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Talk-ED: Ratio rationale

Stuart Middleton
28 May 2012


I need help. Being a bear with a small brain, I have been struggling to understand some of the statements on television from school leaders about the impact of the changes to the student teacher ratio announced recently.

Last Friday evening for example we were told of a school, a primary school that would lose 5-6 teachers. Surely not I thought – this would be outrageous.

So what I did was a simple exercise in mathematics – I listed on a sheet of paper the 1 July roll return figures for 2011 for years 1- 15. Then I applied the old ratios and calculated the number of FTEs (full time equivalent positions) those figures would generate. For comparison I also calculated what the new ratios would generate.

On the basis simply of the number of FTE teaching positions generated, the change in ratios is neutral – in fact there is a gain of 11 FTEs across the entire school sector. But this is negligible given that the number of FTEs 33,170. A small shift in balance sees the secondary sector gain by about 240 FTEs at the expense of primary which loses about the same amount.

So the impacts that are being described to us must be in the calculations of all the additional positions generated by allowances – management, resource teachers, guidance, therapists and so on. These appear to account for a further 13,000 FTEs and I would imagine that the complexity of those calculations creates a somewhat tangled web of different approaches to allocating specific resources.

Has the change in ratios somehow produced a call for a leaner cadre of management in schools?

A reduction in the number of resource teachers feature strongly in the complaints from Principals and there are (or were) nearly 1,000 of these?

I was told the other day that intermediate schools were particularly hit by the changes in a negative way? On the surface the changes in ratios look favourable to them.

I do not doubt for one minute that the perceived impact of the changes on schools is real. School leaders would not go on television and say the things they have been saying if they were not. But if the actual changes to the ratios is neutral in terms of FTE teaching positions, then what is generating that impact?

Is there a discrepancy between the roll figures used to calculate staffing allowances and actual rolls? There shouldn’t be as school rolls have been very stable nationally for the past five years and have actually increased by a little over 4% in the past 10 years. Although national figures inevitably mask a decline in numbers in some areas and growth in others.

Is it that additional staffing outside the FTE calculations has been accumulating in schools where there has been a shift downwards in student numbers? A similar thing happened in the 1980s leading up to the changes in 1989 called Tomorrow’s Schools which saw some spectacular losses in staffing to some schools as new formulae bit in. Schools that had, over a period of time, “done well” in attracting additional staffing paid a heavy price.

Could it be that having staffing delivered in FTEs is limiting? Given the age profile of the teaching service it might, at the moment, be to the advantage of schools to have the salary funding delivered to it in some form of cashed up model?

Education does not have a good track record in embracing change and it would be a shame if the reactions to this change which does appear to simplify the whole business a little, is being challenged simply on the basis that it is change – we don’t like change.

So it is important for the real issues to be brought out in ways that people can understand. The dramatic and breathless condemnation of the changes as the end of learning in our lifetimes won’t cut it. Nor will spurious attempts to alarm parents that there will be extraordinary numbers of students in classrooms, there should not be. Nor will the community be impressed by silly calculations of the time available to teachers for interaction with each student as if that has ever been reflected in how excellent teachers work – “two minutes of talking with the teacher starting now”.

Teaching is predominantly a group activity and that is highlighted by the weight of evidence that the quality of the teacher rather than the precise size of the group is the key factor in the quality of learning.

Communities seek to support their schools and I think that they deserve better than the reactions to the changes in ratios that they have got. What are the real issues?

That’s why I need help. Explanations for the reactions do not seem to come out of a clinical examination of the numbers behind the changes.

I read this morning’s NZ Herald and a little more light is shed on the issue of Years 7 and 8 – it does seem that the additional staffing rather than the ratio is the issue – or does the ratio drive the additional staffing?  Check out the article at:


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