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?
Years ago in Ireland the classroom was organised along military lines: children in tight rows facing the blackboard with little scope for movement or interaction. It was a mixture of educational philosophy and practical necessity, as classrooms of 40 or more could hardly be organised any other way.
Since then, educational philosophy has changed and the importance of good teacher-child ratios is seen as crucial to the quality of education. The Irish primary curriculum emphasises group work, circle time, movement, experimentation and learning-by-doing. Shortly before the economic collapse and the first austerity budgets, the then education minister Batt O’Keeffe pronounced the ideal class size as 20 or less. At that time, between 20 per cent and a quarter of Irish classrooms had 30 students or more.
The official figure is 28 to one.* Ireland currently has the second-highest pupil-teacher ratio in the EU. To establish the ratio of 28 to one, the overall number of pupils is divided by the overall number of staff, principal included. Many schools, however, have classes with significantly more than 30 pupils. Urban and commuter-belt schools are having particular difficulty making the ratios work.
This year, at Scoil Naomh Feichín in Co Louth, one classroom has 37 pupils. Four out of eight classes in the school are topping 30 pupils, including the junior infants class, which this year has 32 pupils aged between four and six.
Margaret Hurley teaches the new junior infants alone, with no SNA or classroom assistant to support her. She says having such a large class has had a huge effect on the way she teaches.
“With such large numbers you have to revert to a more traditional style of teaching, standing at the front of the class and engaging in whole-class teaching. The activity-based methods of the revised curriculum are just not possible with such a large number of young children. Even something as simple as a painting lesson is a mammoth task. Small-group work is virtually impossible,” she says.
Junior infants usually come from preschool environments, where the ratios are far lower. Something as simple as helping pupils open new lunchboxes or fasten new coats can be very time consuming in a class of 32, says Hurley.
“The Department of Education and Science has introduced Aistear, which is a new framework for the infant classroom. It involves the children learning through guided play in different activity areas in the classroom. I don’t have any space to set up these areas in my classroom as I’m tripping over someone every time I turn around.
“The area of the curriculum that will suffer most is literacy. I simply won’t have the time to check that the children are mastering their letter sounds and to hear them read. I’m sure this will result in less successful outcomes for the children,” she says.
Bryan Collins is principal of Scoil Naomh Feichín. Officially, he is an administrative principal but he has gone back to teaching smaller groups to try and offset the overcrowding issue.
“It’s very difficult. If I miss a call from one of the State bodies relating to a pupil, I may not be able to get hold of that official again for days or weeks. The paperwork is piling up.”
His greatest concern, though, is for the pupils. He believes the entire spirit of the primary curriculum is being undermined as schools are forced to return to the old chalk-and-talk method of teaching large groups.
“Scoil Naomh Feichín is just one of many schools that have to deal with the problem of large class size. Many primary schools in the Louth and east Meath area are in exactly the same position. I would say from my discussion with other principals in the area that we are looking at about half of all schools dealing with classes of more than 30 this year. This area of the country has a young population and it’s in the commuter belt. If houses start to sellagain, pupil numbers will go up even more.
“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