Cuts only half the story - educators

MICHAEL FORBES AND OLIVIA WANNAN
Last updated 05:00 07/07/2014

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Labour's proposal to reduce class sizes at schools has failed to win a universal gold star, with experts saying the small cuts without improving teaching would do little to raise the bar of student achievement.

Professor John O'Neill, of Massey University's Institute of Education, said the Labour Party's proposal to cut school class sizes if elected in September would not achieve much without changes to teaching itself.

At the Labour election-year congress yesterday, leader David Cunliffe announced the party would fund an extra 2000 teachers, which would see primary and secondary school classes shrink by an average of three students by 2018.

But O'Neill said recent research suggested making classes slightly larger or smaller did not greatly alter the achievement levels for average students. It was only for children "on the margins" that the class size could make a big difference to. O'Neill said Labour's policy would be more effective if it targeted lower decile schools.

"If you're going to be putting money into the system then I would argue that you should be weighting it towards the children that need it most."

Labour said it would fund the extra teachers by scrapping National's $359 million executive principals and expert teachers policy, in which higher-performing teachers and principals are paid more.

O'Neill said it could be argued that Labour's approach would see the $359m spent on children rather than teachers, which was a pleasing aspect.

But Education Minister Hekia Parata said investing in the quality of teachers was more important than just adding more of them.

Wellington College headmaster Roger Moses said it was easy for Labour to release a policy that sounded attractive in an election year.

But changes to class sizes would require close consultation with schools beforehand to ensure teachers were actually giving students more one-on-one time.

"It's a more complex issue than simply making classes smaller," he said. "But I know from experience that if you go from having to mark 30 exams to 20 exams then it frees up a lot more time to spend with students.

"Common sense would suggest there are advantages to smaller class sizes."

New Zealand Educational Institute president Judith Nowotarski said smaller class sizes would make a huge difference to the quality of teaching and learning in our schools. International studies showed the benefits went beyond the school gate, she said.

"Children who benefit from being in smaller class sizes are more likely to have better reading skills, complete their education, and have lower likelihood of unemployment."

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But Miramar mum Lesleigh Norrington said when it came to teachers, quality meant more than quantity.

"Taking 2000 more teachers and chucking them into the pot isn't going to make a difference. It's about the training teachers get."

- The Dominion Post

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