GCSE students will collect the results of two years of their labour today and begin planning for the next stage of their lives – whether that be another step in academia, or out into the working world. But as the class of 2019 departs, the onus immediately falls back onto school leaders to prepare for a new year, and an entirely new set of learners – and a growing classroom, too. 2018 saw the largest proportion of secondary school class sizes of 31 or more pupils in 35 years, figures which are set to increase this coming September.
Meanwhile, the DfE projects that the number of pupils in state secondary schools will be 10% higher in 2023 than at present, and the swelling numbers are putting pressure on teachers, whose already heavy workload is being exacerbated by them having to dedicate more time to administrative tasks, such as reports and test marking.
The growing classroom is inevitable, and so education leaders must find ways to overcome the challenges it presents. So how can this be done?
Growing classrooms, growing challenges
First, let’s take a closer look at the perfect storm of challenges facing teachers and learners alike as classroom sizes grow.
The obvious issue is that the larger the classroom, the less individual attention each learner receives from the teacher. This is detrimental not only to those individuals’ learning but also to the teacher’s wellbeing and job satisfaction; after all, most teachers enter the profession hoping to lavish attention on pupils and enable every individual to fulfil their own potential. Many tasks, such as marking and reporting responsibilities, increase in volume as classroom sizes increase because certain tasks have to be repeated for every learner.
Larger classrooms can also make it harder for individual learners to participate really actively, especially if they are particularly shy or anxious. In turn, the teacher has to work harder to generate an engaging, stimulating and rewarding environment which works for all learners – and, once again, this increases stress and may reduce effectiveness also.
All this means that larger classroom sizes make it vitally important for teacher time to be optimised, particularly when it comes to those per-pupil responsibilities such as marking which grow alongside the register. Marking currently takes up over a quarter of the average working day, with many hours accumulated during evenings and weekends – add five pupils to the classroom, and that’s five more exercise books to add to the list. Assessment and learner progress have also become the intense focus of teacher accountability and evaluation, and whilst these qualities are certainly critically important, they again add substantial workload for every new learner in the classroom.
And all this is happening amidst a broader context of substantial teacher pressure. Recent research suggests that a quarter of teachers quit within their first year, and another poll suggests that 40% of teachers plan to leave their profession within the next five years. The demands of an ever-changing curriculum and assessment framework, alongside punishingly long hours and wider political uncertainty, mean that many teachers are already struggling to maintain morale and even a basic work-life balance. Increase their average classroom size and that balance begins to slip even further in the wrong direction.
It’s about time
Yet many of these challenges circle back on a relatively simple issue – teacher time. Growing classrooms mean more time spent on marking, reporting and administration – and therefore less time on the business of teaching. Larger classrooms mean less one-to-one time between individual teachers and learners.
Save teacher time, then, and we can begin to alleviate many of the challenges associated with larger classrooms. And this is an area where Educational Technology (EdTech) can really help.
Many teachers have understandably been resistant to EdTech which they see as faddish, technology for technology’s sake or time-consuming to get to grips with. Interactive whiteboards, for example, have widely been regarded as a failure, having gone ahead without teacher support and driving no significant benefits for learners or teachers. They look impressive, but they are not nearly as high-impact as they seem.
More low-key, yet far more impactful, is EdTech which focuses on streamlining and automating those tedious, but necessary, teacher tasks which take time away from the actual business of teaching and which scale up irrevocably as classes grow: marking, completing reports and assessments, and basic administration. There are now solutions available, for example, which enable learning materials to be quickly and easily tailored to the needs of different classes – or different individuals within a class, dramatically cutting down on planning time. Or solutions which provide classroom worksheets that can be automatically marked in real-time. Or solutions with integrated digital analytics so that the performance of individuals and groups can be tracked – and fed into reporting templates – far more easily.
Harnessing these benefits depends on having an EdTech procurement strategy which is teacher-led, thinking not just about those tasks which are most appropriate to streamline via digital technology, but also about aspects such as how long teachers need to spend being trained on or on-boarded to new technology. It depends, also, on having the right infrastructure in place to support the technology chosen – that is reliable, high-speed connectivity throughout the entire school premises. And it depends on recognising that the most effective EdTech isn’t generally the flashiest device or piece of hardware to display to a classroom, but rather the tools aimed at streamlining convoluted processes and automating manual tasks, thereby freeing up teacher time.
Growing classrooms are always going to be a substantial challenge for teachers and schools to meet – but EdTech can make the journey far easier.
Written by: Stuart Hales, CEO of EdTech specialist, Wand Education.