Class Size & Formative Assessment

Not long ago I wrote about the importance of something called formative assessment in our teaching.  I was lucky enough recently to attend a conference with a man called Dylan Wiliam who is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education and a man worth listening to (see  He has painstakingly been through all the research about what actually makes a difference to children’s learning (there are ‘mountains’ of this kind of research). The three areas of teaching practice he identified as empirically proven to have impact on children’s learning were:- formative assessment, metacognition and philosophy for children. Of course that is not to say educationalists have found the definitive answer to this hot potato- but certainly those of us in teaching have a responsibility to spend our time and money on those things that are proven to work. We are therefore committed to formative assessment – the whole school attended a conference on this for our last INSET and all our teachers work in teaching and learning groups on an ongoing basis, supporting each other to develop better methods of formative assessment. Our school will be leading 15 schools in some action research next year, working with one of the most high profile proponents of formative assessment over the last 15 years, Shirley Clarke. We will also be receiving whole school INSET on Philosophy for Children in October. Both the formative assessment and the P4C are things we are working on with DGAT- our multi-academy trust.

I joined Shirley Clarke for a conference on Friday and again the question of what actually makes a difference came up in conversation. I bring you back to this because I find it fascinating how sometimes public perception (and that includes teachers’ perceptions) can be so at odds with empirical evidence and/or lag so far behind. For example it has been proven that class size, ability grouping and moving schools has little impact on a pupils’ learning. There you go- I’ve said it! And now you’re all sitting there (myself included), going slightly red in the face, and screaming, ‘Nonsense!’ from the rooftops, or at least across the living room. To all of you I would say three things:- firstly we need to be careful not to maintain a strong opinion about how things work just because we have always held it; secondly there will always be individual exceptions to the rule and thirdly, consider that much of what gets bandied about in the press and by politicians about education is based on their own educational experiences (some of which will, by now, be 30 + years old and 30 years is a long time in education).

The argument about class size is always going to be a hot one, particularly because it is often held up as an advantage for independent schools but also because it would seem patently logical- teacher has more time with each pupil- therefore pupil makes better progress. I suppose the point here is this- the most significant impact on pupil learning is the relationship between teacher and pupil, followed closely by the employment of enlightened teaching strategies that empower the pupils as learners as opposed to teaching ‘at’ them. If the teaching is weak or closed, it has a detrimental impact on learning- whether it be 15 pupils in a class or 30. Also the dynamic in a classroom is more subtle and important than you would imagine and can defy the logic of high teacher: pupil ratio. I have taught classes of 15 in an independent school and they have been really hard work- particularly if the combination of children is problematic in terms of generating ideas or balancing certain personalities. The learners themselves are a critical part of the equation (predictably enough) and more often than not, a class of 30 can be a richer and more productive resource in the hands of a good teacher than a class of 15. The best teaching strategies out there (ones that employ formative assessment) utilise the learners as a resource for learning and involve lots of collaboration and peer support: the smaller the class size, the less the scope for doing this. Of course class size can make a difference but it is not necessarily a smaller class size that makes the positive difference- it is more subtle than that and reliably comes down to the quality of teaching every time.

I will return to this ‘conversation’ at the outset of next term. The conference gave me a great deal of food for thought, some of which needs in-depth conversation with the Senior Leadership Team and the rest of the staff before we decide how to proceed. I always witter on about how careful we are that the decisions we take will lead to the best possible outcomes for your children. I reiterate that now.