Fact Check: are half a million children being taught in super-size classes?

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Half a million children are now being taught in super-size classes of over 36.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, made the above claim during a recent speech in Swindon. Corbyn said that half a million children are now being taught in classes with more than 36 pupils and that this is damaging their educational chances.

There are, of course, two claims here. The first is about the numbers of children affected and the extent of the problem. The second, is that being in a larger class damages a child’s educational chances.

In terms of the first, Corbyn must have misspoken, because according to the Department for Education figures, the actual number of pupils in state primary schools in England in classes of 36 or more is only about 42,000. However, the total number of pupils in classes of over 30 is about 530,000.

The figures also show that while class sizes in primary schools have increased – it isn’t by very much – from an average of 26 in 2006 to 27 in 2015. Over the same period, the number of primary school pupils has increased by about 10% from 3.36 million to 3.70 million.

And it’s also worth pointing out that there is in fact a legal limit on infant class sizes – which should have no more than 30 pupils.

The second part of the claim is that large classes damage children’s educational chances. This is more complex and has long been a contentious issue in education.

Overall the evidence about the effects of reducing class sizes is actually reasonably consistent. There is an association between class size and attainment showing that children in smaller classes tend to do better.

Similarly, research suggests that reducing classes in the early primary years to about 17 pupils or fewer can be particularly effective for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In short, all things being equal, children do not do as well in larger classes.

But as well as the issue of effectiveness, there is also the issue of finance – if a class of 36 pupils is halved to 18, this doubles the teacher costs.

More problematic is the fact that numbers of children applying to a particular school do not fall into neat class size groups. Once you get to 30, a school should either refuse to admit additional pupils or split the children into two smaller classes. But this may not be feasible given the space, facilities and overall school costs.

Generally speaking, it is just not cost effective for schools to reduce class sizes, given the typical numbers of pupils in most schools and the current funding levels.

That said, the UK is actually different from most other countries in that it has smaller average classes in secondary schools (20 pupils per class) compared with primary schools (27 pupils).

Verdict

Overall, I tend to agree with Jeremy Corbyn that half a million children in primary schools are now being taught in classes which are damaging their educational chances – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But having said that, only a very small number of pupils are actually in classes of 36 or over – they are in fact in classes of 30 or over.

But children would benefit though from being in classes of less than 20 – particularly in the first few years of school – with teachers who are trained to get the best from this size of class.

Review

Michael Jopling, Professor in Education, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This Fact Check is correct that Jeremy Corbyn was wrong to claim that half a million children are currently being taught in classes of over 36. However, like the author, the Labour Party website correctly states that more than 500,000 primary school children are in “super-sized classes” with more than 30 pupils – so presumably this was just a case of Corbyn getting his facts mixed up.

Labour’s manifesto also includes the intention to reduce class sizes to fewer than 30 for all five to seven year olds – for whom the increase in class sizes since 2006 has been greater than for older children.

The Fact Check is also correct that class sizes are often larger in other countries and that there is evidence that class size can affect some children’s attainment. However, it is important to state that research has also suggested that other factors such as the quality of teaching have a greater effect on children’s achievement than class sizes.