OECD- No link between small class size and pupil achievment

Shane Rae's picture
The OECD reports that the average primary class size in the countries within which it records data is 21.5.

In the UK the average class size is 24.5 (this seems to include averaging state and independent school classes according to BBC article).

The average class in 'one of the world's most successful education systems' South Korea is 32.

So, does the Free School 'small class is better class' model stand up?

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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 13:48

Shane - I think your original link re class sizes leads to this BBC article dated September 2008 which discussed an OECD report which had just been published.


The 2011 version is due to be published today (13 September 2011) and was embargoed until 10.00am. There should be something in the news later and the comments may refer to class sizes. Unfortunately, the report is only available to journalists. I don't qualify so can't get a copy. That means relying on the media which, if past experiences are anything to go by, will not always be accurate. And I don't have much faith in government spin. Mr Gove used the OECD Economic Survey 2011 to cherry pick quotes which gave the impression that the OECD backed government educational policy. However, he missed out all the warnings. Fortunately, I managed to get hold of a copy and have been able to share OECD concerns with readers of this site.


Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 13:54

This is a list of countries in order of suicide rate. South Korea is second with a suicide rate 3 times that of the UK!
I have no idea if that has any relationship to class size, but it does tell me that South Korea and the UK are quite different societies.
Of course small class size is beneficial to learning. Ask any teacher who has taught both class sizes of >30 and <20. No brainer. Only accountants would believe it made no difference.

botzarelli's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 14:17

I would have thought that large class sizes are no barrier to learning if the teaching style is very directive. If the expectation is for chalk and talk with relatively little interaction coming from the pupils, why wouldn't a class of 60 be as successful as a class of 20, provided that both were equally orderly and disciplined.

On the other hand, where the educational style is much more interactive and based on teachers pitching lessons to a range of individual abilities and interests it is difficult to see how it could be anything other than a benefit to have small classes.

This might mean that Free Schools taking a "traditionalist" approach to education don't really need small classes to deliver, but I can't see any reason why a small class size would prevent or hinder taking such an approach. The reduction in class size might still have benefits here if eg it meant that teachers could spend more attention per pupil in setting and marking homework.

On the other hand, it would seem pretty obvious that the aim of comprehensive but individually-tailored education that was inclusive of all educational needs, would be harder to achieve the greater the number of children there were in a class, particularly if classes are of genuinely mixed ability.

Shane Rae's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 14:24

Sorry I misspoke earlier when I said BBC, I meant Guardian (can't edit on here!). Also here in the Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8759743/OECD-primary-...

and whole report available from OECD here http://www.oecd.org/document/2/0,3746,en_2649_39263238_48634114_1_1_1_1,...

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 15:32

I predicted above that media interpretation of the OECD 2011 report would be misleading and the Telegraph has risen to expectations.

First the headline containing the obligatory dig at Labour: “OECD: primary class sizes 'among biggest in the world'. Primary school class sizes are still among the biggest in the developed world, despite a 50 per cent rise in the amount of money spent on education under Labour.”

But near the end of the article is this: “Figures from the OECD also showed the UK spent less overall on education than in other countries. Some 5.7 per cent of gross domestic product was invested in schools, colleges and universities, compared with the international average of 5.9 per cent.”

So the UK is still spending less on education (primary, secondary and tertiary) than the OECD average despite a huge rise in expenditure by the last government. But instead of praising them for increasing investment in education so that it gets somewhere near the OECD average, the article criticizes them because of comparatively large class sizes in primary schools. This is despite comments in earlier OECD publications that the evidence about class size and educational outcomes is mixed (see my post below).

Eventually the article says, “According to figures, average class sizes in secondary schools shrunk by 16 per cent over the last decade to 19.6. It placed UK schools well below the OECD average of 24 pupils per class.” But just in case readers think this is something to be praised the writer repeats, “But at primary level, UK schoolchildren were still more likely to be placed in large classes.”

The article goes on: “According to figures, the UK was behind only China, Korea, Chile, Japan, Indonesia, Israel and Brazil in terms of state school class sizes.”
China, Korea and Japan are high-performing countries as judged by PISA. Pupils in Chile, Indonesia, Israel and Brazil all achieve below the OECD average. UK school pupils achieve the OECD average in Maths and English, but are significantly above the OECD average in Science. It would appear from this that class size is no indication of high or low educational performance.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 14:58

Although classes in private schools in the UK tend to be smaller than those in the state sector, this doesn’t necessarily mean the teaching is better. “Class size is a hotly debated topic in many OECD countries. While smaller classes are often perceived as enabling a higher quality of education, evidence on the impact of class size on student performance is mixed.” (OECD 2010, The School Environment: How many students are in each classroom?). However, there is some evidence that smaller classes have a positive effect on disadvantaged pupils.



Figures published by OECD in 2010 revealed that UK secondary school teachers taught more hours than the OECD average but had smaller classes. By contrast, Japan and Korea paid their teachers well, allowing them ample non-contact time but paid for this with comparatively large classes. Finland, the highest performing European country, emphasised “non-salary aspects” of teachers’ working conditions but had comparatively large class sizes.


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