Class sizes

Do larger class sizes really have a negative impact on learning?

The population of the UAE is growing and there is pressure on class sizes – but will this mean poorer learning? Ger Graus looks at the research. 

Growing population

The UAE is expanding at an incredible rate: culturally, economically, and perhaps most significantly, in terms of population. In the last 10 years alone, the number of people living in the country has grown by an estimated 2.2 million and that is not likely to slow in the next decade.

As more and more expatriate families choose to settle in the UAE, the number of children enrolled in schools is rising. While this is undoubtedly a positive thing for the UAE’s education sector and the nation as a whole, class sizes in schools are growing, too – and parents are naturally concerned about the possible implications this could have on their children’s education.

This is understandable; it is frequently presumed that larger classes and full schools lead to subpar education. In many cases, this is due to parents’ comparisons with their own school experiences, along with reports investigating the topic.

Such studies attempt to examine the impact of larger classes on education, often disclosing inconclusive or mixed results.

Most studies cited date from the 1980s and 1990s, and some studies do in fact find that smaller classes favour test scores. To someone outside the education sector, this is a worrying finding. However, having worked in a variety of schools for the last 25 years, it’s clear to me that class size is a relatively minor factor in a child’s learning journey.

Consider the net gain

In the studies that equate smaller class sizes with a rise in test scores, the increase reported is minor. One study, for example, found an increase of 0.04-0.05 standard deviations after decreasing the class size by 10 students (Cho et al, 2012). You could argue that any improvement in test scores is positive, but decreasing class sizes so significantly for such a minimal difference in results makes little sense – especially when you consider how a private school operates.

Where tuition fees are carefully reinvested, a school can ensure the best facilities, high-quality teacher training, a broad choice of subjects, and the use of the latest technologies to enhance teaching and learning. Prioritising these factors is far more likely to yield better academic results for students.

We must also not confuse the issue of class sizes with the point of contact ratios. For example, I could have 60 children in a classroom with four teachers, two teaching assistants, and two other experts, such as an artist in residence, or another non-teaching subject specialist. The debate around class sizes per se is not a sophisticated one, and far removed from the quality of learning experiences children can have in alternative settings and environments. The issue of class sizes should also be one of creativity, innovation, and child centred provision.

Overall, class sizes are relatively large across the UAE. However, with capped intake, the opening of new schools and expansion of others, along with the best resources, schools are doing an excellent job of preventing any negative impact on academic results.

Moreover, what makes a good education is far more complex than simply the number of students in a class. There are many more important factors that lead to academic excellence and general success in school. These include the curriculum, subject choice and personalised learning, school facilities and infrastructure, student wellbeing and happiness, and parental support.

The benefits of larger classes

Let’s not forget there are also significant benefits to larger classes. Students learn to work more independently, using their initiative to complete tasks, along with developing their teamwork and social skills as they collaborate with peers.

Classroom diversity is also present in larger groups, and students are exposed to a range of perspectives and learning styles. This diversity fosters cultural awareness, understanding, tolerance, and critical thinking – all crucial life skills and values in an ever-changing world.

Teacher quality

Other research has shown that teacher quality has a greater impact on results than class size (Clotfelter et al, 2007). Highly trained educators are equipped with the latest pedagogies, technologies, and resources, allowing them to handle larger classes with ease.

Quality training and professional development assist teachers in recognising and developing the strengths of students, regardless of whether they work better independently or benefit from more direct attention.

The quality of teaching in a school, therefore – combined with a well-chosen curriculum, wide subject choices, and top-notch facilities for science, the arts, sports, and other subjects – provides students with greater opportunities to achieve academic excellence.

Beyond the classroom

It’s important to realise that education is far more than just academic results and that it extends far beyond the classroom. A good education is about shaping our students to become the best versions of themselves. That could be socially and emotionally, developing skills such as teamwork and communication, and nurturing qualities such as kindness, empathy, and respect.

It’s also about promoting a sense of social responsibility in learners, empowering them to have a positive impact on the world. This kind of holistic learning environment builds character and identity. It cultivates curiosity and a lifelong love of learning.

Extra-curricular activities also have a profound effect on students. They have been reported to improve emotional and physical health, student/parent relationships, peer relationships, student/school relationships, self-esteem, discipline, and general satisfaction at school (Stewart 2008, Broh 2002, Liu et al 2021).  Each of these factors have assisted in higher exam results and academic success.

Reports have found that wellbeing is also tied closely to educational achievement (Miller et al 2013). Wellbeing in schools specifically refers to the social and emotional health and development in students and it often derives from certain initiatives within the school such as school counsellors and mental health support. Students that are generally happier and more content at school are more likely to see positive outcomes in education including specifically in academic results.

Concerns about class sizes are understandable. However, as highlighted, school structural characteristics have little effect on student achievement when compared to individual-level characteristics (Stewart 2008). Choosing a school based on more controllable measures ensures that parents are doing their best to set their child up for success.

As we have seen, an excellent school is based on a combination of different factors, but perhaps the most important considerations are whether the school aligns with home and family values, whether students are happy, and whether each unique learner is fully supported to flourish.

We have an opportunity to turn this into a genuine dialogue about what good education and schooling could, and should look like. In this, we must, of course trust the experts, the professionals.

Prof Dr Ger Graus OBE  was the first Global Director of Education for KidZania, founding CEO of the Children’s University and a Visiting Professor at the National Research University, Higher School of Economics Institute of Education, Moscow. More importantly, he is also a Dad of three, a Dog-Walker of two, and a Husband of one.

 

 

FEATURE IMAGE: by Unsplash+ In collaboration with Andrej Lišakova>

Support Images: Family by aranprime on Unsplash, Working together Unsplash+ In collaboration with Getty Images,

Extra-Curricular by Hamish Kale on Unsplash and Friendship Unsplash+ In collaboration with Getty Images

 

Further reading:

UAE Population 2022 Statistics [Infographics] (globalmediainsight.com)

Do reductions in class size raise students’ test scores? Evidence from population variation in Minnesota’s elementary schools – ScienceDirect

Does student satisfaction with sabout:blankchool facilities affect exam results? An empirical investigation | Emerald Insight

https://whichschooladvisor.com/uae/guides/too-many-children-in-your-childs-class