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Don’t reduce class sizes: the OECD’s lessons for education in the UK

5 March 2014

So much of the education debate is about how UK schools perform relative to those in other countries – this week Liz Truss reported back from her visit to Shanghai – so when MPs on the Education Select Committee grilled Andreas Schleicher, the Deputy Director of the OECD which ranks education systems worldwide, they were keen to find out what his data suggests is causing the gap in performance between children in UK schools and those in cities such as Shanghai and countries such as Singapore.

Schleicher made a number of interesting points about our education system which are worth mulling:

1. Even the vast improvements in London schools haven’t brought them up to the standard of far east education systems. 

Some of the Labour MPs on the committee – and Liberal Democrat David Ward – were grizzling about the way the OECD makes its comparisons. Schleicher told the committee that the organisation compares children from similar backgrounds so that an education system’s impact on deprivation can be properly studied, rather than results simply reflecting the affluence of the various countries in question. But he was asked by Ward whether it was unfair that the whole UK education system was being compared to that of one city state when it was measured against Shanghai. He replied:

‘We have encouraged the UK actually to collect separate data for London like many countries have [for their large cities] already. We believe that’s an interesting dimension to look at, to compare the performance of large cities.

‘I would still, this is a guess that I make now but I would still think that you would find a very large difference between Shanghai and the City of London. Probably London would outperform the rest of the country, I think there’s good national data for that, when I look at your national data, you’re not going to be anywhere close to some of the city states. But I think it’s an interesting comparison that I think is well worth pursuing.’


Labour’s London Challenge policy improved school standards in the capital, and one of the things the party tends to take from its success is that collaboration between schools is much more effective than competition. But Schleicher seemed to think that this was a false dichotomy, arguing that competition between schools to become the most desirable institution for parents to send their children didn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t also collaborate.

2. Focusing on class size doesn’t make the difference that some might think.

Classroom numbers are something Labour politicians in particular have referred to as a sign of their party’s investment in education and the Tories’ neglect of the sector. But Schleicher argued that it was more cost effective to invest in professional development of teachers or get better quality teachers by paying better salaries. He said:

‘One of the most interesting findings from our Pisa study is that most or many high performing education systems in Europe–but also in Asia–prioritise the quality of teaching over the size of class. In the last 15 years the UK has gone exactly the opposite way. Most of the resources have gone into lowering class sizes, not so much has gone into raising quality of teaching. In Asia you see very large classes and you find teachers, in fact, because of the demographic changes in Japan for example, class sizes have become smaller… and teachers tell you this is a problem: I no longer have the diversity of views and ideas in my classroom to actually do the type of instruction that I want to do. The capacity of teachers to embrace diversity in the population, to personalise teaching.’

He wouldn’t go so far as to say that larger class sizes made for a better education, though, but he added:

‘If you have one pound extra to spend our data suggests that the least effective way to spend that pound is to decrease class sizes. You’re much better off investing this in a) sort of more attractive career structures including better salaries or b) more opportunities for professional development.’

3. It’s not teaching unions that are the barrier to improving standards, but the way teaching unions behave.

Schleicher observed that some countries with very strong teaching unions can still drive up standards in schools because the unions are ‘operating more like professional bodies’. When government and unions can work together, then school standards rise, he said. He rather amused the committee chair Graham Stuart by arguing that ‘every education system gets the union it deserves’. Stuart retorted: ‘We’ve done something very badly wrong in that case’.

4. Countries whose education standards have slipped do not have sufficient levels of accountability for their schools.

The Committee is currently running an inquiry on academies and free schools, and members were interested in whether autonomy in itself meant schools could fall behind. Schleicher argued that the problem in Swedish schools was not that they had freedom, but that they didn’t have the necessary oversight to pick up when things were going wrong. As Fraser argued in his Telegraph column last week, free schools in this country don’t have much time to collect their breath before being shut down when things start to go wrong.

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  • tjamesjones

    Oh dear. Good article, but in our comments section we get plenty of the fallacy “because smaller class sizes are not the best use of the next £1, then private schools should have bigger classes”. You take your battles and you fight them one by one, and as the good German said, in the state sector we’re better off with better teachers than we are having smaller classes with worse teachers. If you’ve got better teachers (as private schools do), then a secondary question is how big your classes need to be, and most parents would prefer that 18-20 range that they can get in private schools, because then little johnny gets enough diversity but also a bit of special attention.

  • Tom Tom

    I was in classes of 38-43 but noone left their seats and DISCIPLINE was evident so teachers did not have to herd the goats as they do now

  • english_pensioner

    I was taught in classes of about 40 from the junior school right up to the (then) 5th form in grammar grammar school. Only then were the classes smaller as they were split according to the choices that we had made for our “O” levels. At grammar school, there were four classes in each year group selected according to ability. Its not numbers which count, classes can be quite large if all the pupils are of similar ability, but clearly not so where they are of mixed ability and the teacher has to try to keep the bright children occupied whist helping the slower ones.

    • Jambo25

      It also depends on the level of social discipline of the pupils and their parents and the consequent openness to school discipline of the pupils. I attended a largely working class primary school in Edinburgh in the 50s and 60s. By the time I left there were 44 pupils in my P7 class yet 3 or 4 won scholarships to public schools and another 20 or so ended up in senior secondaries (grammar schools). The point was that the children came from families which were, overwhelmingly stable and 2 parent, highly ambitious for their children and very well disciplined. All the fathers (living) were at home and in work. I wouldn’t want to see what an inner city school P7 class would be like now.

      • english_pensioner

        You’ve hit the nail on the head! When I went to school all the parents seemed to be ambitious for their children, they all wanted their children to do better than they had done themselves. They pushed their children, ensured that they did their homework and would never have supported their child against a teacher unless it was a really serious matter. Today many parents don’t care and those who do are categorised as “pushy” parents by the media.

        • Jambo25

          I’ll return the compliment to you and say nail, head ,hit. As an ex teacher I found the gradual fall off in parental ambition for their kids one of the saddest and most worrying things during the latter part of my career.

  • callingallcomets

    Since the Speccie now appears to endorse the idea that smaller class sizes are not important I am sure fee paying schools will immediately increase their class sizes….no? Thought not.
    These OECD league tables are based on tests locally administered and as such are open to coaching for the test. Like many data driven international comparisons they offer pseudo precision based on very shaky evidence

    • Tom Tom

      OECD Pisa is bullshit as is the German who runs the thing – just check out his father’s background

      • tjamesjones

        It’s bullsh*t because you say so? Heck, I don’t care how mediocre the testing is, it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s fine to be comprehensively outperformed by Shanghai and Singapore. Why exactly is that acceptable?

    • Sarka

      What are average class sizes in the independent and state sectors today?
      I went to a top London fee-paying day-school (in the seventies), and our class size was approx 26.
      Class sizes (reported from people’s childhoods in comments here) of over 30 and especially of 40 strike me as problematic, but I don’t think the difference between 26 and 18 would have made a great difference to the anyway very good results of my school.
      Of course, average class size does not tell you enough about conditions. For example, my school was selective on entry, but also streamed for Maths and languages. The entire year (3 classes, approx 80 pupils), was redivided on ability. I was initially a struggler in maths – so I was put in maths div 3, where there were only about ten pupils, because the streaming didn’t produce uniform groups. The wonderful maths teacher of div 3 took the personal trouble to rehabilitate my maths (only dreadful because of bad teaching at previous school leading to personal aversion to the subject), so after a year I was just kicked upstairs into Div 2…the average div…as one of several more than 30 pupils. Maths Div 2 was probably the largest routine class I was every in at school – and was by our rather disciplined school standards a bit undisciplined for that reason – I remember a lot of whispering in the back and note passing and giggling. But we all did fine – all got As at O level. There is no simple correlation between class size and results.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Come on, will no one dare to say this here? No? Okay then, I will step forward and say it. We need to return to our true values and culture, not multi anything, our culture, no more wet lefty pussyfooting.

    Let’s campaign to bring back the cane.

  • HookesLaw

    Browns notion of improviong education was to blow money on flash school building and pouring out teachers no matter how good they were.

    • telemachus

      What tosh
      Before Brown’s magnificent investment schools were crumbling, roofs were leaking and children were walking across fields in the rain to outside loos
      Further he invested in school personnel in general to begin to give kids personal attention
      Gove’s doctrinaire approach is destroying the great leap forward

      • telemachus

        Further he berates and antagonises the workforce

        Above: “3. It’s not teaching unions that are the barrier to improving standards, but the way teaching unions behave.”
        The teachers in the UK behave in reaction to the daily belittling of their expertise by Bully Gove

        • Ron Todd

          Do the teachers unions take no responsibility for the educational standards. For years we had more exam passes and more and more people leaving school with very poor levels of literacy and numeracy, and though all this child centered don’t use phonetics teaching was supposed to make them better at learning more creative and all round better people they still leave school unable to compete in the job market against immigrants from the third world.

          • telemachus

            So why is that the unions?
            Like everyone teachers like to be valued
            Success of a system starts at the top
            If the top chap (Gove) cannot motivate and simply berates no amount of doctinaire free schools will turn things round

            • tjamesjones

              Because @telemachuss:disqus it was the teaching unions that went balmy when Gove stopped the ridiculous grade inflation that justified their arrogant claim to be ever improving standards. I agree that an antagonistic relationship between the state and the teaching unions is hardly a helpful way to improve the quality of education in that country, but I draw a different conclusion, and that is that the challenge is to fight to change the self-serving culture of those unions. I don’t hold my breath, but at least Gove is trying to get a better result for this country.

      • Darnell Jackson

        Tosspot Brown blew £27,000,000.00 on my sons shiny new school and the inspection reports have not improved one jot

        It is nailed on that the next inspection will down grade the school to crap

        How many kids would you like to sacrifice on the altar of socialism teletubby?

        • telemachus

          Think how much worse it would have been without the investment
          And just what has Gove done to improve your son’s lot these last four years?

          • Tom Tom

            It was not “investment” simply transfering public assets to Banks in return for leasing back the buildings in perpetuity

        • Tom Tom

          Yes but HSBC Infrastructure (now InfraRed) have made a fortune in their Jersey holding companies from PFI schools

      • First L

        I worked in a new build school that was opened by Gordon Brown personally.

        The walls were crumbling away within the year, the building company attempted to cut costs and hive off cash by substituting domestic materials for industrial ones – with the result that doors and doorjambs were falling apart within the year, the kitchen metal surfaces were not made safe and a dinner lady lost two fingers while cleaning them, the fingerprint system for paying for dinners was ridiculously complicated yet was broken by the children on the very first day allowing them to steal from other kids accounts – while temporary staff were left unable to order dinners because it took 24 hours to get on the system. It cost £150 to replace a lightbulb, because the caretaker was not allowed to do it – he had to report it to the leasing company who then sent round their own contractor, a process that took nearly a week instead of 30 seconds.

        These were only the most obvious of the problems – a direct build would have cost tens of millions of pounds – but the eventual cost was nearer hundreds of millions – all filtered through dozens of unaccountable companies because it was done through PFI – the LEA will be paying back costs far and above the actual cost of the building for over 50 years. Moreover there had been absolutely nothing wrong with the old building which was a properly built Victorian building that had lasted and served as a school for over 100 years with minimal problems.

        Brown’s schools building program is a £10 trillion disaster waiting to detonate 20 years from now.

        • telemachus

          What a sob story
          The Victorian buildings that were replaced we’re depressing for our children and sometimes frankly frightening
          I am sure the teething troubles of your new build are over now and the children very happy

          • Colonel Mustard

            I’d stop digging that hole if I were you. The more rubbish you spout about this the more discredit you bring not just on yourself but on the party you are supposedly trolling for.

            The line “I am sure the teething troubles of your new build are over now and the children very happy” is straight out of the Stalin/Mao/North Korea handbook of assertive statements of wilful blindness that have nothing to do with reality. You should be ashamed of them. The day you people put the real good of the country over your determination for your party to predominate in everything and never to admit fault or take responsibility will be the day this country emerges from a forty year darkness.

            You, and people like you, are the main part of the problem, not any kind of solution.

      • Rocksy

        ‘Tosh’? an example of excellence in education obviously. “Great leap forward’. Doctrinaire? Sounds familiar.

    • Tom Tom

      Not sure any postwar government has had any different policy

  • Ron Todd

    When I was at school class sizes varied from 10 to about 35. In the old fashioned type of lessons I had, a good teacher would hold the attention of the class what ever the size teach us something then question us or test us to check how much we learned. When we were sitting doing an exercise those that needed to could ask the teacher for additional help. Then mixed ability classes were introduced and the result was chaos in most subjects.

    • First L

      I agree. Mixed ability classes are an utter disaster. Working in a primary today and in one class we have kids who can fill four A4 pages in neat beautiful imaginative writing in a single lesson, alongside kids who take an hour to write a single sentence badly. All are supposed to progress equally. The result? Everyone progresses at the speed of the slowest.

  • Daniel Maris

    And the corollary must be that all the Speccie writers will start asking the private schools their children attend to increase the class sizes…as if that would ever happen.

    • HookesLaw

      Schools perceived as good will have larger class sizes and those seen as bad will have lower sizes.
      Given that they are receiving money fore pupils I would have thought private schools would like larger class sizes. For the same reason it is of course in their interests to put children first.

      • jack mustard

        But that’s not what the parents who send their kids to private school are paying for – the financial model for private schools is based on exclusivity, not on packing in as many fee payers as possible.

        The schools would also need to stop being highly selective – and if they were to do that their attainment figures would most likely drop.

      • Daniel Maris

        Well in your fairy world of the free market they will. The reality is that the best and most sought after private schools, like Eton and so on, have very small class sizes.

        We should not make a fetish of small class sizes – a small class size with a bad teacher is not preferable to a large class size with a good, inspirational teacher.

        • Tom Tom

          Eton would need bigger classes if it lowered fees

      • Tom Tom

        GI-GO. Schools are as good as the intake and without Selection they are doomed to failure