Class Size

I don’t know that we’ve ever had more journalists offering a view on school funding than we have since the Gonski 2.0 deal was done. You can get an argument as to whether the deal is needs based or sector blind. But I notice another thread to the commentary (an example here from Peter Hartcher just today) that government has been wasting money on reducing class sizes. I don’t deny that the federal government has been wasting money on schools (non government schools in the name of choice to be precise) but where’s the evidence that it’s been wasted on the ‘red herring’ of reducing class size?

I can only speak from the perspective of a Victorian secondary school. But I’ve been a teacher and principal in the public system for more than 35 years and I have some idea of what happens on the ground. Firstly, government never collects data of class sizes in secondary schools. It might have something of a general nature, like the number of students and the number of teachers in schools. I suspect the argument that we’ve been reducing class size involves dividing the former by the latter. But it’s not that simple. From my experience the increased education funding of the last 15 years has not been spent on a reduction in class sizes except in some specific areas. And those areas are not related to the middle years literacy, numeracy and science based outcomes that seem to be the basis of concerns about educational performance in schools as measured by international tests.

What are schools spending the money on?

  1. A significant increase in middle management to deal with the increased compliance and accountability burden resulting from school autonomy.
  2. More wellbeing and pastoral staff to deal with the expectation from government, society and families that schools can or should ‘fix’ issues. The list is extensive but you could start with parents outsourcing parenting to schools and add everything from driver education to cyber safety to education about alcohol, drugs and all of society’s other woes.
  3. More teachers in the senior years of schooling. I’ve not seen a reduction in class sizes from Year 7-10 (it’s been stuck around 25 for the last 20 years) but at Year 11 and 12 level the average class size has shrunk. This is because of the expansion of the senior school curriculum and the desire of schools to offer a broad range of subjects to attract and retain students. Schools will run small classes in subjects where it makes no financial sense to do so (languages, high level maths and sciences, technology, music etc) because if they don’t offer those subjects students will head off to the nearest school that does. Schools also prioritise funding at these years levels because it’s the results of senior school students that they use to advertise and attract students. In Victoria, and I suspect elsewhere, we also have additional funding loadings for small schools (mostly but not all rural). I was the head of a small rural school for 5 years and average class size was less than 10 students; some classes ‘ran’ on 2 or 3 students because we could afford to but other schools in our region had smaller average class sizes than we did. It’s important those rural students have access to a broad curriculum but I wonder sometimes about the balance.

Face to face teaching time has also changed little in schools. I’d argue that if you wanted to have an impact on learning you’d put more teachers in schools to reduce contact time and insist on more planning, collaboration and moderation. Check out the face to face contact time of teachers in some of the high performing education systems in the world. But that’s an argument for another time.

I think it’s a bit rich to be blaming the Australian Education Union of focusing on reducing class sizes. I’m an AEU member and I think it’s pretty clear that at each point a new industrial agreement has been negotiated in recent time they’ve focused more on salaries than conditions. Class size hasn’t shifted. The current EBA about to be ratified in Victoria does, admittedly, have more of a conditions focus but it certainly won’t reduce class sizes.

I can’t say what non government schools have spent their additional funding on. But since by far the largest increases in funding have gone to those schools it might pay to look at what the evidence says there. If they have reduced class sizes you can bet it’s not because of the AEU.

Finally, it’s worth acknowledging that smaller class sizes generally don’t make a difference unless the teaching changes. But also note that smaller class sizes are clearly beneficial for two groups of students: those with high needs (students from low SES or refugee backgrounds or those with learning difficulties) and at VCE level where smaller class sizes result in a smaller ‘tail’ on class results because of more 1:1 attention.