Is a government-mandated reduced-class size policy likely to improve pupils’ achievement in France? The data says oui

French pupils from disadvantaged areas demonstrate lower achievement than their more affluent peers. In an effort to close this achievement gap, the French government issued a policy in 2017 reducing Year 2 class size in high-priority educational areas to no more than 12 pupils, extending to Year 3 classes and priority educational areas in 2018. In order to provide evidence regarding the feasibility of such a policy, researchers used data from a 2003 first-grade-class-size-reduction policy in France to examine its carry-over effects into the second grade.

The 2003 study involved assigning classrooms to either small (12 pupils/class n=100 classes) or large (20–25 pupils/class, n=100 classes) class sizes. At the start of the 2002–03 school year, children were pre-tested on pre-reading skills and matched. In post-tests at the end of the school year, results favoured the small-class-size group on word reading (ES = +0.14) and word spelling (ES = +0.22). These effects are very small in light of the costs of halving class size.

The new study examined these pupils’ reading achievement at the end of Year 3, where the pupils formerly placed in smaller classrooms had been placed in full-sized classes again. Subjects were 1,264 pupils (663 in the intervention group and 601 in the control group) who had received both the initial testing in Year 2 and had test scores at the end of Year 3. Results showed that while both groups were equivalent at the start of Year 2, and by the end of the year the small-class-size group showed greater academic achievement than the control group, this gain diminished over the summer break and had completely disappeared by the end of Year 3. That is, there was no long-term impact of one year of reduced class size.

For more information, the original 2003 study was reported in Best Evidence in Brief in July.

Source: Reducing the number of pupils in French first-grade classes: Is there evidence of contemporaneous and carryover effects? (November 2018), International Journal of Educational Research, Volume 96,

Do private schools give students an educational advantage?

Researchers at the Institute of Education at University College London have conducted a study that looks at whether there are any educational advantages to attending private schools in the upper secondary years (Years 12 and 13).

Published in the Oxford Review of Education, the study used data from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies’ Next Steps cohort study and linked this to national pupil achievement information between 2005 and 2009. The researchers followed a sample of 5,852 pupils who attended a private or state school while doing their A-levels.

The profiles of the two groups of pupils were very different – pupils arrived in private school sixth forms with significantly higher prior attainment in GCSEs, and from households that had twice the income of families whose children attended state school sixth form. However, the researchers used the data available from Next Steps to allow for socio-demographic characteristics and prior achievement. Allowing for these characteristics, pupils at private schools outperformed those at state schools in their total A-level score by eight percentile points. Private school pupils also performed better on those subjects deemed to be more important to elite universities.

The researchers suggest that the reason for the difference may lie in the vastly superior resources per pupil in private schools (three times the state school average), including smaller pupil-teacher ratios (roughly half the state school average). However, they caution that their results are not truly causal.

Source: Private schooling, subject choice, upper secondary attainment and progression to university (November 2019), Oxford Review of Education

What role do principals play in improving teaching and student achievement?

A new report from the Institute of Education Sciences in the US has found that an intensive approach to helping principals (headteachers) improve their leadership practices did not improve pupil achievement or change principal practices as intended.

The study looked at the effectiveness of a professional development (PD) programme for elementary (primary) school principals that focused on helping them to conduct structured observations of teachers’ classroom teaching and provide targeted feedback. It provided nearly 200 hours of PD over two years, half of it through individualised coaching. One hundred schools from eight districts in five US states took part in the study. Within each district, schools with similar characteristics were paired together, and within each pair, one school was randomly assigned to participate in the programme for two years while the other did not.

To measure the effects on pupil achievement, the researchers compared pupil test scores in grades 3 to 5 (Years 4 to 6) for both years of programme implementation plus one additional school year. They found that, on average, pupils had similar achievement in English or maths whether they were in schools that received the principal PD programme or not.

The results of the study also found that although the programme was implemented as planned, principals did not increase the number of times they observed teachers. In fact, teachers whose principals received the PD reported receiving less frequent teaching support and feedback than teachers whose principals did not receive the PD.

Source: The effects of a principal professional development program focused on instructional leadership (October 2019), Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education

The effect of screen time on academic performance

A meta-analysis examining the evidence between overall screen time, specific screen-based activities, and academic performance found that overall screen time is not related to children’s and teens’ academic achievement, yet the type of screen time is.

Mireia Adelantado-Renau and colleagues in Spain found that TV and video game time greater than two hours a day was associated with poorer academic achievement, while internet and mobile phone time was not. In addition, the negative effects on academic performance were larger for teens than for children.

The meta-analysis included 58 studies from 23 countries that met its inclusion criteria, encompassing the academic achievement of 106,000 4–18 year olds (assessed by school grades, standardised tests, and academic failure). Subgroup analysis was conducted between children and teens. In children (4–12 years old), the length of TV watching negatively affected performance in language (effect size = -0.20) and maths (ES= -0.36); in teens (12–18 years old), longer TV duration affected language (ES= -0.18) and maths (ES= -0.21). Playing video games also negatively impacted teens’ scores (ES= -0.16), but did not affect the scores of younger children (ES=+0.04).

The authors suggest that these findings offer evidence that decreasing TV and video game time might be an effective strategy in improving academic achievement in children and teens.

Source: Association between screen media use and academic performance among children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis (September 2019), JAMA Pediatrics

New review of evidence on parental engagement

review of evidence published by the Education Endowment Foundation shows how parental engagement can have a positive effect on a child’s academic achievement – regardless of age or socioeconomic status.

The review, conducted by the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter and supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula, concludes that parental engagement in children’s learning is associated with improved academic outcomes, and that the association is stronger when parental engagement is defined as parents’ expectations for their children’s academic achievement. All studies controlled for parents’ education and/or family socioeconomic status.

The review highlights areas of promise for how schools and early education settings can support parents in a way that improves their children’s learning. Examples include family literacy interventions to help boost younger children’s learning, and summer reading programmes that improve school-aged children’s learning, particularly among families from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

An overarching recommendation is the importance of schools planning and monitoring parental engagement activities to get the most out of them. Other recommendations look at the best ways to communicate with parents, and strategies for supporting learning at home.

The report also includes guidance on tailoring school communications to encourage parental engagement and offering more intensive support where needed.

Source: How can schools support parents’ engagement in their children’s learning? Evidence from research and practice (September 2019), Education Endowment Foundation

Reassessing concerns about school may help improve academic achievement

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks at what impact an intervention designed to help students with concerns about starting middle school has on their academic achievement, behaviour, and well-being.

Geoffrey Borman and colleagues conducted the study with 1,304 sixth graders (Year 7) at 11 middle schools in a US Midwestern school district. Within each of the 11 schools, students were randomly assigned to the intervention or control condition. The intervention group was given reflective writing exercises, two months apart, which were designed to help students reassess any concerns and worries they might have about belonging in school. The control condition exercises asked students to write about neutral middle school experiences that were not related to school belonging.

The researchers collected pre- and post-intervention survey data on students’ reported social and emotional well-being, and official school records of student attendance, disciplinary records, and grades. The results of the study suggested that the intervention reduced behavioural referrals by 34% (effect size = -0.14), decreased absence by 12% (ES = -0.13), and reduced the number of failing grades by 18% (ES = -0.11). Differences across demographic groups were not statistically significant.

Source: Reappraising academic and social adversity improves middle school students’ academic achievement, behavior, and well-being (August 2019) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences