Guest Article: Crowded Schools and Bullies?
We have a very interesting guest article from Jacek Wieczorek who runs Irelandstats.com, a very interesting statistics web site. In this article, Jacek explores the possible relationship between overcrowded classes and bullying.
Having worked in the education field myself, I was devastated by the series of news concerning bullying leading to suicides among students from Irish schools. This painted a rather gloomy picture of the state of things in the country’s education facilities. Although bullying has always been there, this time, it was taken to another level. And even though these stories no longer grab most of the nationwide headlines at the moment, bullying does not cease to be a hot button issue here. Another thing is, what could we do to prevent this from happening again?
Bullying indeed remains a significant issue in Irish schools. Almost every media coverage concerning this problem refers to the infamous case of Ciara Pugsley. In 2012, she committed suicide, after having been subject to online bullying, received from her fellow students. Later, two other Irish girls took their own lives, being previously victims of Internet harassment, again, conducted by students from their own school.
Now, the big question is – is there any way to prevent such terrible stories from happening? Even though the cases I’ve just mentioned happened online, it would be shortsighted not to include the school in the whole picture. After all, it all starts there.
It is commonly known that class sizes in Irish schools are too big. Due to the overwhelming crisis and the ubiquitous spending cuts of schools’ finances, they have even increased lately. According to experts, this makes the quality of teaching go down. This idea goes back to the famous STAR project (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio,) from the 1980s, which indicated the benefits of a smaller classroom. And by small they meant one that comprises around 15 students.
Apart from poor school performance, bigger classes mean increased incidence of violence. And just one word of warning – as overcrowded schools, we do not only count the ones, where classroom sizes are larger than the recommended average. Instead, we use the umbrella term for institutions, where the student/teacher ratio exceeds that figure.
As you can learn from the table below, there are places in Ireland, where class sizes exceed this recommended average. And, as practice shows, this creates a breeding ground for violence.
The county of Cork seems to serve as a good example for that trend. It is reported that class sizes in primary schools in that part of the country are one of the highest, not only in Ireland, but also well exceed the Europe’s average class size. Take a look at the table prepared some time ago by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation.
Although the figures related to Cork are not that shocking (there are more dramatic examples at hand), it turns out that “the smaller the class, the better” theory makes sense. As a matter of fact, two out of three suicide cases mentioned above, took place among Cork pupils. This is definitely not a coincidence, is it?
If you look carefully through the table, it is not only Cork county that reports overcrowded classes. In Meath, for instance, the situation is even worse.
This is just a random example of data on class sizes, released by one of the schools in Meath county. However, the picture graph would be strikingly similar, no matter what school you take under scrutiny. As you can see, the number of classes larger in size than the average recommended by experts is significant. Now, a study conducted by Jigsaw (an organization that watches Irish schools) has revealed some shocking statistics. The results of the study proved that a half of Meath schools’ students has suffered from some kind of bullying, while at school.
Kildare county stands out as one of the most overpopulated school districts. You won’t be surprised, then, to learn that another suicide took place in Newtown, Kilcock, located in that very county. In November 2012, a girl named Lara Burns (a student of Newtown’s school, called Maynooth Post-Primary School,) took her own life. Just to shed some light on the issue, these are the enrolment figures released by that institution:
As you could see, the school is densely populated. So, do we need to mention that she committed suicide because she was bullied?
Bullying and classroom environment
Here comes the big question – what is the relation between acts of online harassment and the average size of the Irish classroom? Well, some researchers have tried to prove that it does not matter how large the class actually is. A study conducted in 2010 by Mattias Persson and Mikael Svensson (both from Örebro University, Sweden), shows that any decrease in class sizes won’t necessarily translate into eradication of bullying.
Although this might sound as a common sense approach, there is always the other side of the coin. After all, the opinion that lowering class sizes is the best way to combat abuse seems to be prevalent among teachers. In addition, there is a huge body of evidence proving that a small class makes a better learning environment. A review carried out in 2003 by a group of American researchers named Finn, Pannozzo, & Achilles revealed that in smaller classes students are less likely to act in an unsettling way. Other than that, the authors point out to the fact that reduced class sizes are a great way to instill pro-social attitude in pupils.
Also, it is the environmental control that prevents bullying. It goes without saying that controlling a huge mass of students is difficult. In smaller schools, though, where the number of students per teacher is lower, exerting control is much easier, which obviously lowers the probability of any bullying incidents.
Having read through this text, you may think that big classes are the root of all evil. It will be shortsighted to say so, but don’t forget that they encourage “fooling around”. And just in case you were wondering about their relation to online harassment, consider this: almost 30 percent of cyberbullies claim that they did it for fun, as Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey from 2009 revealed. What does that mean for kids in Irish schools?
Notice the fact that most parts of our everyday lives have gone viral. Unfortunately, the same applies to harassment among school students. Looking at the stats mentioned above, it’s clear that the reasons behind the in-person bullying and online harassment remain the same. The only difference is in form, as well as the span of that phenomenon, since an offense posted online might get global in a matter of hours. However, all of the suicide cases referred to previously took place among students attending very populated schools. The bad news is, though, there seems to be no other way out of it quickly as not much is getting done to reduce the huge class sizes. Instead, these numbers swell all the time.
Jacek Wieczorek – a statistics and data enthusiast that masterminded a few education and public life related projects. The most recent one, irelandstats.com, offers quick and easy access to the largest database on schools from all across Ireland. Apart from his online activities, Wieczorek is also a passionate educator. With strong background in Internet Science combined with huge IT expertise he regularly gives seminars for students on leveraging the potential of the World Wide Web for professional and self-development.