Class size debate continues



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STEVE THOMAS continues the debate about Labour’s class size policy, clarifies some of the issues around education funding and class sizes, and raises new questions.

SteveThomas.jpgI would like to thank PPTA President, Angela Roberts, for responding to my earlier article about the possible impacts of the Labour Party’s policy to revise teacher-pupil ratios. It was good to hear from Ms Roberts what the PPTA believes is the policy’s intent. I think Ms Roberts rightly highlights that the underlying issue is how school funding for class sizes has become unbalanced and needs to be reformed.

In her article, Ms Roberts states that Labour’s policy would ‘provide targeted extra staffing to those schools that have the most overly-large classes’. Depending on their size, secondary schools could receive anywhere between one and 20 additional teachers. This would enable them to provide adequate staffing across curriculum areas, without compulsory junior classes becoming too large.

I do not think Labour’s approach is wrong – if funding curriculum staffing is the issue that it primarily wants to address. However, my impression was that Labour’s primary argument for its alternative policy to Investing in Educational Success (IES) was that smaller classes would improve pupils’ learning. This is a claim about which some caveats and uncertainties should be discussed. For instance, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, has urged better public debate about the trade-offs between class sizes and teacher quality in his 2013 paper, The role of evidence in policy formation and implementation (p. 16). I tried to do this in my article. If Labour based its recommendations upon the 2012 Secondary School Staffing Group’s, as Ms Roberts says, then it is a shame Labour did not frame them as a school funding policy.

Ms Roberts has criticised me for simplistically stating the effects on achievement from classes that would be a few pupils smaller. However, I share her, and the PPTA’s, concerns about drawing firm conclusions of the effect of class sizes from econometric research, or meta-analyses, which use the teacher-pupil ratio. Testing the relationship between this variable and pupil achievement does not necessarily say much about why different class sizes may, or may not, be effective. I apologise if I did not make this point clearly enough. That said, econometric research does, at least, allow some estimates to be made about what the possible effects could be, within the limits of such methods and within stated assumptions.

As I do not know how different schools might allocate teachers to classes, the estimates I suggested – in the absence, as far as I could see, of any discussion of the likely magnitude and scope – were meant to illustrate what the overall average effects could be from a universal reduction of three pupils, as described in Labour’s policy. As I stated in my article, they were ‘rule of thumb’ estimates, not certain predictions. That said, the effect sizes would likely still be small in magnitude – just as they can be for other education policies, such as different kinds of instruction, classroom models, or charter schools. Smaller classes will have an effect. It just may take longer for a minor reduction in class sizes to have the same effect as ones relating to teacher or teaching quality.

I hope that the PPTA can work with Labour to further develop its policy. I still believe class size reductions could be better targeted at the primary school years, and for disadvantaged pupils, where they may have more effect. As I suggested, there are other unanswered questions about how the new institutions Labour has proposed will work. One issue, which I did not mention in my previous article, is that it is unclear what the relationship would be between the new Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand (EDUCANZ) and Labour’s proposed leadership college and school advisory service. There could be overlap between these organisations’ responsibilities. I also hope the PPTA will continue to push the National Party on the design of IES and to be frank about the likely effects of its other education policies.

As an academic and a policy analyst, I appreciate the chance to engage in thoughtful, constructive public debate. Ms Roberts’ response has provided the opportunity to do so, with regard to the education policies before voters at this September’s election.


Steve Thomas is a New Zealand PhD Scholar at The Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, studying the impact of educational entrepreneurs.

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