Are Larger Class Sizes Holding Your Child Back?

Post pandemic, many parents have expressed surprise and frustration at the number of children allocated to each class in often high-cost private schools. Should parents insist on smaller classes? How important a factor is class size on providing a quality education?
Are Larger Class Sizes Holding Your Child Back?
By Susan Roberts
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With the majority of pandemic restrictions in the UAE now behind us, it’s business as usual at schools. Parents, educators and students largely rejoiced at the news of masks becoming optional, and happily said goodbye to the restrictive bubble system, but as the 2022-23 school year started in August, the same parents expressed surprise and frustration at the higher number of children allocated to each class in many high-cost private schools. 

What's typical in Dubai?

As with most things in the UAE, there is a huge variance in class sizes across different schools. Curricula and fee level certainly play a part in this, but do not necessarily determine what class sizes will be. 

In terms of a usual range of set maximum class sizes (the capacity set and communicated by the school) in Dubai’s IB and British schools, early years classes tend to have between 20-24 students, primary and secondary classes typically have between 22-26 students, while sixth form/DP classes tend to be smaller, depending on the popularity of the student’s subject selection. Dubai’s Indian schools often have larger class sizes of 25-30. 

Dubai schools that have notable lower class capacities include Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai and Arbor School, both of which set class sizes at a maximum of 20 children in Foundation Stage and a maximum of 22 in subsequent years. Some schools take the approach of having smaller classes in the lower year groups (arguably where this makes the most significant difference). GEMS World Academy Dubai caps its Pre-K classes at 16, KG1 classes at 18, and KG2 at 20, (thereafter a maximum of 24-25). 

What do the regulators say?

There is no federal wide regulation on class sizes from the MoE, which leaves this decision to the local emirate level regulators. Perhaps surprisingly Dubai's KHDA, does not stipulate maximum class sizes for private schools. Whilst the regulator does make reference in school inspection criteria and guides to the importance of class sizes being "appropriate" and "in line with international best practice", it does not provide set requirements or maximums for schools to follow. When sought clarity on this, a KHDA representative advised our team that class capacities in Dubai private schools are based on the size of the classroom, as per regulation from Dubai Municipality (although accessing these space requirements has proved challenging).

By contrast, SPEA (Sharjah Private Education Authority), has been much more forthcoming in this regard, having announced in 2019 that class sizes in Sharjah must be capped at 25 as part of the emirate’s aims to raise the quality of its education provision. 

How much does class size really matter?

Research on the level of importance of class size has produced mixed results, although it is fairly universally accepted that yes, all other factors being equal, smaller class sizes are beneficial for learning. It is easy to imagine why this might be the case: teachers can provide more individualised attention, teachers may be less stressed and therefor perform better, fewer students may mean fewer distractions and students have more opportunity to connect with the teacher. From the point of view of a parent, quite simply, the teacher is likely to know your child better if there are fewer children in their class. 

Of course, the actual scenario is not as simple; in the real world of education, there are many other factors at play. When we consider school budgets, which, like it or not, are a key consideration here, reduced class sizes mean that something else will likely have to give. This may mean lower teacher salaries, less spending on teacher training and development, fewer subject specialist such as P.E., languages and music, or quite simply, exceptionally high tuition fees.

When looking at school performance internationally, research suggests that teacher quality has a greater impact than class size, suggesting that funds are better channelled towards teacher salaries and professional training and development, rather than fewer children per class. 

Parents in the UAE, it seems, are in agreement with the research data on this point. In a recent poll on Parents United, when asked what they considered the most important factor in their child’s education (for which they would be willing to prioritise at the expense of other factors), 90% of parents selected the strength of the teacher, with only 1% selecting small class sizes. A teacher's skill level, of course, is more challenging to quantify, and paying higher salaries does not guarantee a high level of quality, particularly when schools are faced with international teacher shortages.  

When does class size matter most?

While the significance of class size for student achievement is heavily debated, there is a general consensus among researchers that smaller class sizes have the greatest impact in the younger year groups (early years and lower primary). Research suggests that for this to make a significant impact though, these class sizes should be between 15-18, with small reductions in larger classes making a very limited impact on student attainment. Such small class sizes are rare globally, although a new school may be able to offer this as student numbers grow. 

What can a dissatisfied parent do in Dubai?

Understanding class sizes is also one of the key considerations in your school choice. Ideally, when selecting a school, this will have been one of the questions you will have asked before enrolling. If a school should avoid committing to specific numbers, this may be a reason to look elsewhere. 

In Dubai, the KHDA has made the parent contract mandatory for good reason: schools and parents should have a clear understanding and agreement of what is provided and how. It is, however, unusual for Dubai schools to include class capacities in parent contracts explicitly, meaning this is not usually something that has been contractually promised. This does not mean that parents can only complain when the contract is explicitly broken, but it certainly strengthens the parent's case where this applies. 

Finally, if a parent observes that their child is receiving a substandard education, whether as a result of the class size or any other factor, it would be advisable for them to raise this issue with the school. In cases where the parent is dissatisfied with the school's response, a complaint can be escalated to the school's regulator. 

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