I think I’m fairly unusual in that I have taught at both ends of the age range spectrum. I trained to teach 3 – 8 year olds, moved into secondary teaching and now work with adults. I also help to run a preschool for 2 – 4 year olds. I do believe these experiences might help me to understand the concerns of and the constraints on both sides of the age range divide.

At our preschool, we use a ratio of about one adult to every five children aged 3 or 4 years old. This makes it possible for staff to truly ‘know’ every single one of their children, and to adapt what they do to suit the child. They can literally ‘follow the child’ on the ‘learning journey’ that they take while they are with us. They have time to adapt resources and activities so that they match the needs of each individual child. (It’s worth noting that the sacrifice that staff make to achieve this ratio is in their salaries. We could pay them more, but not if we want to maintain that ratio. We asked and they chose ratios over pay. Please note Mr Gove that I’m most definitely not suggesting low pay as a model for achieving small class sizes, but it is an interesting conundrum.)

If we assume that the average primary school teacher has about thirty children in his or her class, then over the course of a year it is possible to get to know those children in depth. It becomes less about the child fitting into the system, and more about how the teacher can ensure that the system fits the individual child. Where the class size falls to around twenty (which it does in some small rural state schools and obviously can in the private sector), then basic maths dictates that the teacher can devote more time to each one.

On the other hand, when I was teaching full time at secondary level, I sometimes had upwards of 250 children to teach, some of whom I would see only once a week for an hour for drama. As much as I would have liked to get to know those children as individuals, it was always going to be harder to achieve. Even though I’m pretty hopeless at maths, I can figure that one out. Secondary teachers do get a sense of how it can be, in the relationships that they form with a tutor group, but even then it is not quite the same. (Interestingly, once you get to ‘A’ Level teaching, the ratios usually drop right down again, so that you are can guide individuals through your subject as suits their needs, at a higher cognitive level.)

I’ve been wondering recently whether this is the cause of the apparent divide in attitudes between early years/primary and secondary teachers that I see on the Internet. Perhaps it would do all teachers good to spend a time in a different part of the sector, to gain a more rounded view of what ‘an education’ means? The joy of an approach called ‘sustained shared thinking’, so beautifully explained by @HeyMissSmith here, is something that comes out of a deep knowledge of your children as individuals. ‘Here’s a child: how can I help him or her learn?’ is a very different question to ‘Here’s a system: how can I get students through it with maximum benefit in terms of social mobility?’

I’d like to finish with a question that keeps bugging me, every time I get told that I want to keep the deprived in their place or that I’m an enemy of promise. How is a child with learning needs, or Down’s Syndrome, or severe autism going to fare in the system I am promoting? Are we saying that ‘only the clever deserve to be socially mobile’? Or do we care about the life chances of every single child? Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the two might not always be entirely compatible.

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13 Responses to Ratios

  1. krisboulton says:

    Hi Sue. I was wondering what you thought of the small school approach used by schools like King Solomon Academy and Reach Academy Feltham? It seems to me like they’re attempting to recreate some of that relationship building and ‘knowing the kids through and through’ as you describe in the primary schools. Jacob Kestner and Max Heimendorf (now head of KSA) wrote briefly on the subject here:


    Could you elaborate on the divide in attitudes that you referred to as well, from your perspective?


    • suecowley says:

      Thanks for that link Kris and yes, it does make very interesting reading. I do appreciate how hard it is to achieve that bond you get at primary in a secondary school, and of course most secondary teachers never get to see how wonderful it is because they don’t teach in the other sector.

      I could probably sum up the divide I sense in this way: if you ask a primary teacher what they teach, they will say ‘children’, if you ask a secondary teacher what they teach, they may well say their subject. This is not to denigrate secondary teachers, because they do teach subjects, but just to highlight the different perspectives.

      At secondary, with so many students to deal with, it is simply harder to see each child as an individual. You want to, I’m aware of that, but what tends to happen (I’m talking from my experiences here) is that you ‘bond’ with some of the characters, and you know the difficult ones really well, but the quiet ones in the middle can get ‘lost’ in all the noise. I’m not sure there is an answer, but I do think it would be hugely useful for teachers to see what happens in other sectors, so that we can all think in a more connected way.

      The ‘sustained shared thinking’ that I’ve been talking about really is incredibly empowering for a child, if you google it you will see lots of stuff about how it works, particularly in the early years. For children with a language deficit it can have a very powerful impact at a time when progress can be very rapid. It is extremely hard to do well, though. But just imagine having space to have that kind of conversation with one of your most or least able children – you’d get a real sense of what they truly understand and how you can build on that knowledge.


      • krisboulton says:

        Is that not just semantics? What’s the real on-the-ground difference, given that they both mean ‘I teach children subjects’? Don’t the primary teachers say ‘children’ simply because there *isn’t* a single subject that they teach – it would be very silly for them to say ‘I teach maths, English, geography, science, history, art, music… etc.’ In that sense, that are prohibited from giving that response even if they wanted to – they only thing they *could* answer is to say ‘I teach children of age X,’ no? While for a secondary teacher to be asked ‘What do you teach,’ and reply with ‘I teach children,’ …well, doesn’t that just come across as facetious?

        I don’t know anyone who would disagree with the desire to fully know each individual child, what they know, have understood, have forgotten, need to know next, what they struggle with, why, and so forth. Doesn’t that only fail to manifest in secondary schools because structural barriers in most schools make it a real impossibility? Teachers are instead left having to do the best they can given their context, but that’s not an issue of curriculum or pedagogy, it’s an issues of systemic structures, surely?


  2. krisboulton says:

    Coincidentally, Barry Smith just tweeted this article – couldn’t believe how closely it mirrored what you were saying, and from 17 years ago!

    Wondered what you made of it?



    • suecowley says:

      Well, Chris Woodhead is not exactly someone I’d take tips from as a teacher … the thing he’s missing is that EY teachers don’t just let the the child ‘find’ knowledge for themselves (because they can’t read yet), they introduce it in response to the child’s questions or interests. So, if I see a child making a tower of bricks, I take the chance to come in and teach some maths concepts, or to introduce some of the vocabulary of science around that subject. All the while, we build language and meaning together through engaged play and sustained shared thinking. This is not to say that this happens all the time – there is adult directed stuff as well. See this link below for what actually happens in preschools these days:


      Gotta go have dinner but always good chatting Kris!


  3. suecowley says:

    I don’t think it’s ‘just’ semantics, I think it comes about because of exactly what you say, Kris, that the structural barriers make this impossible at secondary. So, the danger is that you stop seeing it as possible to respond to individuals as fully as you’d like. It’s a practical issue not because you don’t want to. (Although when I ask some secondary teachers do say ‘kids’.)

    But … I do also think that the very real experience of having one class of say 20 or 30 children for a year makes you take a different view of pedagogy. I’m not sure it’s something that you can imagine when you have never done it – that’s not to say it’s your fault for not being able to do that, that’s just how it is. Try this: imagine yourself having the chance to teach with a ratio of one adult to five children, and think how that would let you fly in terms of experimenting with approaches rather than having to ‘get through’ the subject within a constrained amount of time.

    I’m not trying to denigrate either sector here, but simply to try and explain why the focus appears to be so different between the two.


    • krisboulton says:

      I don’t understand this ‘get through’ mentality. I’ve never had it, not since the day I entered school. If kids can’t multiply numbers together, I don’t see much point in trying to teach them any algebra. There’s an absolute shed load of time in secondary school as well; there’s no need to rush through anything. I know this approach exists in secondary schools, but where it is taken I just see it as systemic bad practice, not a necessary component of secondary education.

      I’m also really struggling to understand the alternative you’re suggesting, but then I’m also not clear in my mind what it’s an alternative to… there is always content to be covered, and there is always finite time. It doesn’t matter what approach we use, or what we experiment with, there is finite time, and there is stuff to be learnt. Surely the best we can hope for is to maximise what is learnt in the time available?

      …in my mind, this is what I think you’re picturing in secondary teaching practice; let me know if I have this right:

      Kids come into the classroom, they sit in rows, the teacher talks, they take meaningless notes, they attempt some questions, some do well, some don’t, the bell rings, they leave. Next day, lesson 2, teacher talks, they take meaningless notes, they attempt some questions, some continue to succeed, others still can’t even do the stuff from lesson 1. Lesson 3, talk, notes, marginal success and continued failure. End of topic, on to the next thing. Repeat. The failures fail, and are doomed to fail, in the indefatigable march through subject content.

      Is that it?


  4. suecowley says:

    Hi Kris, No I don’t think I said anything like that in this blog. I don’t think that’s what you do, I was talking about how high ratios make it hard for secondary teachers to know children as individually as they might like not about your classroom practice which I’ve never observed. This situation can lead to a situation where some children ‘switch off’ from a subject if they don’t find it sufficiently engaging. Perhaps none of yours do, which is great and well done if that’s the case. But what about the child with Down’s, or with autism, or with serious behaviour problems – could I ask how you support those children and ensure that they learn? I switched off from maths at secondary school because my teacher made me feel I couldn’t do it, and didn’t teach in a way that engaged me or helped me connect with the subject. Up to that point I was ‘good’ at it.

    What I was trying to do here is to identify this apparent ‘divide’ whereby some secondary teachers clearly disapprove of some of the techniques used at primary (‘content-lite’), and I was trying to explain where that idea might come from. Just as I’m sure you don’t teach didactically all the time, equally I’m sure that the primary teachers some people struggle to understand don’t teach in a knowledge free way – let’s face it, that’d be pretty much impossible wouldn’t it? I was also wondering quite seriously whether it is only the clever that get to move up in this ‘brave new world’ of knowledge?

    Personally I would prefer to see people talking more about how they do it, by sharing great techniques such as ‘sustained shared thinking’, and less about how they don’t like the way that others do it. That’s all. Please share links to all the great techniques you use – not just to people saying that knowledge is important because I know that already.


  5. I certainly wouldn’t say no-one ever switches off, but I’m very aware of it, and constantly working to eliminate it. Some of this, again, can be structural though. I spoke with some Y9 kids in a school that used the Lemov ‘SLANT’ technique; it permeates every lesson of every day. The T stands for ‘tracking’, basically ‘look at’ whoever is talking – teacher or pupil, during any whole group time. One girl said they all found it really hard when they transitioned from primary, but what she said next was most telling: ‘In primary school we never really listened to anyone when they spoke, because we didn’t have to. Now we do.’ She made it clear that they had found it difficult, and that it still was difficult, in that it took a great deal of effort and mental focus, but they did it nonetheless, because that is the expectation, and she articulated well how they now listen to what is said as a result.

    I guess my point is that as much as I constantly tweak and think about different dimensions of my presentation to hook as many people in as possible – use of questions, narratives, sequence, voice, position, body language et al. the question has been raised in my mind as to whether we expect too little of pupils in schools, and too much of teachers. By that reasoning we are giving license to children to ‘not pay attention’ if they feel bored; it is entirely the teacher’s responsibility to ‘engage’ them or ‘hook’ them in. While these are of course *desirable*, and a good teacher will always strive for this, should their paying attention really be the *sole* responsibility of the teacher? Are we not doing young people a huge disservice in allowing them to abdicate their responsibility to focus attentively on any speaker, whether they find them interesting or not – for all the work I might put in to being interesting, the pupils might not in their explanation, does that now make it okay to stop paying attention? What about after school, at university or the world of work? Not every lecture, and not every meeting will be entertaining and engaging, yet the habit of focussing attentively even under these conditions is essential for success. I teach one Year 8 student who is remarkable at it – she almost never looks away when I’m speaking. Not sure how on Earth she does it, or who taught it to her, but unsurprisingly she’s one of the most successful in the year.

    When I entered teaching, since I did it through Teach First there was necessarily a whole host of talk about ‘high expectations.’ Easy, I thought. For a decade now I’ve had higher expectations of many people’s potential than they have had of themselves. I could easily imagine any child in school to be capable of any grade in any subject, if only given the right teaching. What I hadn’t realised, is how quickly my expectations of my pupils conduct, their behaviour, would be set so low. It took me a long time to even realise my expectations of their behaviour were low – I hadn’t realised that some of these kids were actually completely capable of behaving well, even when bored or disengaged, but it took huge structural support. They wanted to behave well; they literally couldn’t when left to their own devices.

    So I worry a little now when people talk about how kids might switch off if we’re insufficiently engaging. It’s not because I think teachers shouldn’t be engaging, they should; it’s because hidden away in those words is the implicit assumption that it’s ever *okay* to switch off. What do you think Sue?

    Quickly then on the other topics:

    Down’s syndrome – no experience of. Autism only limited experience, and it hasn’t been a barrier. My focus is curriculum design, so I don’t feel at all qualified to speak on matters of SEN.

    Links to great techniques… not sure I have any! Anything out of the ordinary will probably eventually make it’s way onto my blog.

    I’m curious about knowledge – everyone agrees it is important, but I get the feeling some people don’t agree yet on the degree of its importance. Just how important do you think knowledge is? You’ve seemed worried about Hirch’s Core Knowledge curriculum before – does that mean you don’t think anyone should prescribe what we teach in schools?


  6. suecowley says:

    Hi again Kris,

    I would only ever suggested that ‘engaging’ lessons are an occasional inspiration rather than a constant diet. That way they can become the ‘why’ of the ‘knowledge’ that we aspire to put across. They become a motivator that pulls children through the challenges of the system. Let’s face it, it’s not realistic for the teachers to do ‘engaging lessons’ all the time either. (On the subject of knowledge, all I’d say is that I’d prefer people to use the word ‘understanding’ than ‘knowledge’, and I’d love for the children and parents to have some say in what they would like to learn about.)

    I don’t think we differ at all on the need for attention – it’s there in every single INSET session I do, using pauses, body language, using the space, having high expectations, making ‘one person speaks at a time’ an absolute. I say to teachers that ‘it’s what I’d die for’, I’m using a metaphor but it’s not that far off reality. It is very difficult at times. But that is the standard for learning: I am totally aligned with you on that. (By the way, drama offers a wonderful array of ‘focus exercises’ to help children learn how to actually do it.)

    You can reach attention in a variety of ways. And what I’m interested in is what ‘a variety of ways’ looks like, instead of ‘this is what research tells us is correct’. Because I have a huge belief in the value of intuition and connections and the non scientific aspects of teaching. And that education is an entitlement for all children, no matter how hard that is. Don’t forget that quite a lot of primary classes do have children with autism in them, and those with severe behavioural difficulties. You don’t get that many primary schools with PRUs.

    Thanks for taking the time to talk about these complex issues.


    • My pleasure; there’s plenty to learn here about the views held by those who’ve been in the system for some time now, and I find there’s much there I would agree with.

      I’m wondering at the moment why you prefer the word ‘understanding’ be used in place of knowledge? How do we define understanding, and what makes is distinct from knowledge? Are the two separate, or does one precede the other?

      I suppose the other question I have is why you would want parents and children deciding what is learnt? Would I be right if I presumed the answer relates to investment, motivation, cultivating curiosity and so forth?


  7. suecowley says:

    In answer to the first question, because knowledge without understanding is to me pretty pointless. See https://suecowley.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/how-to-learn-to-do-something-that-you-find-really-difficult/ for something that might help explain. I learned a knowledge of French at school, but I had no understanding of how to apply it. It’s only once I understood how to actually use a language in practice, which was very difficult for me personally, that it came to life. I don’t particularly like the word ‘skills’ because it doesn’t encompass the knowledge element, whereas for me the word ‘understanding’ does.

    Thinking about your subject, there’s a big difference between a child ‘knowing’ a particular mathematical technique, and understanding how it actually works in practice. An understanding allows you to apply your knowledge in different contexts. I believe this is why they have changed some of the methods of division and multiplication from the way we used to be taught when I was at school.

    In answer to the second question, because I feel that if parents and children have at least some ownership of what is learned, they are more likely to be (as you say) invested, motivated and curious about it. It also avoids the situation where particular sectors of society get to say what ‘should’ be learned from their own particular perspective. For instance, as a parent of children of mixed heritage, I would like to believe that school would introduce them to materials from a variety of cultures, reflecting the society they actually live in. There is a bit of a tendency in my subject (English) to believe that those dead white men are what matters. This can lead to tokenism, where people chose one non white female writer to include for the sake of ‘correctness’. I also believe that white male politicians (usually privately educated) have a very particular ‘take’ on what is ‘valuable’ and it does not always align with what parents and children (who in the end are the consumers of education) might like or want or need. That’s not to downplay the role of the teacher in making the decisions – they should be at the heart of what is taught, but be responsive to children’s needs as well. It’s like where you start a lesson by asking ‘what would you like to find out about this subject/topic/idea?’

    Thanks for taking the time to listen and to explain your views.


    • Thanks for the link – was interesting, and I’ve written a separate comment there.

      I wonder sometimes if our langauge limits our ability to communicate… well obviously it always does, but I mean in this particular case when trying to talk about ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. For example, we can both imagine this kind of ‘rote’ or ‘parotting’ of knowledge which is what I’m sure you have in mind. One example would be simply memorising a list of French vocab words, but having no knowledge/understanding of grammar, and therefore sentence formation. Another would be memorising the lines of a poem, and being able to recite it, but having no understanding whatsoever of what those words meant (something I shall be posting about this evening). But then what about an alternative example from mathematics: memorisation of times tables? You’re right in that some primary schools no longer teach children to memorise their tables, and in secondary schools we see the extremely damaging effect this has. Why? Well, if you need process some arithmetic as part of a larger piece of mathematical work, what should be simple arithmetic becomes a barrier if you don’t automatically know that 8 x 7 is 56. There are of course strategies for ‘working out’ the numbers, such as ‘double it, double it, double it again’ for multiplying by 8, but that actually involves a lot more time and places demand on working memory in a way that simply *knowing* that it’s 56, without thinking, doesn’t. The more thinking you have to do in solving a mathematical problem, the harder and harder it becomes. Knowing the times tables is virtually essential, and always beneficial. There is of course great value in ‘understanding’ multiplication, though precisely what understanding means gets very blurred, very quickly. For example I could suggest that it refers to being able to conceptualise multiplication as an array, which has many virtues, but that’s just one of several possible conceptualisations. Does one need to know them all in order to tick the ‘understand’ box for multiplication?

      In the language example you gave, one could argue that you knew the wrong things – perhaps knowing lists of vocabulary, with insufficient knowledge of grammar. What one person calls ‘understanding’, I think sometimes another person calls ‘knowledge’, and yet others are beginning to call ‘powerful knowledge’! This is where I worry that the limitations of our language lead people to speak at cross purposes.

      On the second question of parental/pupil choice: we need to begin by accepting that there is finite time, and virtually infinite things we could teach. So, someone has to make choices – what do we teach? Before we start talking about ‘who’ gets to choose, I think there’s a very fundamental postulate upon which any conclusion either way would have to be predicated, which is whether or not we think it that *what* we learn in school makes a difference to our ability to thrive within and to engage with democratic society in the UK.

      Do you think that what we know about affects our ability to engage with society on a national scale? Or can we learn about anything at all, and be equally empowered? I suppose if we start at an extreme, imagine we lined up all the knowledge in the world, numbered it all, and then rolled a million dice to generate a curriculum at random. Would it matter?


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