The school with 70 kids in the class

By Nicola Shepheard

Pupils in a supersized class in Bure Valley Junior school in Norfolk, England. Photo / Neil Sinclair
Pupils in a supersized class in Bure Valley Junior school in Norfolk, England. Photo / Neil Sinclair

There is a strong case for investing in good teachers, even if it means bigger classes. But, as Nicola Shepheard reports, ministers never paid more than lip service to teaching quality.

Class quiz: How do you get 7 and 8-year-olds achieving at double the expected pace? Answer: Put them in a class of 71.

At least, this has been the experience of one primary school. Three years ago, principal John Starling had cramped classrooms and no money for a rebuild. So he did something both obvious and radical: he opened up the concertina doors between the classrooms and an underused common area to make space for a double class of 71 - his whole Year 3 group. The class kept its two teachers, supported by up to three teaching assistants.

Starling was so pleased with the results he's since used a building grant to redesign the whole school around four supersized classes, one for each year level. Four large, open-plan classrooms branch off a central atrium furnished with circular couches and tables - a shared teaching area known as the "whisper space," from which you can see into all classrooms.

Teachers can also use two covered outdoor spaces.

This year, the classes number 70, 67, 65 and 59, each with two teachers and up to five assistants. The class does split into smaller groups but spends sizable chunks of lessons together.

Soft-spoken, with a headmaster's measured enthusiasm, Starling told the Herald on Sunday the flexibility this gives teachers is invaluable. Students needing catch-up or extension receive it when they need it.Collaborative teaching allows teachers to play to their strengths, bounce ideas off each other, and role-model teamwork. And it's improved everyone's game. "If you're a bit sloppy in your classroom management you can get away with it in a class of 25 in a way you can't with 60."

"The culture of the school has completely changed," says Starling.

His conclusion runs counter to received wisdom: "Larger class sizes with more adults increases collaboration, which increases the learning of teachers and pupils."

Starling's school, Bure Valley Junior, was of course never in danger of losing teachers under Education Minister Hekia Parata's proposed rejig of staffing ratios.

That's because Bure Valley Junior is in Norfolk, England.

The New Zealand Government's proposal was dropped in a spectacular about-turn this week when it became clear that class sizes in the high 30s were unpalatable to voters.

What Bure Valley's example shows is how class-size and student-teacher ratios are two different things (counting teacher assistants, this school's ratio would be the envy of many), and that big classes don't in themselves undermine student achievement.

There is research to show bigger classes with only one teacher don't necessarily undermine student achievement, either.

There's also good evidence that the quality of teaching matters more to a child's learning than anything else at school, which is how the Government tried to justify the "trade-off" with bigger class sizes. But the Government was not walking the talk of raising teacher quality, going by the scanty details it's divulged and changes already made to teachers' upskilling.

A closer look at the arguments for and against the dumped trade-off, goes to the heart of the question plaguing cash-strapped governments around the world: what helps children learn best, and so deserves the biggest investment?

Are bigger class sizes bad news for children?

In support of her doomed trade-off, Parata cited the work of influential educationalist John Hattie. The honorary University of Auckland professor is somewhat of an international superstar in his patch: England's respected Times Educational Supplement dubbed his 2009 book, Visible Learning, "the Holy Grail in education". The book brought together results from 800 meta-analyses - statistical summaries of 50,000 studies involving 83 million students worldwide.

The book has a huge following, but it also has its detractors.

Ministers in this Government and the most recent Labour-led Government have sought Hattie's expert take on various education hot potatoes, but he stresses he had no hand in Treasury's advice to Government on the ratio change, and he's never advocated for making classes bigger.

Still, his conclusions have the power to gobsmack. "Reducing class sizes does increase achievement but not as much as expected," he emails from the University of Melbourne, where he heads up an education research institute.

Why not? Mainly because, Hattie says, most teachers don't adapt their teaching to take advantage of smaller classes.

"I suspect that if we retrained teachers to optimise the advantages of classes of 15 we may have much higher achievement levels, but the cost would be enormous." There's no doubt in his mind, though, that money would be better spent on measures that lift teacher quality overall.

The difference made by excellent teachers cannot be overstated, he argues. "I have been in classes of 50-plus with excellent teachers and in classes of 15 with average teachers and the difference is remarkable."

Hattie may run shy from the politics of class size, but Ben Jensen, who analyses international education trends for Australian think-tank Grattan Institute, has been urging governments for years to divert education money from class ratios into training.

"It's intuitively appealing that less kids in a class makes for better teaching but I think that's been built on a notion that teaching's not the incredibly complex profession it is," he says.

Unlike Hattie, he says bigger classes - in a jump from 25 to, say, 32 - do reduce one-on-one contact, "but you can still be greatly ineffective in a one-on-one context". However, he concedes classes in the high 30s are "getting up there".

If only Hattie's magnum opus was the last word - it would make things so much easier. Education research is notoriously slippery, so the story gets complicated. A group of Massey education experts have laid into Hattie's methods in Visible Learning. They claim he grouped together findings based on unequal measures - not least, different definitions of "small" and "large" class size, and didn't do enough to exclude shoddy studies. Another criticism is that research from some other countries can't be directly applied to New Zealand because of major differences in curriculum and teaching styles.

Hattie's defended himself on all counts. Yes, his method, like all methods, has its limitations, which he notes in the book. But more important than any weaknesses in individual studies, he claims, is the story the studies tell when taken together.

Another criticism of class size research in general is that much of the international research has focused on academic outcomes, ignoring other potential advantages of small classes that are harder to measure.

Advantages, that is, like the ones English researcher Peter Blatchford and his team found when they observed nearly 700 students in 49 English schools. Among their findings, published last year, were that primary and secondary-aged children in smaller classes had more active individual interactions with teachers, while engagement decreased as class sizes went up, especially for struggling high school students.

The only New Zealand class-size study was, ironically, commissioned by the Treasury in 2001. Researchers Michael Boozer and Tim Maloney crunched data from a major Christchurch longitudinal study. They found that children who happened to get smaller class sizes throughout their school lives tended to get progressively higher test scores, were more likely to complete school and less likely to be unemployed as young adults.

Massey education professor John O'Neill argues what the research shows is that bigger classes make it harder for teachers to engage in the kind of teaching that Hattie and others say most help learning.

If the experts can't agree, what's a parent to think? It seems reasonable that if there's a chance that putting certain children in bigger classes could hurt their learning that it's not a risk worth taking.

"If you wanted to improve the quality of learning you'd improve the quality of teaching first and then you'd increase class sizes, rather than expecting teachers to change their practices in more challenging environments," says O'Neill.

The Government has been vague about how exactly it would have spent $60 million of its $174m savings from the scrapped ratio rejigging to improve teacher quality. It's so far only mentioned introducing a one-year postgraduate teacher qualification and a qualification for principals.

What's been shown to improve teaching, says O'Neill, is "not the itty-bitty things the Government is obsessed with; it's actually a much more holistic attitude which says we're going to increase the status of the profession, we're going to educate rigorously in the first place and resource that, and create a school system that's resourced properly."

O'Neill and education groups point to other education policies that militate against improving teaching quality, arguing that National Standards compel teachers to teach-to-the-test rather than responding to each student's learning needs.

They also accuse the Government of eroding professional development over the past three years by outsourcing teacher upskilling courses to private contractors and canning programmes that were working. Post Primary Teachers Association president Robin Duff says the privately-run courses are often too expensive for schools.

You hear a lot about how teaching have changed since most parents were at school. I visit Kowhai Intermediate in Kingsland, Auckland, to see for myself. Watching Gill Robertson teach her composite Year 7 and 8 class, the thing that strikes me is how labour-intensive her style is. Every question she gets she turns back on the asker; most of the time the student has at least an inkling of the answer, or other children chime in and she steers them towards the answer. She gives specific feedback, adjusted to each student's ability, all the while reining in distracted students.

Even though although there's only 29 children, there's a massive spread of ability - the ones at the lower end are six years behind the ones at top.

The outcry against class sizes, she says, wasn't "teachers whinging about the amount of work they'd have to do; it's about teachers not being able to give as much as they'd want to give to each student". The curriculum calls for personalising teaching to each student's needs, ability, interests and background - what she tries to do.

"I teach the whole child, not just reading and writing and maths, but how to function in society they're in, to be articulate, enquiry-focused, pushing themselves. You teach because you're passionate about children, not just reading and writing."

- Herald on Sunday

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