Blanket class size policy fails to address inequality

Labour has been busy announcing a series of election promises for education: helping parents provide digital devices for every child, covering school donations, and the latest – reducing class sizes. 

The first two attempt to address issues of inequality of opportunity for school students; wealthier families are more able to provide their children with modern learning tools, and school donations represent much less of a burden on the household budget than for less affluent parents. 

But this is all tinkering at the margins. The biggest and most important resource in education is not school donations or digital devices. It is teachers. And while Labour’s policy to reduce class sizes, at face value, addresses this most important resource, the class size debate is a nuanced one.   

There are two important caveats with Labour’s policy. The first is that a blanket class size policy to increase the quantity of teachers may not be the most effective tool in the policymaker’s toolbox. The second is that it does nothing to address something dear to the heart of Labour – inequality.   

Quantity versus quality 

National’s $359 million Investing in Educational Success (IES) policy announced at the beginning of this year is a deliberate attempt to improve the quality of teaching. The IES is a game changer, designed to provide clear career structure for teachers. The idea is that exemplary teachers share their skills with others to lift the game for all. 

Labour’s class size policy is in blatant opposition to that. It wants to scrap the IES and reduce class sizes by injecting an extra 2000 teachers into schools. If elected, Labour would gradually reduce class sizes for year 4-8 students from 29 to 26, and reduce secondary school class sizes to a maximum of 23.  

It appears National wants to improve the quality of teaching and Labour wants to increase the quantity of teachers; both believe their policy will improve the quality of schooling. 

But what does the evidence on class sizes say? Primary teachers’ union (New Zealand Educational Institute) head Judith Nowotarski quotes research to show smaller class sizes have benefits for learning and life success “beyond the school gate.” Other research though shows that on balance, for the same level of resource, more could be achieved by lifting quality, assuming of course the IES policy is effective.

Blanket policy too blunt  

While lifting the quality of teaching might be more effective on balance than reducing class sizes, that’s not to say that class size doesn’t matter. The impact of class sizes depends on a number of factors, like the stage of schooling, the subject being taught and the background of students.  

Stage of schooling is already taken into account under the current policy. The number of teachers the government provides to schools depends on how many students are enrolled at each level. It provides, for example, one teacher for every 15 year one students, one for every 29 year 4-8 students (this is where Labour is targeting its policy) and one for every 17 year 13 students. 

One would assume the different levels of educational resource allocated for different stages of schooling was based on evidence of smaller class sizes being more effective for younger and older students. 

Perhaps Labour’s policy to reduce class sizes for the middle years of schooling is an attempt to even out the amount of educational resource children receive throughout schooling – a blanket approach. 

But arguably there is a much bigger issue for Labour than stage of schooling. As Ms Nowotarski says, smaller class sizes are “particularly important for vulnerable children, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those who start school behind their peers.” And Associate Professor John O’Neill of Massey University’s Institute of Education says the class size policy could be more effective if it targeted lower decile schools. 

Both hit the nail on the head.

While there is a lot of lip service paid to the decile system, where lower decile schools receive targeted funding, let’s not forget this is only for a school’s operational fund. To put the figures into context, the total operational spend last year was $1.23 billion and 13% of this is decile-based. Funding for teachers, which racked up to $3.44 billion last year, is not at all decile targetted. 

In other words, while funding is targeted to even out the disadvantages that children from poorer backgrounds start off with, it doesn’t specifically provide more of the most important educational resource: teachers.  

Teacher numbers

Perhaps the question of whether class sizes matter for children of different socio-economic backgrounds is evident in how schools actually use their resources in practice. 

The New Zealand Initiative will release a research note on this very issue next month. And one of the surprising findings is that although schools are entitled to the same number of teachers regardless of decile, somehow, lower decile schools employ more teachers. 

And it’s a stark difference: decile one schools employ one teacher for every 20.6 students, while decile 10 schools employ one per 30.1 students on average. 

As schools can use their operational fund to employ extra teachers over and above what they are entitled to under the formula that Labour is proposing to tweak, it seems lower decile schools are using their discretionary funding to employ more teachers. 

In other words, in the absence of targeted funding to provide smaller class sizes to lower decile schools, schools figure out a way to do it anyway. They recognise the importance of smaller class sizes for their students. But this is not recognised when resources are divvied out from Wellington.  

Despite all this, reducing class sizes without improving the quality of teaching is unlikely to lift student learning. Lower decile schools are employing more teachers for their students. But another question still is whether they have the ability to attract highly effective teachers.    

The blanket class size policy is an easy vote winner but it’s a blunt tool.

Rose Patterson is a researcher at the New Zealand Initiative

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