More teachers? Hell yes.

Apparently federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham thinks employing more teachers is a waste of money.

Now the minister is relatively new on the block but he needs to do better than mimic tired old phrases that are tenuously connected with reality. As a part of a government that has championed non government schools he might want to take a peek at the staff-student ratios in those schools. Additional teachers in a school make a difference. Here are a few examples of how:

  1. Employing more teachers allows schools to broaden curriculum options for students.
    For the last 15 years we’ve seen a significant increase in funding for non government schools to promote ‘choice’ i.e. to make those schools more affordable for families. This has allowed those schools to build better facilities and employ more teachers, enticing more upper and middle class families to send their children to those schools. This has improved results in those schools and drained public schools of students with high academic ability. Those students previously created much of the demand for areas like high level maths, sciences and languages in secondary schools. As student demand for these subjects has fallen in public schools, principals have been forced to cut many of them from the curriculum. Students who might otherwise choose their local public school have been forced to head off to a non government school to access those subjects.
    Putting additional money into schools would allow them to employ more teachers to run classes in those subjects. It’s worth noting that in Victoria (and I expect in other states as well) there is a loading on funding for rural and very small schools which allows them to maintain a better curriculum offer than they could afford if they were funded at the same rate as schools in Melbourne or other regional centres. Shouldn’t all school students have access to a broad curriculum, particularly in areas of national priority such as maths, science and languages?
  2.  Employing more teachers creates capacity for teachers to improve their practice.
    The working conditions of teachers in schools are governed by industrial agreements. Time is allowed for face to face duties (around 20 hours in Victorian schools), preparation and correction along with other duties. The structure of schools and school timetables means that teachers have some capacity to work closely with colleagues in planning and reviewing their teaching but this is widely regarded as inadequate. My guess is that the additional teachers in non government schools create the capacity to reduce face to face teaching slightly and allow principals to mandate collaborative practice such as working together to design lessons, observing one another’s teaching, reflecting on it afterwards, moderating the assessment of student work (cross marking) and developing models of mutual accountability. There is plenty of evidence that this makes a great difference to the quality of teaching, which is what politicians like to talk about. Don’t hold your breath, by the way, for the next utterance by a political on how to improve teaching practice. Apart from an obsession with the quality of graduates they don’t have much to offer.
  3. Employing more teachers allows class sizes to be reduced.
    THIS IS A GOOD THING. Imagine the difference between teaching a class of 27 and one of 15. Imagine the additional time you’d have to spend time with individual students, offering support and advice specific to their needs. Imagine the benefit students would obtain from more personal and immediate feedback (again, see the wealth of research on what a difference this makes to student learning).
    People are fond of saying that if you reduce class size and there is no change in teacher practice then it’s a waste of money. There’s an element of truth to this, but practical experience says that even a continuation of existing practice with a smaller class  makes a difference to students in the ways described above. Ask any student or any parent if they’d prefer their child to be in a class of 25 or 15. They know, and that’s why the politician’s argument doesn’t hold water.
    The final, and very significant, impact of reducing class size is the improvement in outcomes for the least capable students. In a class of 25 the bottom group of students will not get the same attention or support or be held as accountable for their effort as they will in a much smaller class. Again, our small rural schools illustrate this perfectly. They often produce very even results with a minimal ‘tail’ on overall results because every student is known, given support and carried along by the group. In a larger class size this is more problematic.

I could go on to include parent and community engagement, accountability measures and so on. It’s time our politicians who profess to have an interest in schools stopped prattling on about things they know little about. Do they have budgetary issues? Certainly. But if you want to get improvement in educational outcomes then you have to put all options on the table, starting with what schools know works. If it’s good enough for non government schools to spend their additional funding over the last 15 years to employ more teachers then it’s good enough for public schools.

It’s difficult for the minister to champion increased school autonomy and in the same breath seek to control what schools do with their funds.