Research finds class sizes irrelevant

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am

Results of Australian study under fire in Hong Kong where teachers confront numbers twice as high

Academics have disputed the findings of new Australian research that claims class sizes in primary and secondary schools make no difference to academic performance.

In a paper presented to an education conference in Melbourne on Thursday, researchers reported on a study of the effect of class sizes involving students at more than 1,500 primary and secondary schools in the state of Victoria.

The researchers analysed test results undertaken by primary and secondary students over three years between 1999 and 2001.

Primary pupils in their third and fifth year at school sit for nationwide tests in reading, writing, numeracy, spelling and mathematics. As secondary school students are not subject to standardised tests until the final two years, the researchers decided to use the results of their final examinations in year 12.

An analysis of all the data led them to conclude: 'We are unable to find any evidence that class size is an important determinant of academic performance in primary or secondary schools.'

But local academics and a keynote speaker at the Melbourne conference questioned the findings.

Cheung Man-kwong, president of Hong Kong's Professional Teachers' Union, said the Australian study bore little relevance to Hong Kong, where the average class size in secondary schools is 40, and 37 for primary schools. 'It is just too much to cater to 40 students in a class. What we are aiming for actually is to reach the Australian standard class size of about 23. This I think can be achieved gradually given the falling birth rate.'

That class size was already prevalent at junior secondary level in Shanghai, he added.

A noted American economist from Stanford University, Professor Eric Hanushek, said he had analysed several hundred studies of the effect of class size in the US and had found the evidence to be inconclusive.

Class sizes in Victoria are among the smallest in Australia. Most Australian primary and secondary teachers rarely confront classes of more than 25 students.

For the years studied, Victorian primary schools had an average class size of 24 in the metropolitan area and 20.5 in the country. Secondary schools had an average of 22 in the city and 20.5 in rural areas.

An education lecturer at Monash University, Dr Jenny Miller, said: 'Classrooms are only partially about literacy and numeracy tests. They are also about relationships, attention to individual learners, cultural and linguistic diversity, performance variables and social development.'

The researchers said the main argument of advocates of smaller class sizes was the benefit of more attention and supervision from the teacher. 'This arrangement could be advantageous for special schools and for children with special learning requirements ... [but] other studies have found no direct relationship between class size and student performance.'

Despite the researchers' firm conclusion, they did admit the study had significant limitations. 'A holistic view of schools would not limit measurement to academic achievement but would recognise that schools have broader functions including the development of civic values, and the production of social and welfare benefits. Our analysis has not measured any of these,' they said.

Also many other factors had not been taken into account. These included the quality of teaching, classroom practice, specialisation among schools, choice and competition, and incentive and reward schemes for teachers.