A committee of experts assisting the Education Ministry recently submitted an interim report on a subject that very much interests parents: the size of school classes. But the report’s conclusion has apparently disappointed many parents, as it supports the current ministry guideline that sets the upper limit for class size at 40 students. Thus the idea of introducing smaller classes nationwide in a uniform way has been shelved.
This decision is regrettable because the need for smaller classes has been publicly discussed for a long time, and many prefectures have reduced class size one way or another. Smaller classes should not be confused with the special groups that teachers may divide students into depending on subject material or individual progress. Classes in toto are for learning academic subjects as well as for helping students develop human relationship and cooperation skills, while special groups tend to focus on academics.
The report said schools and boards of education in municipalities should be empowered to change class size depending on the need and situation. At present, such changes must be approved by prefectural boards of education.
In accordance with the report’s recommendations, the ministry will submit a bill to revise the Compulsory Education Standardization Law to the next Diet session. If the law is revised, schools will be able to modify the size of classes with the approval of municipalities under the “at-most-40” guideline.
The reason for postponing the uniform introduction of small-size classes is financial. The ministry’s calculation says if 30-member classes were introduced uniformly into the nation’s primary and middle schools, an additional 83,000 classes would need to be created, requiring an additional 110,000 teachers. The annual cost to pay for those teachers would be 780 billion yen.
If 35-member classes were introduced, the corresponding cost would be 330 billion yen. The impression is that worries about financial difficulties gained the upper hand in the discussions to the extent that participants were prevented from squarely evaluating the merit of small-size classes.
Mr. Yasuhiko Torii, head of the Central Education Council’s compulsory education special session, under which the experts’ committee was formed, is reported to have said: “There is an argument that uniformly reducing the size of classes from 40 members is not necessarily good. A new flexible plan is needed.”
The experts’ committee report did not offer a final conclusion. It said that many are of the opinion that, in small size classes, children jointly deepen their understanding of subjects better and that the guidance offered by teachers is more effective. But it also said other opinions say the recommended class sizes are too small for meaningful social interactions to occur between children. Submitting a report lacking a final conclusion should be regarded as rather irresponsible.
The reality is that small-size classes have been introduced in 45 prefectures, although the introduction has not been uniform. For example, 30-member classes have been introduced for first- and second-year pupils at primary schools in the prefectures of Akita, Fukushima, Mie, Tottori, Shimane and Miyazaki.
At a meeting of the council’s special section, Gov. Yoshihiro Katayama of Tottori Prefecture, which has set aside 1 billion yen to start small-size classes, said the introduction of such classes has helped reduce the number of truant pupils and students, improve children’s learning, and nurture composure among them. In the prefecture, 30-member classes have been introduced for first- and second-year pupils at primary schools and 33-member classes for first-year students at middle schools.
Yamagata Prefecture, a pioneer in the efforts to reduce class size, sets a range of 21 to 33 pupils for all classes of first- through sixth-year pupils at primary schools. Twelve prefectures set the upper limit at 35 for classes of first-year students at middle schools. A representative of the Yamagata prefectural board of education told the experts’ committee that truancy and absenteeism from classes have decreased while learning has improved.
Given these facts, it is strange that the experts’ committee and the Education Ministry do not give their own support to smaller classes. If the ministry is for small-size classes but cannot implement them due to financial reasons, it should just say so. A frank attitude would help deepen the public debate on the issue.
A poll shows that 73 percent of parents and 95 percent of teachers support small-size classes. This indicates that the present school environment is not helpful to teachers who want to make full use of their talents. Opinions of people close to or in the classroom should be given due consideration.