Here we are, yet again. Class size has become an almost banal argument in New Zealand, yet it currently has the education sector hot under the collar following the Treasury’s recent briefing.

The Treasury has recommended that Government increase student to teacher ratios and consolidate the school network in order to free up more funding to improve teaching quality.

The proposal has been met with inevitable disdain. Massey University’s Professor John O’Neill is among those condemning the Treasury’s recommendations. O’Neill says that Professor John Hattie’s comments about class size being ‘less important’ have been misinterpreted by the Treasury.

There is some background to consider here. Hattie’s book Visible Learnings gives class size a small effect on student achievement; however, a counter-publication, Invisible Learnings? A commentary on John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement’ by a number of Massey University academics, including O’Neill, looks at how Hattie’s findings have perhaps been taken out of context by others.

“Hattie has been cited as ‘finding’ that class size is not important and this has excited the attention of those concerned about financing of schools, who conclude they can economise on class size,” the Massey text reads. “Hattie recognises that ‘class size’ cannot usefully be considered in isolation from other potentially important, pedagogically related variables. Reducing class size may have only a small effect when considered in isolation but that’s not the issue. What matters is that reducing class size permits the teacher (and children) to do things differently.”

As suggested here, there is certainly much research available on the benefits of small class sizes. Classes with low student to teacher ratios are said to improve attendance, test results, monitoring of student progress and engagement in learning. Bullying and vandalism are less likely to occur in schools with smaller classes. Teachers are more likely to be engaged in professional development and school reforms.

One of the most important benefits of small class size is that teachers are likely to pick up earlier that a student is struggling. O’Neill notes that New Zealand early literacy research in south Auckland schools show that learners with poorly developed literacy need smaller classes in the early years in order to have the support they need to become confident readers. Increasing class size would therefore appear to be in direct conflict with the Government’s ‘crusade’ around National Standards.

“This penny-pinching proposal worries me,” says O’Neill. “The Government cannot claim on one hand to be committed to meeting the needs of disadvantaged learners, improving the achievement of Maori and Pasifika students, raising national standards and to providing 21st century learning and, on the other hand, take steps that materially undermine each and every one of those commitments. If we follow the Treasury’s logic we might just as well go back to the early 1800s and drill children in classes of five hundred using sand trays and monitors. That would be cheaper still.”

It certainly appears to be a case of Government pouncing upon aspects of research that support its economic agenda while not looking at the whole picture. In failing to do so, Government appears to be contradicting its own goals for the education sector.

It would be poor journalistic form to take the Government’s comments out of context too. Chief among the criticisms have been that the Treasury is looking at schools from a purely economic perspective. Indeed, if one withdrew financial motivations and the problem of New Zealand’s population imbalance from the equation, it would be a no-brainer – keep class sizes small. But these are real factors of concern, driving the very suggestions that have met with such derision.

Although there is supposed to be a maximum of 27 students in a class, it isn’t uncommon for classes to rise above this, sometimes to as high as 40 students per class, according to PPTA president Robin Duff. Larger classes are typically found in Auckland schools and they are only expected to get larger. Prime Minister John Key says a projected growth in school numbers, especially in Auckland, means the Government has to consider more pupils per teacher or build more schools.

Journey further down the North Island and it is rather a different story in Taumarunui, a rural area with a declining population. Taumarunui Primary School is doing all it can to attract new students. In addition to offering free uniforms, books and bags, the school is offering teacher aides in every class, free buses to and from school and a daily breakfast through the KickStart Breakfast programme.

Christchurch knows all about fluctuating class sizes. Professor Gail Gillon of Canterbury University says that since the earthquakes, Christchurch schools have experienced changing rolls. Gillon urges the Ministry of Education to look carefully at the effects of changing class sizes on teachers and children in a region where the population is shifting. “Simply to increase class sizes without looking at strategies we need to put around supporting those students wouldn’t be the best outcome,” she says.

But what then? Gillon suggests exploring more creative methods to save money, such as sharing resources and video technology. Perhaps these and other ideas should be given serious consideration because it is clear something needs to be done to address these issues. Costs need to be saved. Population imbalances need to be factored. But if the reaction from the education sector is anything to go by, increasing class sizes is not the way to do it.


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