roars of disbelief and disapproval from staff rooms across the land.
The report quoted the example of Korea where class sizes are 36 and sometimes more but whose students increasingly find their way into top universities in the UK and USA, regularly out-performing their UK counterparts. Korea invests heavily in good teachers where they earn comparatively more than those in the UK, but are seen as essential to driving student motivation and achievement.
The last Labour Government spent billions of pounds on education; the pay of teaching staff increased, many old and decrepit buildings were refurbished, architects designed and building contractors erected glossy high-tech new academies filled with state-of-the-art technology infrastructure. A good chunk of this money was spent on expensive consultants specialising in behaviour management strategies and curriculum enrichment, and on introducing a whole array of initiatives intended to improve results. I’ve lost count of how many times curriculum content was re-written. Yet despite such high levels of investment and interference, if you believe the findings of this report, taxpayers money has not been spent wisely. Worse still, not only has money been wasted, but plenty more could have been saved by increasing class sizes, sacking poor teachers and recruiting higher-calibre ones to take control and inspire larger classes, because none of the rest matters, you just need to put a good and inspirational teacher in control of a well behaved and motivated class of students.
Aha, I hear you say, that’s the problem, the students. They aren’t well behaved or motivated, they’re feral. They aren’t interested in learning, they’re bored. Well, you won’t like the findings in this area either; the research shows that discipline and behaviour is not to be blamed on the students – another area of common agreement in staffrooms up and down the land. Teachers tend to cite the background and culture of a student as a reason for their behaviour and achievements, whether good or bad. In simple terms for example, those from “the estate” do poorly because of their culture and those from Chinese communities do well because of their culture and “tiger or helicopter” parenting.
But, good behaviour and motivation according to this report has nothing to do with culture or background, and is due to sound management by strong school leadership teams who establish and communicate regimes of strong discipline and punishment which is understood and adhered to. Having worked in several differently managed schools with similar student intakes where behaviour contrasted vastly and in a number of institutions that provided education for offenders (many of whom had been disruptive at school) whose behaviour was exemplary, I tend to agree that where there are established disciplinary practices, systems of punishment and rewards, students, even those with a criminal record and history of truancy and disruptive behaviour can and do perform well and get on with their lessons studiously.
There are examples of research that support the findings in the OECD report and those that contradict it. I don’t really know what the answer is to the crisis in UK schools, but suspect it isn’t just as simple as putting “good” teachers in front of large classes. The irony is though that despite vast expenditure and countless initiatives results are still poor, and standards are said to be lower than ever, with the UK falling behind many other countries (not just Korea) in terms of educational outcomes, and despite reams of research a solution still can’t be agreed on.
If as this report finds, good education is down to good teachers, does that make teachers solely responsible for the crisis in UK schools? There must be more to it than that? What about the cultural trends that have undermined both the content of and belief in education and the loss of faith in the pursuit of truth? Once upon a time, teachers had authority in the classroom without the behavioural problems experienced today or the need for behavioural management checklists and strategists because they were expert in their subject and their academic knowledge was valued and this was the guiding principle in education.
Today, teachers are responsible for a bewildering number of non-educational aims such as diversity, diet, environmental concerns, re-cycling, emotional intelligence and happiness all of which dilutes the academic content of the curriculum making it routine or “relevant” which makes it un-interesting and undermines the teacher. The more teachers are trusted to impart actual subject knowledge and develop student’s academic understanding, their authority will be strengthened and from then on trust and discipline will follow. Then, it won’t matter how large or small the classes are, whether they are taught by “chalk and talk” or use the latest technology, in a sound-surround classroom or out on a dirt-track – make the lessons interesting and give authority back to the subject-teacher and you can tear up your behavioural management checklist, sack the behavioural management strategists and content consultants and the students can begin to enjoy learning once more.
Does class size matter? Are teachers’ non-educational aims diluting academic content? What makes education ‘un-interesting’ and ‘routine’? Are teachers responsible for the crisis in UK schools? What are the biggest issues considering education right now? Should behavioural management strategists and content consultants be sacked? Should make the lessons interesting and give authority back to the subject-teacher