Class Size Matters The Most Where Students Are Struggling

- John Minto

National Chairperson of QPEC (Quality Public Education Coalition)

The Government’s dramatic U-turn on its Budget decision to increase class sizes was a victory for children, parents and teachers. The whole education sector united against the new Minister and roundly rejected the supposed trade-off between increasing class sizes and using the savings (only some of the savings as it turned out) to increase teacher quality. When opposition first gained traction after the Budget the Government firstly attempted to defuse rising hostility by saying no school would lose more than two teachers in the first three years of the policy. However by then the issue had a head of steam. A march was planned in Whangarei, parents in Wellington took to the streets with a petition and Dunedin primary school principals took out a full page advertisement in the Otago Daily Times announcing a public meeting to oppose the policy. The Government accepted it was on a hiding to nothing; total capitulation quickly followed.

Such a victory is rare and says a lot for the resilience of the education unions, the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) and New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI). School education was the only significant sector to retain its national contracts after the Employment Contracts Act decimated unions from 1991. The PPTA and NZEI survived and went on to defeat bulk funding of teacher salaries in the late 1990s in another rare win for unions against neo-liberalism. School education remains a huge problem for National governments. Their hatred for the teacher unions is palpable. They have tried again and again to weaken and destroy them but to little effect. When push comes to shove the teachers have been backed by boards of trustees and parents against Government policies. Teachers are naturally close to parents and until the Government can get a significant wedge in here it will struggle to destroy public education at school level.

But rust never sleeps and the Government’s other plans to attack teachers will now be put into overdrive: league tables for primary schools, performance pay for teachers and charter schools. These nutty Rightwing policies have been put in place overseas and have never raised student achievement and in fact it can easily be argued they have had an opposite effect. They are just a stalking horse for the corporate sector keen to get their grubby hands on schools. In the meantime the unions are talking with the much chastened Minister, Hekia Parata, to discuss raising student achievement.

The first thing to recognise is that overall our education system is a world beater. Our kids consistently perform close to the top of international comparisons in the key areas of reading, science and maths. We regularly outperform the US, UK and Australia. In the latest international survey (2012) from 34 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries New Zealand students were ranked fourth in reading literacy, fourth in scientific literacy and seventh in mathematical literacy.

Since these PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) surveys started in 2000 New Zealand has stayed close to the top while other countries have struggled. As our Teachers Council reported in June 2012: “Australia has recorded a significant decline since 2000 on all the skills measured. England has slipped from seventh in 2000 to 25th in reading, eighth to 28th in maths and fourth to 16th in science. The United States only rates around the average of all OECD countries”. If our athletes in the London Olympics this year competed as well internationally as our New Zealand students and teachers we’d be deluged with medals.

Underfunded Overachievers

Prime Minister John Key complains that despite adding additional teachers in recent years our student achievement has “flat lined” over the past decade. That’s true but we are flat lining at the top, which should be a source of pride and only a single country from the original top ten performers from the first PISA survey, South Korea, actually increased its reading literacy score over the last ten years. Compared to the countries whose ideas the Government wants us to emulate, the UK (free schools) and US (charter schools), are dropping or have flat lined well below us.

What is also clear is that our teachers and schools achieve this with lower funding than other OECD countries. Again the Teachers Council reported: “New Zealand consistently scores in the top half dozen OECD countries, even though, according to the evidence gathered by the OECD, we spend far less per student than nearly all of the other 34 OECD nations”. In the words of Massey University’s Professor of Education John O’Neill “ can reasonably argue that New Zealand schools are underfunded, but overachieve”.

All this should be a matter of huge national pride, so why is the Government constantly belittling our teachers and schools. During the 2011 election campaign John Key told the country that our schools were letting down New Zealand kids. How pathetic is that? We need to ask him why the Government doesn’t offer its warmest congratulations to our students, teachers and schools. International success like this is fantastic and it’s easy to make the case that our schools are the brightest spots across our entire economy.

It’s also important to recognise that New Zealand has achieved these high levels of success through a strong public education system. 96% of New Zealand children are educated in public schools while education systems which are in crisis and failing such as the US and UK have highly fractured education provision based on a false notion of “choice” where the most important choice – a high quality school in the local neighbourhood –  has been lost to many. Their attempts to improve through so-called “charter schools”, more private funding and getting businesses to run schools have paralysed progress in lifting student achievement. They should be emulating us and not the other way round. In fact across all OECD countries those with the highest levels of student achievement, such as New Zealand, have their successes based on high quality public education as a right of citizenship. In Finland, which has the best performing education system in the world, there are no private schools but the Government has heavily invested in public education with the funding focused for equality and equity and ensuring that every school is a good school. Now there is something worth emulating.

But all is not perfect and the Government is right to point to significant numbers of students who are still failing in education. There will always be students who don’t do so well for a host of reasons but our Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf is right to point out that we have more low scoring students than the other high performing countries. These students are disproportionately Maori, Pasifika and working class kids in our low income communities. What Makhlouf didn’t say, however, is that there is a strong correlation between poor educational results for kids from low income communities and the degree of income inequality in a country. It’s no surprise then, that in New Zealand, where we have had the fastest growing gap between rich and poor over the past generation, we have many kids left behind. Lower achievement for kids from families on the lowest incomes follows inequality like night follows day.

Decrease Class Sizes

The same applies for other social problems we are all too familiar with: child abuse, violent crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and poor mental health. If we are serious about addressing these problems we must rebalance our economy so every family is brought in from the cold. This is the unpalatable truth the Government and Treasury must face but there’s no point holding our breath waiting. So what should schools be doing in the meantime? There is enough local evidence now that the single policy which would make the greatest difference in lifting the achievement of Maori, Pasifika and kids from low income communities would be to decrease class sizes in our lower decile schools and couple this with intensive professional development for teachers to adapt their teaching to the new learning environment. So while reducing class size doesn’t appear to score as highly as teacher performance in lifting achievement overall, the local research shows it has differential effects for different groups of kids with the kids we need to target benefiting the most.

Lowering class sizes at high decile schools where high parental expectations match high teacher expectations would not necessarily make much difference. But where home circumstances mean learning outcomes depend more heavily on the teacher alone, then small class sizes and closer relationships between students and teachers become key drivers in improving achievement. We shouldn’t accept second best for any of our kids and this means significant investment directly into the classrooms where our underachievers predominate. Class size matters for these kids more than most. Our teachers have shown they are world beaters – why not give them the resources to get all our kids to the top?

The National/Act/Maori Party government is not interested. Their Ministers prefer to send their kids to private schools where small class sizes are taken for granted. 12 is the average class size in private schools with 16 as the maximum. In public schools 26 is the average with plenty of classes well over 30. So while we wait for the coming battles in defence of public education from the corporate barbarians we should pause to congratulate the sector on their most impressive win in the last battle.


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