The Labour Party has it on good authority that school class sizes are a subject that can move votes. John Key's rapid reversal of a 2012 Budget decision to increase intermediate class sizes was the judgment of a Prime Minister who had not been unnerved by opposition to asset sales, spy legislation, anti-smacking law and much else. Labour has taken the cue, announcing at its annual congress at the weekend that a Labour-led Government would train 2000 more teachers to reduce all classes by two pupils.
The money would come from the $359 million earmarked for the Government's plan to improve the quality of teaching, which Labour says it would scrap. The stage is set for an election debate between quantity and quality. National will say the plan it announced six months ago to cross-fertilise schools with designated executive principals and lead teachers offers much more educational value than another reduction in class sizes.
Labour will say it is more important to reduce the average class from 28 to 26 in primary schools and 25 to 23 in secondary classrooms.
Every parent believes the smaller the class, the more of the teacher's attention their child will receive. It is a powerful political offer, but obviously governments have to draw a line somewhere for the sake of taxpayers.
The ideal ratio from every parent's point of view might be one-to-one. Long before that point, surely, parents would realise there is value in learning as a class. There will be a minimum number below which pupils lack sufficient company for the stimulation and skills of working together. Experts may be able to agree on an optimum class size, but if so the figure is lost in the constant calls for reductions.
Oddly, teacher unions continue to press for lower ratios as the fashion in education becomes team teaching of larger classes. Innovative schools are knocking out walls, doing away with individual desks and letting pupils move around as they wish, to learn with whom they wish, at the pace they prefer, while a number of teachers hover to help.
That probably sounds much worse to most parents than an organised class of 25-28 with one teacher responsible for it. But Education Minister Hekia Parata appears to have endorsed team teaching with enthusiasm. It provides an answer to the practical problem posed by the Government's lead teacher proposal.
The scheme would involve taking a good teacher out of a school for two days a week and having him or her work in other schools nearby.
The plan is still under discussion with the unions and other interests. So far, secondary teachers are more amenable than primary teachers. Secondary classes are accustomed to different teachers in the course of a day. But primary schools are the trial ground for team teaching, which ought to make them more open to the Government's proposal.
While Labour wants to divert the money to the training of more teachers, it is having a bob each way. Its policy includes raising the entry standard for training and setting up a system for selected teachers and principals to help other schools. Education spokesman Chris Hipkins said it wants to provide teachers with an additional career path, as though this is as important as bringing better teaching to more pupils.
Labour subscribes to the unions' dogma that every trained teacher is as good as the next and all that pupils need is more of them so that classes can be smaller. National says that is not so. A child's progress depends much more on the quality of teacher than the number in the class. That may be so but Labour has the simpler line to sell.