Classroom Contexts for Learning at Primary and Secondary School: Class Size, Groupings, Interactions and Special Education Needs

Research in Practice
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

This study looks into the experience of pupils with SEND in terms of class size, the ability mix of teaching groups, and interactions with teachers and teaching assistants.

Authors Peter Blatchford and Rob Webster

Published by British Educational Research Journal, (2018)

In most countries across the world there is much debate among parents/carers, educators and policymakers regarding the best ways of educating pupils with diverse abilities and ensuring they receive a high-quality education in a mixed setting. The aspiration is for a system in which pupils with SEND are, as far as possible, educated in mainstream schools.

Despite this, educational outcomes for pupils with SEND in England are poor. Those with SEND are nine times more likely to receive a school exclusion, seven times less likely to find paid employment, twice as likely to live in poverty, four times more likely to have mental health problems, and they are likely to die at least 15 years younger.

Though strategies to improve the education of children with SEND are likely to include training of the workforce, and the optimisation of teaching methods and the curriculum, it is likely that other factors within the classroom environment affect the successful education of pupils.

This study looks into the experience of these pupils, in comparison with typically developing pupils, in terms of three features of the classroom learning environment: class size, the ability mix of teaching groups, and interactions with teachers and additional adults (teaching assistants).

The study

  • The authors collected systematic evidence on what pupils with SEND experience, moment by moment, day to day, through close observation of a cohort of pupils with SEND at two points in their school career (ages 9 to 10 - year five; and 13 to 14 - year nine). Researchers visited schools across London, the South East and East of England, West Midlands, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber. The schools were predominantly situated in urban areas.
  • The study focused mainly on pupils whose primary need was related to cognition and learning, and so do not represent the full range of complex and sometimes co-occurring needs for which statements of special educational needs/education, health and care plans are granted.
  • A total of 151 control pupils were also observed (defined as average-attaining pupils).

Key findings

  • The study found that most pupils with SEND spend their time being taught in low-attaining groups in both primary and secondary school. This means pupils are separated from some of their classmates and have a reduced number of interactions. Furthermore, setting groups by ability risks judgments being made about academic attainment and these judgments being constantly reinforced through this method of classroom organisation.
  • Across both time points it was clear that pupils with SEND spent more time interacting with teaching assistants compared with the average attaining pupils. It seems the higher number of interactions with teaching assistants occurs at the expense of interactions with peers, and to a lesser extent with teachers.
  • Pupils with SEND in primary schools are in much larger classes than they experience at year 9. This means students wait until then to be taught in smaller groups. Large classes make it more difficult to provide the necessary differentiation and individual support which pupils with SEND may benefit from. The authors argue that primary classes in England with large numbers may make the inclusion of pupils with SEN more difficult.

Implications for practice

  • Which provision worked best for a pupil with SEND is a matter of much debate. The classroom context in which students learn is likely to influence the quality and appropriateness of education provided for students as well as their social interaction.
  • Data gathered indicated that pupils with SEND spend more than a quarter of their time away from the mainstream class, class teacher and their peers. When they worked in groups, it was mostly with other pupils identified as low-attaining and/or as having SEND.
  • Pupils with SEND experience a form of segregation, with lower-attaining pupils and those with SEND taught alongside one another, separately from their average- and higher-attaining peers.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on special educational needs and disabilities. Click here for more

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