Opinion: Class size debate – what Labour’s policy means



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PPTA president ANGELA ROBERTS asserts that there has been a lot of misunderstanding about Labour’s class size policy announcement from the 'experts' and commentariat.

Angela-Roberts.jpgApproaching this from a secondary teaching perspective, which is what I know and can comment on, there is a clear problem that this policy would solve.

In short it is this: the way that numbers of teachers are allocated to schools (the staffing formula) does not work fairly for many schools that exist today. The formula was designed in the 1990s, when there were far fewer large schools and no junior high schools. What we know now is that junior highs and large secondaries are unfairly penalised by the staffing formula.

The evidence for this is clear. Simply applying the formula demonstrates that the base staffing component becomes less and less significant as the number of students increase. In 1995 when the formula was devised, there were only a couple of schools with over 2000 students. Now there are 14, and one with over 3000.

The problem at junior high schools is that the staffing formula for Years 7–10 provides those schools with by far the least generous teacher/student ratios, which both primary schools and secondary schools even out through the more generous formulas for younger and older students.

The reality of this inequity is shown through survey data, too. This graph below shows actual class sizes in a sample of secondary schools by size –as school size increases so too does the percentage of classes with over 25 and over 31 students.

PPTA class sizes graph 

This is taking into consideration the fact that schools across the country employ hundreds of teachers above what they receive from the staffing formula out of their operational and locally raised funds. School leaders are well aware class sizes have to be manageable and curriculum breadth has to be maintained, so they go cap in hand to parents and local communities to fund what the Government isn’t.

What Labour’s policy will do is provide targeted extra staffing to those schools that have the most overly-large classes. Using the formula they provide, secondary schools of around 700 and up will get at least one more teacher, while the largest school in the country, Rangitoto College, will get around 20.

This doesn’t mean, in the simplistic way that it’s been stated, that classes across the board will be a few students smaller. What it does mean is that schools will be able to make the broad range of curriculum areas available to students while ensuring that the compulsory junior classes don’t get huge as a trade-off. For example, running the Year 13 Mandarin class of 17 students won’t have to mean that there are two classes of 32 in Year 9 Social Studies.

For students at Years 9 and 10, or in the compulsory subjects in Year 11, having class sizes that mean they can get individual attention from their teachers on a regular basis will make a difference. The research from Peter Blatchford on the actual effects of class size differences (not just student/teacher ratios, which is what Hanushek, whom your last correspondent on this topic mentioned, researched) is illustrative here. For students in Year 12 and 13, having a wide range of curriculum areas to keep them engaged and provide meaningful pathways through school will make a difference.

The information that Labour’s class size policy at secondary level is based on is the Secondary School Staffing Group report of 2012, which was developed by the then Secretary for Education, the School Trustees Association, groups representing secondary principals, and PPTA. It considered the evidence about staffing problems in New Zealand secondary schools and proposed solutions. Since then, there’s been no action from the Government, so it’s very welcome to see the Labour Party pick this up now and make it an election platform.

This is a policy that accomplishes the rare double of playing well with voters and being based on solid evidence. Because it manages the former, it seems to make some people think that it is simply electioneering. That is not the case at all.


Academic Steve Thomas’ analysis of Labour’s proposed education funding and his interpretation of its impact on class sizes can be read here.

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