Parata's 'small change' becomes big disaster

It was, we were told, a "small change" to the teacher-pupil ratios that fund schools. Even as it was announced, however, it was obvious there was nothing "small" about it.

A week before the Budget, Education Minister Hekia Parata rose from a pastry-and-fruit-juice-laden table at Wellington's Duxton Hotel to tell a breakfast audience of business men and women that she was putting words into action.

"We are opting for quality not quantity, better teaching not more teachers," she said.

Instead of the existing range of seven different funding ratios, there would, from next year, be only three.

New entrants would remain at 1:15, but every other year level would be changed – some for the better, some for the worse.

She did not say it, but it was immediately obvious this implied hundreds of thousands of pupils would be taught in bigger classes.

There was no way to be sure exactly how many, because New Zealand schools are autonomous about how they spread the resources they get from the government.

But there was no doubt those resources would be squeezed, narrowing the options for many schools. Ms Parata eventually disclosed estimates that showed 1010 schools would face cuts of varying degrees – in a few cases, funding for seven or eight teachers would vanish.

Yet even after abandoning the policy, both Prime Minister John Key and Ms Parata continued to insist their plan amounted to little more than a "modest" adjustment.

They still say tradeoffs are necessary if more resource is to be pumped into lifting teacher quality.

But experts – and even one of the Government's own top education bureaucrats – question the logic and wisdom of a "tradeoff".

In the first place, the amount proposed to be cut, $174million, was nearly three times as great as the amount proposed to be spent, $60m. And whereas the colour of the cuts was vivid in larger class sizes and possible technology centre closures, details of the spend were thin.

There was little more than vague promises to retain, grow and attract the "best talent" into the teaching profession.

All teachers will soon have to achieve a post-graduate qualification before joining the profession. A new teacher appraisal system will also be developed to better identify and reward "quality" – performance pay is likely. Ms Parata has also mentioned "stronger mentoring and coaching" for newly qualified teachers.

But even with the now-scrapped $60m extra spending, none of the measures on the upside of the "tradeoff" would have any impact until some years down the track, well after the downside from the cuts has been absorbed.

A FRUSTRATED Teachers Council director, Peter Lind, dished up a sweeping critique of the Government's plan a day before the reversal was announced.

Dr Lind suggested a whole range of consequences had not been explored.

Though teacher numbers have grown by nearly 13 per cent against roll growth of only 2.5 per cent over the past decade, the proposed effective cap on the teacher workforce was not straightforward, particularly when the new post-graduate requirement was introduced.

"If I was a student now and looking at my particular options, if there wasn't going to be an option for me to be employed in the next three, four or five years, I'd seriously think whether that's a good option for me to take," Dr Lind said.

A lot of money ploughed in to boosting teacher-training quality might be wasted if there was a dearth of jobs for graduates.

Dr Lind suggested that the Government had become fixated on certain aspects of "teacher quality" and wrongly assumed class sizes could be considered separate from quality teaching.

"One of the things about quality teaching is the ability to provide detailed feedback from assessment to students and learners. To be able to do that, you need to be able to provide teachers the opportunity to interact with their students in an effective way."

A chorus of experts, on top of the teacher unions, on top of parents, seemed to recognise the significance of class size in quality, where the Government did not. Small class sizes support quality teaching and quality teaching becomes more difficult in larger classes.

But could large-enough gains in teacher quality out-do any detrimental effects from larger class sizes?

Victoria University's dean of education, Professor Dugald Scott, thinks there are "huge gains" to be made from improving teacher quality.

Years of driving down class sizes appears to have done little to improve achievement, so perhaps it is worth considering a shift in priorities, he suggests.

"Probably adding two or three kids probably won't make much difference, but adding 10 would," Prof Scott says.

The gap between the top and bottom pupils within Kiwi schools is the widest in the developed world. Little more than half of all Maori and Pasifika pupils are achieving NCEA level 2.

"We have to look and say there are some teaching practices that seem to work better than others. We need to identify those and the circumstances in which they exist."

Unions have challenged the view, however, that the education system is not responding to the challenge of improving its performance.

The overall pass rate for NCEA level 2 has climbed from 56.5 per cent in 2004 up to 65.7 per cent in 2010. And though only about 53 per cent of Maori and Pasifika pupils passed NCEA level 2 in 2010, that was a vastly better result than in 2004, when only one-third passed.

Dr Lind worried that the reforms announced by Ms Parata put the gains at risk.

"I don't think we can say that we're anywhere near where we want to be, but by the same token to get those extra gains does need a commitment in resourcing."

The Dominion Post