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Pathways-ED: What's the matter with size?

Stuart Middleton
18 May 2012


It is all a little surreal. I am up in Samoa for a couple of days finishing a task for the National University of Samoa and it happens again! The minute I leave New Zealand controversy breaks out.

This time the issue clusters around the announcement that teacher/pupil ratios are to rise a little. This is no surprise when just several weeks ago the Treasury put forward the argument that if we wished to really address teacher quality, one way of doing this would be to squeeze the ratios up a little, create uncommitted education funds and spend it on giving teachers the opportunity to develop new skills, to hone up the skills that they had and to generally contribute to that one thing we know really makes a difference to student achievement – teacher quality.

The announcement yesterday by Minister Parata did make an effort to emphasise that the money saved is not lost to education in the way that, say, the MFAT cuts money seems simply to be vacuumed up into the consolidated fund. In this respect education (and health) is being treated more favourably.

And this puts teacher and educators into a rather delicate corner because there is only a tenuous link between teacher/student ratios and class size. Or put more starkly, the increase in the ratios will not automatically mean that all classes will be larger. Schools will continue to make professional decisions about the optimal size for classes of different kinds. Reducing class sizes is clearly not a mechanism for school improvement.

I was an English teacher so I always got to teach classes that were as large as the school could manage. On the other hand some teachers in some subjects had rather fewer students. In primary schools this sort of manipulation is more difficult but perhaps high decile schools can justifiably have larger classes than low decile schools simply because the needs of the students are so dramatically different. This would be thwarted because of the way resources are allocated and there is little capability to transfer between schools. Imagine the fuss if differential ratios based on deciles was to be proposed.

The real difficulty is that the business model that school function with is not very functional. Having so much of the teacher resource tied up, and I mean tied up, in an inflexible staffing structure and delivered as FTEs leaves schools with little room to move. That is why the standardisation of the ratios between Years 2 to 8 and Years 11 to 13 seems to me to be an excellent move. The first signs of flexibility are creeping in.

Those who write the press releases for the Minister may have been a little careless in describing the money saved as “extra” – some of it seems to be new but some is really a reallocation. And how long now have we known that if we wish to achieve different results we will need to behave differently, we will have to use resources differently.

I think that the biggest risk in all this is that achievement might not go up. This would then create a rather traditional response from teacher organisations of “we told you so” when it might actually mean that the indicators are still heading south but more slowly. It is imperative now that we get into reporting progress in meaningful and honest ways and that means cohort reporting. What is happening to each group of students. That is the test.

So the unique student identifier has now become urgent and critical. I sometimes joke that an IRD Number should be tattooed, discretely of course but in a place able to be accessed without embarrassment, to help us achieve this but this idea has not gained ground. I believe that the privacy lobby is still arguing about the invasive nature of such identifiers. Meanwhile we pay a heavy price in education through simply not being able to produce robust statics on how we are going.

Then there is the impact of truancy on class size. If 29,000 students are on average away from school each day (these are official figures) then the impact on class size must have been significant. We will have to be vigilant that class sizes do not balloon as we get on top of truancy.

Also, if we tackle the NEETs issue with vigour and succeed there could be a further 20,000 students at school. Solving the issues of disengagement and educational failure is a sure way to increase the number of teachers in schools!

This is a vexed issue. Oh, I forgot there are also the teen parents (25,000 I was told). Of course there is some double counting in all these figures. A side issue is that a teen Mum only has an entitlement until age 18 years. This is something that is an abrogation of human rights and applies only to them and, seemingly, to First XV aspirants in Auckland schools!

The thing that will silence the argument about class size will be a clear improvement in achievement. That is the challenge and that is why we go teaching in the first place.



Published inEducation

One Comment

  1. Wayne Dreyer Wayne Dreyer

    Hi Stuart
    Well said-you hit the nail right on the head!! Business models have always struggled in education and will continue to do so. One just needs to look at the uproar in the tertiary sector with the imposition in the early 90s of what Prof Jim Marshall calls ‘busnocratic rationality’ as the tertiary sector was reformed by the zealots of the era. As one who has spent 20+ years in a business faculty, Education in my opinion is not a pure business entity but across the world the neoliberals have tried to impose business models throughout the sectors. And at times our colleagues almost ‘pray to the monetary gods’ in their chase of more ‘rent seeking’ activites to boost their departmental budgets. It was almost a case of ‘never mind the qulaity sir-just feel the width’. As you have commented Education is a difficult area to impose business models on without impinging on quality. Sure the Government is praising changes/improvements in the Public Health System, these may be true but according to my colleagues in the sector moral is dangerously low. Will this happen to education? I hope not.

    Like you in the early days I also taught English and so got used to big classes-now in the tertiary sector I relish a big class as I can achieve so much with the students and have fun using innovative praxis. You are correct that the biggest risk to the present initiative is that the achievement rate may decline, so I agree with your suggestion that the answer lies in the reporting proceedures.

    Finally why not a national education number? Like many I have an IRD number, an employee number, a Goldcard number, a National Health number, a University of Auckland a student number, and of course my NZ Army number. Unique identifiers are part of the inescapable future of our modern life.

    Keep up the good commentary. Regards Wayne

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