Small is Beautiful
‘Eye contact is everything’ my mentor said to me as I surveyed the rows of primary school children sitting in front of me. The trouble was I needed numerous pairs of eyes, some in the back of my head.
I was 23, and it was my very first day of teaching practice. Coming from the sheltered environment of Durham University I was given a baptism of fire by being given a class of eight year olds in a school in Easington Colliery, an ex-mining community hit very hard by the 1980s’ recession. Some of the kids came from exceptionally deprived homes and families. (One admitted to killing stray cats as his weekend hobby). But it was the quantity as much as the quality of the children that scared me. And I mean scared.
The experience of trying to keep thirty five kids in their seats for much of the day was an exhausting and at times a humiliating experience for me. At the time I no doubt blamed the kids, indeed I probably cursed them, but for the very poor relationship I had with most of them I was partly if not largely to blame. I hope I learned from my mistakes, and that the children were not permanently scarred by my poor teaching.
In my brief defence, it was the sheer number of students in the class that was at the root of the problem. My ‘eye contact’ was certainly not effective enough to ensure all 35 were ‘on message’ and that individual students were given sufficient attention. There was no salvation in group work, as it merely displaced the issue of classroom management from the front of the class to four or five points within it.
The demoralising effect of my feeling I was simply not on top of the job was compounded by the appearance, when my classroom management was at its least effective, by the qualified teacher, my mentor, whose mere physical presence acted as a spell to bring the students to order. So highly skilled was her classroom management that she could have kept a class of sixty in order.
Which brings me to the question of whether size matters. Up there with ‘academic excellence’ and ‘superb facilities’ you will find in most schools’ headline attractions ‘small class sizes’. The appeal to prospective parents is simple but strong: your child will receive more individual attention from the teacher because there are fewer students in the classroom. It is a claim difficult to refute.
That is why at Southbank there is no class size larger than eighteen, a maximum that even the best resourced independent school could struggle to match. At the IB Diploma level, and in certain specialist subjects (e.g. some languages) in all three programmes, the average is significantly smaller. Such low staff student ratios allow us to provide the individual attention that the students deserve. The consequences, in the form of our academic results, speak for themselves.
That said, however small or large a class may be, the research confirms, time and again, that the greatest influence on the standard of learning is, you will not be surprised to hear, the quality of the teacher. Students will remember their time at school for the inspirational teachers, not the quality of its facilities, nor even the size of the classes.
But perhaps it is the combination of small class sizes and excellent teaching that provides the winning formula for Southbank students to fulfil their potential and the school as a whole to secure top results. When I compare the standard of teaching and the size of the classes at my teaching practice school in Easington Colliery with the same at Southbank the two seem a world apart.
Published on: 18th March 2015