It’s good to reduce class size to 35, but don’t neglect quality of teachers

It is essential to ensure the quality of teachers in order to provide detailed instruction to students. The working environment at schools, which has been pointed out as having long work hours, should be improved to increase the number of highly motivated and capable teachers.

The government has decided to introduce a limit of 35 students per class at public elementary schools over five years from the 2021 academic year, which starts in April. This means the maximum number of students in each class will be lowered from the current 40. The class size limit for first-graders has already been set at 35, but this is the first time in about 40 years that the upper limit has been lowered for all elementary school grades, according to the government.

The Finance Ministry was initially reluctant about cutting class sizes, saying this approach would have a “limited impact on improving students’ academic performance.” The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry counterargued, saying that smaller classes can not only produce educational benefits, but also be effective as a measure against novel coronavirus infections because children can avoid crowded settings.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan has the third-highest number of students per class out of 33 countries. As the education community has called for years for the upper limit to be reduced, the decision is a big step forward, even though the current limit of 40 students per class will be maintained for the time being for junior high schools.

At elementary schools, the current 2020 academic year saw the introduction of revised teaching guidelines under which classes are conducted based on “active learning,” an approach focusing on discussions and presentations. The number of students with developmental disorders and children of foreign nationalities is also increasing. It is hoped that reducing the upper limit will be used as an opportunity to better provide education tailored to each student.

Teachers’ professional capabilities will matter in meeting this goal. The introduction of the class size limit of 35 students means that more than 10,000 additional teachers will be required over the next five years. However, in recruitment tests for public elementary school teachers conducted this academic year, the overall rate of successful examinees to applicants stood at 1 in 2.7, a record low level of competitiveness. For recruitment tests conducted by 13 prefectural and municipal boards of education, the rates were worse than 1 in 2.

These poor ratios have apparently been triggered not just by the increase in quotas for recruits following the mass retirement of veteran teachers, but also by the impression that elementary school teachers are too busy to take days off.

Elementary school teachers feel a great burden because they are required to teach most of the subjects to the class they are in charge of. It is important to improve the efficiency of meetings and clerical work that teachers have to handle, so that the image of elementary schools as a “black workplace” can be dispelled.

The education ministry has said that it will implement measures to ease the requirement for junior high school teachers to acquire an additional license if they want to teach at elementary school, while also making it easier for members of other professions to get a teaching license while working.

As part of efforts to attract a wider range of applicants, many boards of education have abolished the upper age limit for taking tests and have provided test sites in prefectures other than their own. Boards of education are urged to exercise ingenuity to secure capable teachers.

It is also important to provide recruits with professional training and support. Boards of education are urged to hand down teaching expertise to younger teachers and offer them mentoring by rehiring retired teachers, among other steps.

In some areas where local populations are expanding, schools are facing a shortage of classrooms, making it difficult for them to increase the number of classes. It is hoped that boards of education will make thorough preparations to verify how effective it is to teach smaller groups of students.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 19, 2021.