How do you divide 37 pupils into an official average of 28?
What’s it like trying to teach a very large class of small children?
“The main reason our school is coping at the moment, despite the cuts to date, is due to the dedication and hard work of the teaching and ancillary staff. We are fortunate to have a young, energetic staff who do a tremendous job.”
The problem is that while headline figures of 28 to one may not sound extreme, in reality it means that if a school is shy even one pupil it can lose an entire teacher. This leaves schools with full classes that have to be redistributed throughout the school. If the number of pupils at any particular level is higher than 28, the principal is left in a tough position. There is little flexibility in a system that is supposed to be designed around human beings.
According to the INTO, the actual average, nationwide, is 26. This reflects extremes within the system that mean some small rural schools may have fewer than 10 children in a class, with mixed age groups taught together, while urban and commuter-belt schools such as Scoil Naomh Feichín are handling much larger numbers.
Collins is afraid of what might happen in next month’s budget. He says that any more increases in the staffing schedule will be extremely difficult to manage, dedicated staff notwithstanding.
Sinéad Maguire is teaching 37 third-class pupils at Scoil Naomh Feichín this year. She says that she is just about managing because there are no significant behavioural or learning difficulties in the mix; a highly unusual scenario. Nonetheless, she feels the students are being shortchanged.
“This is the biggest class I’ve ever had to teach. In a smaller class, I would use constructivist approaches, emphasising the importance of using ‘hands-on’ activities and peer learning. Now whole-class teaching is the main approach used in many subject areas because of the constraints of the classroom size and pupil numbers.”
At a practical level, 37 pupils in a prefab is problematic, she says.
“The noise level is an issue, especially in the prefab where every noise is amplified. I would usually have groups of four children at a desk but due to the large numbers this year I’ve had to change the classroom desk arrangement into rows to make cooperative work easier and to reduce the noise level. I hand out books and other materials during my break now when the classroom is empty, because it’s too noisy and disruptive to do it during class time.”
Collins is chilled to hear growing media speculation about further increases in class size coming down the line.
“Within the four walls of the classroom the best teacher in the world cannot give adequate attention to these kinds of numbers,” he says. “There are rules about ratios of adults to children every time a group leaves the school, but when it comes to the classroom those rules go out the window. We can’t take any more increases; it just won’t work.”
*This article was edited on September 24th, 2013