Forgive me for returning to the subject of education, but it seems to be the flavour of the moment, what with the NUT Conference and all. And poor Schools Minister Jim Knight has called down universal condemnation and outrage by suggesting that class sizes of up to 70 — yes 70! — could be acceptable.
We all know that reducing class sizes is the one and only way to improve education, don’t we? So what’s happened to Mr. Knight? Has he gone mad?
Actually, I think he has a point. Now don’t get me wrong. Of course other things being equal, small classes are better than larger ones. Personal tuition (assuming your tutor is competent) is the ideal. But of course other things are not equal. I believe there are other factors far more important than class sizes, and if we got the other things right, then larger class sizes might work very well. We should never forget that it is the producer interest — the teachers — who make the most noise on class sizes. Indeed they are now threatening what they call “industrial action” on this very issue — though they might more accurately speak of non-industrial inaction.
Let me tell you a story (as one of our better-known comics loved to say). I recall in the eighties standing on the street outside a Korean school in Seoul, and hearing the class inside chanting their multiplication tables. I couldn’t speak Korean — not even the numbers — but the rhythm of times-tables is recognisable in any language. At that time Korean schools had typical class sizes in the fifties. Yet their performance in maths was two years ahead of the UK average.
So what made the difference? In Korea, they had whole-class teaching. The kids sat at desks and watched the teacher at the front. They had discipline. The kids did what they were told. And they had supportive parents and families who understood that a good education was critical for the prospects of those young people — parents who would reinforce and underwrite the efforts of the teachers.
By contrast in the UK we have had forty years of “modern” education methods. No whole-class teaching. No learning by rote. Little or no competition between pupils. “Learning by doing”. Small group work. After this dark age of education in our country, we are only today rediscovering — with astonishment — that the teaching of reading by “phonics”, the method that was used in Victorian schools and outlawed in our schools in the sixties, not only works, but actually works much better and more quickly than all the trendy academic methods and experiments that we have depended on for several generations of children.
Teachers love to talk about the importance of one-to-one attention. But in a class of thirty, for every minute that the teacher gives to one child for one-to-one attention, the other twenty-nine children are left to their own devices, and are probably making mayhem. Almost certainly, they aren’t learning. Whole-class teaching (provided we avoid mixed-ability classes) means most children learning, most of the time. It is hugely more efficient that small groups or one-to-one sessions.
Alongside the trendy but ineffective academic educational theories, we have had the steady erosion of discipline. In my grammar school in the fifties, corporal punishment was rarely used, but the threat was always there, and the boys behaved accordingly. Now the troublemakers know that there is no sanction at all that teachers can apply, so they behave accordingly. In many cases the parents of disruptive children will side with the child against the teacher. We have no canes or slippers. No chalk thrown at the inattentive child at the back of the class. No defence or response for the teacher subjected to verbal abuse, or physical aggression. No right for schools to expel disruptive pupils. A post by a teacher on this blog-site speaks of pupils riding bicycles in the corridors. The children sit in class and play with mobile phones, and the teachers cannot even confiscate them.
So of course smaller classes are a good thing if and when we can afford them. But much more urgent is a return to whole-class teaching, and to a classroom environment conducive to learning. Distractions like mobile phones must be banned, and immediately confiscated if they appear. We need zero tolerance for verbal and physical abuse, backed by effective sanctions, including ultimately expulsion at the head teacher’s discretion, and — dare I say it? — a judicious return to reasonable physical chastisement where schools believe it is needed.
Of course schools cannot do this by themselves. They need the support of government and the backing of parents. We now have at least two generations of parents who themselves have not experienced proper, formal, disciplined education, so it will be a long haul sorting the problem out. And of course we will need the broader social policies to promote marriage, and stable and supportive families — policies which the next Conservative government will put in place.
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