Children, especially in deprived areas, may benefit from smaller class sizes, writes Louise Connolly.
As we go through these unprecedented times, teachers all over the country are asking themselves ‘How are we are going to best support our children in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic?’. This isn’t just in terms of helping them catch up academically, but they are also wondering how they are going to support their emotional well-being which could have been compromised.
Children from schools located in areas of high levels of deprivation might have been cramped in a one bedroom flat for weeks and had very little or no interaction with other peers. There has been a concern that the social distancing measures have led to an increase in domestic violence which potentially could have been observed by children causing them emotional harm. Also, there has been a concerning reduction in the number of safeguarding referrals. This doesn’t necessarily mean there have been a lower number of safeguarding incidents, they could have just got missed due to a lack of contact and supervision from professionals who know the signs to look out for. The pandemic has caused anxiety, not just for children but also for adults. Children might have observed their parents becoming stressed or anxious which has then made them feel worried and younger children might not have really comprehended what was happening. Some children might have also experienced bereavement of a family member or friend of the family who contracted the virus. All these issues are going to mean that some children return to schools with signs of emotional trauma and their emotional health and well-being could have been influenced. This could be found to be more prevalent in schools in areas with high levels of deprivation.
Emotional well-being in children was already a hot topic before the Coronavirus pandemic, but now it is going to be even more paramount that schools get this support right and that this is planned in advance. There is speculation of that the government might increase funding to support schools to bridge these gaps and schools will need to ensure that they use this funding in a targeted and impact-led way.
One idea is to return to a topic that has widespread and sometimes conflicting interest; The subject of class size. Due to social distancing measures, the children have returned to school in groups no greater than 15. Therefore, this could be a good opportunity to look at the wider benefits of smaller grouping in relation to effectively supporting their emotional well-being. This could in fact be a method to be sustained in schools in the longer term if financially viable. Not because children will need to social distance in the future, but because it effectively supports vulnerable children’s emotional well- being as well as supporting the mental health of teachers. Most research on class sizes has been based on the impact on academic progress and a number of high-profile research projects found that this was in fact limited. However, the way of looking at class size has been too narrow and it is time to look at the wider issues relating to the impact it could have with regard to children.
Research on the impact of class sizes on the emotional well- being of children was carried out in two schools of similar size. One school had large class sizes (30+) and the other had class sizes that didn’t go above 20. Both schools were in areas of high deprivation. The research indicated that on the surface, smaller class sizes had a positive impact on the mental health of teachers and the overall happiness and emotional well-being of the children.
The children in the smaller classes indicated that they were significantly happier than the children in the larger class sizes in relation to their attitude towards how much choice they have in life, the way that they use their time, their relationships with their peers and how happy they feel in school. The children’s happiness was measured on a 10-point scale and the children in larger classes had an average score of 7.75 and the children in the smaller classes had an average of 9.08. This indicated that overall (on average) all the children in both schools scored as being ‘happy’ on the 10-point scale. This works on a basis of anything above 6 means that they are ‘happy’ as set by the Children’s Society (2018) who designed the questionnaire. However, according to the overall data, the children in the smaller class size indicated that they were happier than the children in larger class sizes. However, this needs to be considered with caution as other factors need to be taken into consideration when assessing a child’s happiness rather than assuming that these differences are purely due to class sizes. Home and social factors are also clearly influential factors to be considered.
Although the children in the smaller class size indicated that they much preferred to be in a smaller class (98%), the majority of the children in the larger class size did not appear to believe they were at a disadvantage. This is because when they were asked about their preferred class size, 63% of them chose a class size of above 20 . However, the validity of this could be questioned as they were being asked to speculate on how they might feel in a class size that they hadn’t experienced themselves.
Both the research and literature suggest that certain conditions are more likely to provide a greater impact as a result of a smaller class size. This includes the deprivation index of the school and the age of the children. Literature indicates that schools in more deprived areas might see better gains than those in affluent areas.
An online questionnaire was completed by 200 primary school teachers and concluded that children in Foundation, KS1 and Year 6 were perceived by teachers to have greater emotional needs and therefore are likely to benefit more emotionally as a result of small class sizes than other year groups. It also concluded that 89% of teachers prefer smaller class sizes and think it enables them to provide better quality emotional support for their children. The strong link between pupil outcomes and teacher’s mental health could mean that this in itself could be a strategy to support the emotional well-being of children. A happy teacher equals happy children. It could also be a strategy to overcome the problem of recruitment and retention of teachers.
It would be naïve to think that we can overcome the emotional repercussions of the pandemic by just putting the children in a smaller class size. In fact, 99% of teachers thought that a child’s home life was the most important factor in determining a child’s mental health. The planning and delivery of lessons is still paramount and the way in which teachers teach must be changed in line with the reduction of the class size. The quality of the staff employed needs to be addressed. Employing a teacher of poor quality just to have a smaller class size could in fact have a negative impact. The quality and experience of teachers should not be jeopardised for the sake of having more teachers and smaller class sizes. The importance of the relationships between teachers, children and parents when thinking about how best to support emotional well-being is also a priority as well as the curriculum and ethos within the school.
Teachers need training to know how to identify that a child might be experiencing difficulties with their emotional well- being. They also need to be taught techniques and strategies to support these children. This might include knowing when to refer for specialist support when required.
Smaller class sizes could be one strategy to overcome the emotional aftermath of Coronavirus, but it is one of a number of different strategies that needs to be explored. Budget constraints can also make it not financially viable.
It is important that we don’t just assume that the same child will be returning to school in the same state of emotional well- being after such an overwhelming and life changing event as the Coronavirus pandemic. Schools and teachers need to be ready with open arms and strategies to rise to the challenge.
About the author
Louise Connolly is the principal of The Sir Donald Bailey Academy.