When would you like to be in a smaller class: age 5 or age 15?

Question: What links GCSE Design and Technology* with my 4 year old’s class size?

Answer: Money. And the choices we’ve made about how to spend it.

We’ve made the strangest resourcing choices in England, although it is so ingrained in our societal norms that is hard for us to recognise it. Children start at age 4 – younger than most other countries in the world – and from day one we place them into classes that are enormous, by international standards. It is common for us to have reception classes of 30 – OECD data reports the average in primary state-funded schools is 27.1. In other OECD countries primary class sizes are typically around 21 students.

Now, of course we aren’t the only country to have large primary classes, but we are distinctive in that our class sizes shrink considerably as children get older. Class sizes is one of the primary drivers of school funding demands across phases of education. Nobody else makes the same relative funding choices as us.


In most countries class sizes tend to grow as students get older. Perhaps they form a judgement that older children are able to cope in larger classes. Perhaps they feel that smaller classes are needed for pedagogical approaches more widely used with younger children.

(Now, it’s true that a Reception Year class nearly always has a full-time teaching assistant, but they aren’t trained teachers and it doesn’t compensate for limited physical space that becomes easily jammed as 4 year-olds shuffle between activities. By the age of 8 the full-time teaching assistants are long gone in most schools.)


So what are we buying with the cash we’ve saved through these large primary classes? If I told you secondary class sizes are, on average, under 21 students (OECD figures again), would you believe me? Many secondary teachers I speak to are surprised by this low figure because it doesn’t resonate with the classes they teach. The cash doesn’t reduce class sizes across the board. Instead, it is used to buy us two different things.

First, many schools run tiny lower attainment sets in core subjects. This makes sense for these students, who are struggling to access the GCSE curriculum and I am pleased schools make this resourcing decision. However, we have to ask how resourcing deployment contributed to them arriving unable to access the secondary curriculum at age 11 in the first place. Is it optimal to deliver tiny maths class sizes at age 14 (as we do) or at age 8? I couldn’t tell you, but this is a testable question (and evidence on the benefits of small class sizes suggests deploying them in younger age groups is optimal).

Second, we are relatively unusual by international standards because our elective curriculum starts from age 14 (or even 13). For most schools this means delivering partly empty classes, since students rarely select optional subjects in neat multiples of 30. If you try to preserve free choice, but require class sizes to rise as has happened during austerity, then schools inevitably abandon subjects that I personally think are important, e.g. languages and music.

Most people (except Michael Fordham and I) seem to like subject choice. Students love giving up subjects (or teachers!) they dislike. Teachers like losing students who are disinterested in their subject. As someone who is neither a teacher nor a student any more, I am intrigued by the arguments teachers make for ever earlier curriculum restriction. The new GCSE Geography curriculum may indeed be so deep and complex that it requires a three year programme of study, and yet geography doesn’t appear to be so important that all our future citizens have a right to study it to age 16 (or indeed 14 in many schools now)!

This is not a ‘GCSE reform is due’ blogpost – I’d just like us to talk more about all the trade-offs we make when we allow subject choice at Key Stage 4. Giving greater depth to optional subjects through long GCSE programmes comes with two major costs. It removes study time in the subjects for those who do not continue it after Key Stage 3 and it requires us to fund the smaller class sizes that inevitably arise.

I know… I know… you are thinking you’d like to preserve the status-quo in secondaries of small Key Stage 4 class sizes and reduce class sizes in infants. But resourcing education is all about trade offs, and often these trade offs need to happen within education, rather than between education and other parts of the economy. If we want smaller classes in infants then we have to think about whether we are prepared to give up anything else to achieve it.

This isn’t an adjustment that the education system could ever make on its own because it means taking cash away from some schools and giving it to others. Why would secondary teachers sign up for a reform that delivers larger class sizes that include students who would give up studying their subject given half the chance? I’m not saying we should enact this re-distributive policy, but I’d like us to have a fuller conversation about what sort of evidence would help us to make optimal resourcing decisions across phases.

*…or any other GCSE optional subject

5 thoughts on “When would you like to be in a smaller class: age 5 or age 15?

  1. Anna Perry

    Another great post. And, yes, I am so glad that my daughter, at a French school, has to carry on with the same full set of curriculum subjects as her peers in Troisième (Year 10) and Seconde (Year 11). Her class is huge (33 pupils) but core subjects are taught in half-class groups once a week ie lab work in Physics-Chemistry and Life/Earth Sciences and one session of French and Maths. And tests take place once a week first thing on Monday mornings in a scheduled slot for the whole year group of 100 and so do not eat into teaching time (the tests are invigilated by non teaching staff)

  2. Ben Gadsby

    Another fantastic blog, especially the point about trade-offs within education which is where as a policy person I often get frustrated at people who just want more money to do everything.

    I would actually be interested on whether you have any thoughts about a trade-off of larger class sizes for higher pay? Leaving aside buildings issues for a second, what if you increased the average secondary class size from 21 to say 30, by having many secondary classes of nearer 40? Obviously some teaching tasks scale roughly linearly with class size (eg marking) whereas others are effectively fixed overheads (eg curriculum design, planning) so you could probably increase class sizes, have teachers teach roughly the same number of students so that things like marking were constant, but you’d be actually teaching fewer hours and need fewer teachers, savings you could reinvest in a mix of higher pay and reducing the number of students taught to address workload (and perhaps additional TAs).

    This feels like it has the potential to address teacher shortages, the pay issue and the workload issue to some extent, and one could presumably test the impact on student outcomes of being in larger classes.

    I recognise this wouldn’t be immediately popular and a lot would be dependent on the details, but is this completely crazy as a starting point?

    1. There are two constraints on running classes of 40 in England: (1) physical space (very few classrooms can fit more than 32); (2) cultural and social norms around rights of children / behaviour and disruption. Neither insurmountable, but both challenging to resolve.

    2. Anna Perry

      Larger class sizes tend to lead to more direct instruction. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it has been seriously out of fashion in England for what seems like a generation. Larger class sizes also, in my experience, foster a culture of external tutoring and heavy parental support as individuals cannot be catered to in class by the teacher in any meaningful way. What then happens to those students whose families cannot provide external support? This needs to be addressed by schools (after school supervised prep and study support) or else disadvantaged students can quickly get into difficulty.

  3. Pingback: The Illusion of Choice – Waterman Learning

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