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Class size, Gonski and schools funding: what are the facts?

The Gonski reforms to school funding are front and centre in this election year. But despite their prominence, much of the plan – including who will pay – is yet to be decided. But while we watch what…

Funding schools to reduce class size is not a waste of money. Class image from www.shutterstock.com

The Gonski reforms to school funding are front and centre in this election year. But despite their prominence, much of the plan – including who will pay – is yet to be decided.

But while we watch what happens next, some are still suggesting that funding isn’t the problem in Australian education. They point to the funding spent on reducing class sizes as an example, arguing that this extra funding did not see better academic results.

The Grattan Institute’s Dr Ben Jensen has recently revived this argument. And many politicians and those who want to reduce public school funding seem to agree.

But the evidence, it turns out, tells quite a different story.

Funding foibles

For starters, you only have to look at what your local private school is promoting. If small classes are not important than why are elite schools putting up billboards like this one?

Small classes are a feature for elite private schools. Author

And despite claims to the contrary, the facts according to the OECD are that public education funding in Australia as a percentage of total government expenditure has actually decreased in the last 10 years from 4.9% to 4.4% (except for 2008 during the Building the Education Revolution program).

Compare this to world leader Finland’s expenditure of 6.1% in 2001 rising to over 7% in 2012.

Australian spending on education as a proportion of GDP is below the OECD average of 6.2 per cent.

Australian government and private expenditure on schools as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product amounted to only 3.1% of GDP in 2012.

Of the 29 OECD countries for which data was available, only seven countries ranked lower than Australia on this measure.

Finally the top level of pay for Australian teachers in both primary and secondary schools ranked 18th out of the 34 countries.

At $US47,445 a year for those with minimum training, it was a long way behind the top employer Luxembourg, which pays teachers of the same level $US128,181.

Despite this, it’s also claimed that much of this expenditure in the last 20 to 30 years has been “wasted” on efforts to reduce class sizes.

Most of this line of thinking relies heavily on Dr Jensen’s report on Australian education and teacher quality. In that, Jensen suggests that the majority of studies around the world have shown that class size reductions do not significantly improve student outcomes and that the funds should have been redirected to enhancing teacher quality.

Jensen bases his conclusions largely on controversial reports by conservative economist Professor Hanushek which have been largely discredited by acclaimed academic Professor David Berliner, past president of the American Education Research Association.

Berliner along with many other educators point out that these studies do not examine class size directly but rather a proxy measure presumed to represent it – student-teacher ratio.

In fact, we do not know what class sizes are in our schools (beyond a mandated maximum).

All that we know is an artificial pupil teacher ratio which simply divides all Equivalent Full Time (EFT) teaching staff (including non teaching principals, Assistant Principals, welfare officers, psychologists, special educators, librarians, ESL specialists etc.) into the total number of students.

Mixed up evidence

While group size and ratio are related, they involve different assumptions about how investment changes opportunities for students and teachers.

Class size directs attention to the learning environment while pupil ratio is typically an economic category illustrating the amount of money spent.

As Professor John Hattie explains, the problem is that teachers in smaller classes are adopting the same teaching methods as in their previously larger classes.

Small classes or shared teaching spaces require a move from transmission education through to viewing students as co-learners and even teachers. This is a major re-conceptualisation of what it means to be an excellent teacher – from control to trust and participation, as Hattie explains.

Many of the more powerful influences Hattie identifies clearly show that teachers would be even more effective in smaller classrooms.

Reality check

Although the results of individual studies are always questionable, a range of studies have now appeared on the effects of small classes.

These studies are peer reviewed (unlike Jensen’s work) and have made some key findings:

  • the extra gains found for long-term attendance in small classes (in the early grades) continued to appear when students were returned to standard classes in the upper grades;

  • extra gains associated with long-term attendance in small classes (in the early grades) appeared not only for tests of measured achievement but also for other measures of success in education;

  • the initial results indicate that the greater gains experienced by students from groups that are traditionally disadvantaged were retained when those students were returned to standard classes;

  • when it is planned thoughtfully and funded adequately, long-term exposure to small classes in the early grades generates substantial advantages for students in schools, and those extra gains are greater the longer students are exposed to those classes;

  • extra gains from small classes in the early grades are larger when class size is reduced to less than 20 students;

  • evidence for the possible advantages of small classes in the upper grades and high school is so far inconclusive.

  • It appears that very large class-size reductions, on the order of magnitude of 7-10 fewer students per class, can have meaningful long-term effects on student achievement and perhaps on non-cognitive outcomes. The academic effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds. They may also be largest in classrooms of teachers who are less well prepared and effective in the classroom.

It is also evident that for certain groups of Indigenous children, children from low SES, cultural and linguistic disenfranchised communities, the early years and children with learning and behavioural difficulties – smaller class sizes and increased teacher pupil ratios is very beneficial – both for student learning outcomes, behavioural modification and teacher satisfaction.

To suggest then that investment in smaller class sizes is not necessary for schools indicates a need for a serious reality check – or at least a few weeks in one of these schools as a teacher.

Join the conversation

66 Comments sorted by

  1. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Class size simply must be important. One on one is clearly better than a class of 50.
    The debate may be whether classes of 20 which cost, say, 35% more than classes of 30, deliver 35% better results.
    The debate now seems to be between having better teachers, better trained and mentored or smaller classes? If both together aren't affordable then the question is which gives better value.

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  2. John Perry

    Teacher

    30 in a class is better than 40, and 20 is better than 30. But I don't think 10 is necessarily better than 20. It would be good to discover the "magic number" so that there is something to aim for. What's more, that would enable us to have a target for funding - quite likely it won't cost anywhere near as much as people tend to think.

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    1. Director Edupunk

      Education Analyst

      In reply to John Perry

      John

      I agree with you that 30 is better than 40 but 10 may not be better than 20.

      I don’t think there is, or could be, a magic number. There are too many variables – subject, content, pedagogy, student group, social culture, school culture, etc – will all interact to contribute to an ‘optimal size’ for a class, and of course will differ in differing circumstances. All of which will make tying class size to funding virtually impossible; it will always become a race for ever smaller class sizes.

      This raises the question whether pursuing ever smaller class sizes is sustainable, educationally, professionally or financially.

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    2. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Director Edupunk

      I think that David has done a good job in addressing that question, Director (see article).

      And I do believe there is a magic number, even if it's not always the same number in every setting. There are ways of calculating it, using the variables that you have mentioned. And even if it's not right every time, it'll be pretty close. As I said, I do believe there is a minimum beyond which there is no extra benefit, and which may even be detrimental.

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  3. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Quite apart from individual factors like class size, we need to think critically about what the aims of our educations system are. This means going beyond league tables of expenditure.

    It's become popular to compare ourselves against Finland, because Finland has come up higher in league tables of expenditure. Does that mean they have an overall "better" societal outcome, even if we knew what that meant?

    Finland is a tiny country (total popn between 5 and 6 million). Their life expectancy is slightly lower than ours, their unemployment rate is higher and their suicide rate is higher (OECD figures).

    It's a bit like health expenditure - we spend less of GDP on health than the US - but what of our outcomes? Our access is vastly better. Policy-making in education should also be focused on broad societal outcomes, not just total expenditure, and not just league tables.

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Indeed Sue. But the comparison between Australia and Finland is much more inappropriate. Anybody who wants to compare Finland and Australia will first of all have to boot out all Australia's migrants, Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Aborigines. All these groups account for less than TWO percent of Finland. Finland is one of the world's most monocultural nations. Finland is more like Japan, than Australia. There is absolutely no religious, or even ethnic diversity in Finland, a country with the…

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    2. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      The arguments that people use to dismiss the Finnish example are, by and large, cop outs. No two countries are exactly the same. I argue that it would be more sensible to compare Victoria (where I teach) to Finland than Victoria to the Northern Territory, if we're going to go down that path of reasoning: is suburban Melbourne the same as Alice Springs?

      Finland's path to its present educational situation came about through tough decisions and self-reflection, not through drifting on cultural ebbs…

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    3. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Perry

      John, if you compare Finland with Victoria, then the 'outcome' differences virtually disappear. OTOH, on every diversity indicator imaginable, Finland is more monocultural than Japan and Nazi Germany.

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    4. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Perry

      John, the biggest differences between Finland and Australia (let alone Victoria) - apart from the obvious diversity issues - are related to teacher quality and curriculum. For Australia to have the same teacher quality as Finland would require an ATAR of 93.0 to enter teaching or an undergraduate Distinction average.

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    5. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Kim, I am sorry but your understanding of Finnish and Japanese multicultural diversity is way off the mark. To an outside like you and me they may all look and sound the same. But if you live in Finland it is quite a different matter.

      I was invited to work n Finland last year and so have witnessed this first hand.

      Finland is very diverse, linguistically their dialects are often incomprehensible to others from a short distance away. And there is a very large population of ethnic Swedes living in the east of Finland as I recall

      Also Finland takes in many more refugees than Australia not as a per cent but in gross numbers!

      My references to Finland are only about expenditure per capita on education which invalidates the claims,of our politicians and Jensen n whom they rely for their biased research ( on class sizes, teacher quality, expenditure and Asian education systems)

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    6. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      "Finland is very diverse."
      No. It is not. It simply is not. David, after all that, nowhere have you shown any evidence that my picture of the huge differences between Finland and Australia, when it comes to ethnic/religious/racial/cultural diversity, let alone your insupportable claims about "Finnish and Japanese multicultural diversity". ROFL. Please address the data. While I am happy for you that you got a 5 day junket to Finland last year, please do not bracket my own experiences travelling, working, and living in other countries with yours.

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    7. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      David, please show how you get "multicultural diversity" out of the facts. There is absolutely no religious, or even ethnic diversity in Finland, a country with the size and population of Victoria. Finland is more like Japan, than Australia. Religiously, less than 3% of Finns fall outside the State Protestant religion. Half of those are Finnish Orthodox, leaving about 1% of the population made up of all the rest. Basically, none whatsoever, or only a handful of Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, and so on. No equivalent of our Aborigines (except for about 2,000 Sami/Lapps). Less than 5% of the Finnish population speak any other language apart from Finnish. In other words, Finland is just so different from Australia, to make any comparisons between school systems useful.

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    8. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Kim your tone is offensive! What do you imply by 5 day junket? Did I write how long I was there? Or where in Finland?

      Moreover I find your previous reference to Nazi Germany as being beyond the pale. Given that the Nazis wer all about racial purity they did their very best to creat a mono cultural society through ethnic cleansing. Germany was and is highly diverse even more so today than any other time.

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    9. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      "Also Finland takes in many more refugees than Australia not as a per cent but in gross numbers!"
      David, in fact, in 2010, Finland took a whole 543 refugees, while Australia took more than TEN times that - 5634.

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    10. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Officlal data from Finland:

      Finland numbers some 5.4 million and has an average population density of 17 inhabitants per square kilometre. This makes it the third most sparsely populated country in Europe, after Iceland and Norway. Population distribution is very uneven: the population is concentrated on the small southwestern coastal plain. About 64% live in towns and cities, with one million living in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area alone. In Arctic Lapland, on the other hand, there are only…

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    11. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      David, I am more than aware of world geography, including Finland's demography. I am the one who has been trying to point out these basic facts to you.

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    12. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Kim read the fine print. These figures only refer to refugees settled by UNHCR.

      In Finland like the rest of Europe with open borders and no sea to deter asylum seekers, they come by bus, train, car or just walk across the order. So it is a case of lies damn lies and statistics!

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    13. Lydia Isokangas

      Australian in Finland

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Hi Kim,

      John is right and it is very useful to make comparisons between Finland and Australia in terms of education provision, despite Finland having a more homogenous society than Australia. In school education the biggest cultural difference I have noticed is that the Finns pay particular attention to equity in education which they believe leads to a democratic society. They don't see that its possible to have a successful democratic society without everyone having access to equally good education…

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    14. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Lydia Isokangas

      Lydia, "paying attention to equity" is much easier when there is no diversity to start with. Give the Finns Australia's diversity, and see how they travel.

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    15. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      David, you haven't shown any evidence for anyone to read, let alone the fine print. You said, "also Finland takes in many more refugees than Australia not as a per cent but in gross numbers!" If you have data that refutes mine to support your claim, please post it. Oh, and Finland's official upper quota for annual refugee intake is 750.

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    16. Lydia Isokangas

      Australian in Finland

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Kim, they travel extremely well.

      Migrants like to settle next to other migrants so you have many schools in Finland where the many of students are non-Finnish speaking migrants. My children go to one such school where 20% of the pupils are non-Finns. Some schools in Helsinki have even higher proportions of non-Finns attending where many of those non-Finns happen to be traumatised refugees. We are all treated equitably well, thank-you very much!

      David, you are correct that Finland is very diverse with local dialects that are unintelligible to other Finns. Many times I have heard Finns describing themselves as first coming from a particular region and then from Finland.

      On the topic of smaller class sizes, is there any research on children attending smaller classes on a part-time basis? And I don't mean the old segregatory classes for those with problems, but mandated smaller class sessions for all pupils once or twice a week.

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    17. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Kim, I don't want to be distracted by your peripheral discussions here. Can we keep on topic about class sizes and school funding?

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    18. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Lydia Isokangas

      What a novel idea: 'everyone having access to equally good education.' Not the Neo-Liberal idea, in their scheme of things, you gets what you pay for.

      This is a very good article and, as an occasional teacher of small classes of adults, I am particularly attracted to the idea of 'viewing students as co-learners and even teachers.'

      I run my classes as symposiums, with as much contribution from students as possible. I find ths enriches the learning experience and certainly is more appreciated than having an authority figure standing out the front droning on and on.

      My question to real teachers is - does this work across all ages? Does it works with young children? Are there better outcomes in a class where both teacher and students participate fully? Because surely such a pedagogical method lends itself to classes no larger on size than 20

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    19. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      David, you are the one who made comparisons with Finland the issue, not me. If you do not wish conversation readers to discuss some topic, then you should not introduce that topic, yourself, in your article. But you are not alone on this point. These comparisons need to be fully critiqued, so they are no longer used, or if they are, they are used critically.

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    20. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      You may be interested to know that a lot of the positive changes to the Finnish system came about because of the insistence of their teachers' union. A pity that we don't have an EFFECTIVE union like that here (i.e. one that drags out the negotiations for two years and ends up with an agreement that will very likely be little more than what Baillieu was offering in the first place - *cough cough*).

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    21. Lydia Isokangas

      Australian in Finland

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Dear Sue,

      My apologies for not addressing your question earlier-it certainly is a valid one. I can only partially address your question as I believe its a very complex issue. Personally, I don't think that Finland's education contributes to the lower life expectancy as I don't see how that is possible. After all, better education is linked to better health and societal outcomes in most cases.

      Firstly, both Australia and Finland have a reasonably good public health care system so we can rule…

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  4. Sally Boteler

    customer service officer at health & leisure

    Thankyou for an interesting and informative article.
    I would have stayed in teaching had class sizes been smaller.
    It is certainly something that would have benefited 2 of my 3 children considerably.
    My other child was simply born with self-motivation and the desire to succeed and the natural suitability to do so in the existing system.
    That was just her luck. Luck shouldn't have much, if anything to do with a child's ability to progress in education.

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  5. Gary Myers

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Midway through the last school year, the principal decided, to rearrange the classes to reduce class size.

    There's some complex formula in NSW that determines how many teachers a school can have. This calculation isn't done until several weeks into the first term so schools have to muddle through the first weeks without actually knowing how many teachers they'll have. In the end, enough students joined for the extra teacher. Initially the principal decided not to add an extra class, but then changed their mind later in the school year.

    My son was switched from a year 4/5 composite to a year 3/4 composite. In my opinion, the disruption was far worse than the larger class sizes.

    With control of both their intake and budgets, this is something that non-government schools do not have to accommodate.

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  6. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    At a number of schools I have seen a stream of teachers driving out the school gate earlier than the students can get on the school bus.

    It would be at the stages where students are doing many times more work than the teachers, but are paid nothing.

    The class size issue is a joke. The are high schools that offer over 40 subjects for year 11 and 12 students, and a class can be only 4 or 5 students, but still the students perform badly.

    There are some high schools where the student may only attend school 3 days out of 5 because they are given assignments which the student can complete at home. For 2 days out of 5 the students have no teacher at all.

    Then there is university education, where a lecturer can give a lecture to 300 or more students.

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    1. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale sorry this is just so much errant nonsense in your post that I don't know where to start. First of all we really don't rely on such anecdotal evidenceminmeducation research.

      "There would be ...." is not evidence but supposition. If you can supply evidence of this it might be more convincing.

      Please re read my article. I do not suggest blanket reduction of class sizes. The peer reviewed research suggests 2'things as I state:

      Certain groups will benefit from reduced class sizes (the corollary is that other groups could have larger classes)
      Teachers must change their pedagogy to both meet the needs of these students and the smaller class sizes. Continuing to teach didactically from the front in lecture is not going to change much at all.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      Nothing I have written is inaccurate, and all occurs in various schools in Australia.

      The teachers have been getting more money, student free days, reduced class sizes, teacher aids etc, and still student performance has not improved for some decades.

      The Finnish education system is often touted as a system to be followed in Australia.

      The average Finnish class size is about OECD average, the average teachers working hours are about OECD average, the money spent on education is about OECD average, and the teacher’s pay below OECD average.

      The difference is in the methods used to teach the students.

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    3. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Sorry Dale, reiteration of anecdotal claims does not count as evidence.

      Check the figures on education spending in my article which come from the OECD.

      Also do I need to remind readers that ALL Finnish government spending on schools goes to public schools. There are no private schools that charge fees that receive government funding.

      I have sat in Finnish classes in both primary and secondary schools observing pedagogy, some was good some was not so good. Read my previous article in the Conversation and in The Age http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/heres-a-lesson-for-australias-education-policymakers-failure-begets-failure-20110714-1hfwf.htm on why Finland is doing better than Australia.

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    4. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      "Also do I need to remind readers that ALL Finnish government spending on schools goes to public schools. There are no private schools that charge fees that receive government funding."
      There are also no Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, Aborigines, Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Hindus, Malaysians, Indonesians, Pakistanis... But one advantage the Finnish system would have in coping with this diversity is that much of Finish curriculum content…

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    5. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      I don't think the AEU would mind if principals ACROSS THE BOARD were decent managers and administrators. Unfortunately that's not the case ... but I think you'll find that a lot of the good educators steer clear of the job because it's a mug's game.

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    6. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Perry

      John, well not literally NONE. But for the purposes of this discussion, they might as well be non-existent.

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    7. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Perry

      John, I could have listed all those groups and in brackets (0.03%) and so on, but it would just read ridiculously.

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    8. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Perry

      John, you are probably right there. Except it's probably a bit unfair to be harsh on public school principals on that point, as they never envisaged they would have to take on more decision-making about resource allocation, staff hiring and firing, curriculum development, and so on. But I doubt the AEU would ever be supportive of Finland type arrangements, as it goes against their industrial-era thinking. Big, heavy powerful trade union, separate from its members, does battle with other big industrial-era forces and powers, such as governments, bureaucracies, and so on. If those big industrial-era powers were devolved to thousands of individual principals, the AEU's power model would be stuffed.

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    9. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Isn't the biggest difference between Finland and Australia the fact that the entire population of Finland isn;t much more than Sydney?

      And, as I asked above, what are the benefits of the Finish education system on overall societal indicators?

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    10. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue, I lay it out in a post above. Finland is basically the geographic size of Victoria, with about the same population. Now, if we took just Victoria (or NSW) PISA scores, the performance difference with Finland would shrink substantially - maybe even to insignificance. I've actually read these reports, and when I get home I'll post on how much the gap closes. As for the benefits of Finnish education, it's funny how very few are lining up to migrate there. ;) I worked on and off in Finland for about year (based in London) a while ago, and in my humble opinion, the whole place is a hayseed dump, with the world's most hideous food, and extremely boring people. But hey, that's just me. But I have never, ever met anyone who disagrees with that assessment.

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    11. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to David Zyngier

      I have a suggestion that is guaranteed to improve student marks.

      And that is, a 100% guarantee.

      Teacher’s are paid extra money or receive bonuses, after students improve their marks.

      For some decades there has been the system of pouring more money into education, but no improvement in student marks, and such a system could go on endlessly, pouring more money into education, but no improvement in student marks

      So another system is to pay teachers extra money, after students improve their marks.

      If teachers don’t like it, they could get a job in industry, where the vast majority of companies will only pay their employees bonuses or extra money, after the employee has improved their job performance.

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    12. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Paying teachers by results was started by Victoria in about 1860 and was gradually adopted by the other States but was ended by all States about 30 years later because of its manifest failures. Payment by results has been tried by several jurisdictions several times since, failing every time.

      One problem is that teachers concentrate on the top pupils to maximise their payment, not investing enough effort in the other pupils.

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    13. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I had a manager who would repeatedly tell people that they were being paid to solve problems.

      They were not being paid to ask for more money.

      But if they did solve problems and achieved a target figure, then they could ask for more money.

      The education system is the only system I know of that has no target figures, and does not pay on performance.

      It is quite incredible that most of industry seems to be able to set target figures and pay their workers on performance, except the education system.

      It should also be noted that quite a lot of training and teaching does occur in industry, and is not just limited to the education system. In fact, every person has to be trained by a company to do their job.

      It could be at the point where industry is now better at education than the education system.

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    14. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Education has numerous targets, most obviously NAPLAN published on MySchool for which the Australian Government pays the States for achieving targets.

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    15. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale like so many others who believe they are experts in school education because they went to school for 12 years you betray your ignorance on the matter of performance pay - which by the way has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of this article - service and people oriented professions like nursing, medicine, social work, even prison officers etc - how do you pay for excellence when you are not producing widgets or meeting targets. In school education a child's results in year 12 are the…

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  7. Sally Watson

    Teacher

    The issue of class size has much more of an effect than simply that of how much attention a student gets in class. It has been argued consistently that teacher quality has a greater effect on student outcomes than class size but I would argue that larger class numbers will themselves reduce the capacity of the teacher to deliver a quality program. Take an example of a class of 29 compared to 24, a seemingly small difference of only 5 students. That is 5 extra reports to write, 5 extra parent teacher interviews, 5 extra assignments or books to correct for every lesson, along with 5 extra people to get to know, understand and tailor an individual learning program to. All of this takes time that teachers just don't have and takes away from teachers spending time on developing and delivering engaging and effective lessons.

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Sally Watson

      This confuses class size with work load. A teacher with 10 classes a week with 50 pupils in each would have the same marking load as a teacher with 20 classes a week with 25 pupils in each.

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    2. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Sally Watson

      And let's not forget the significant jump in spending on staff such as welfare officers, psychologists, special educators, librarians, ESL specialists. This is effectively a reduction in teacher work per class. For without all these ancillary staff - who did not exist 30 years ago - individual teachers would have to deal with all those issues themselves.

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  8. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Some studies find that smaller classes improve pupils' learning a lot while others find that they improve learning a little if at all. It is a pity that the author of this article didn't consider Hattie's (2009) meta study of hundreds of studies of the effects of class size on pupils' learning which found that on average class size affects pupils' learning by 0.21 of a standard deviation, rather less than the average of 0.23 to 0.34 that pupils improve just by being in school and a year older.

    Hattie, John (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, London and New York.

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Gavin, I'd say it's pretty impossible to make a blanket claim one way or the other. THIS particular class might improve incredibly if class size was reduced from 32 to 20. But if that class was the top Maths class, we would more likely see no improvement at all. Perhaps the same no-improvement in the bottom English class. I remember my Primary school classes had about 36 students. These sorts of numbers can be fine IF it is the top class, where all the kids are smart and motivated. Most of the research that dismisses a strong link between class reductions and improved student performance/outcomes has been conducted on classes over the past 15 years or so. In the US, Australia, UK, Canada, and similar countries, class sizes shrunk to very similar sizes, especially compared with a couple of decades earlier. It seems intuitively reasonable that classes sizes have probably already reached the optimal level, with diminishing returns already set in.

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    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      The most favourable position of the advocates of small classes is that they are more effective than average improvements in some circumstances while not being better than average in others. So the advocates of small classes need to establish the circumstances in which small classes have better than average effects and direct funding to those circumstances. Classes should be bigger in the circumstances in which they are not very beneficial.

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    3. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Gavin, I actually refer in my article to Hattie's work if you had read the article fully with an open mind you would have seen the link! The problem with Hattie's meta analysis is that the studies he refers to base student achievement on standardised national testing like NAPLAN - which if you know anything about these tests are no proxy for actual learning at all!

      As I write above:
      " the problem is that teachers in smaller classes are adopting the same teaching methods as in their previously larger classes.

      Small classes or shared teaching spaces require a move from transmission education through to viewing students as co-learners and even teachers. This is a major re-conceptualisation of what it means to be an excellent teacher – from control to trust and participation, as Hattie explains.

      Many of the more powerful influences Hattie identifies clearly show that teachers would be even more effective in smaller classrooms."

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    4. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to David Zyngier

      Of course you referred to Hattie several times including a link to visible learning, but only in your reply to me did you first discuss his meta analysis. Hattie argues differently about standardised national tests.

      You agree with Hattie that the most important issue is for teachers to teach better. Once that has been achieved with the other changes that are the 'winners' and 'exciting' as Hattie calls them it would be worth introducing the changes that have average effects such as reducing class size which may indeed have a bigger effect if teachers changed their teaching.

      To express the point by analogy: don't buy for someone a more expensive tool until they have demonstrated that they can and will use it in a way that will improve their work.

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  9. Corinne Cowper

    general layabout

    I have a couple of observations - class size didn't seem to matter very much to me and my classmates. The difference was the style of teaching. We learned the basics by rote which gave us a firm foundation for the rest of our schooling. My class size through infants and primary was an average of 35 and in my third year of high school we had 46. I'm a baby boomer so a lot of post-war immigrant children hit the system at that time.

    When our children were at school, I felt they were guinea pigs to try out whatever teaching method was fashionable at the time. In addition, there seemed to be an emphasis on homework. I think it is ridiculous to expect primary school children to do homework every night - they're tired. I often wondered if homework was set so parents could fill the void left by the teachers.

    If you teach the basics of literacy and numeracy, it makes it easier for them to comprehend and learn other subjects.

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    1. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Corinne Cowper

      I don't mind large classes, so long as the ability level is not too diverse. The more cognitive diversity in the class room, the worse the experience. Ironically, small classes of cognitively diverse students can be the worst nightmare, because the teacher has to teach the same stuff in many different cognitive registers, while the rest of the class just watches/listens bored to tears.

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  10. Tim Comber

    logged in via Facebook

    Will no one think of the children? Are kids happier in small classes or in big classes? My own experience was that I was much happier in a one-teacher school with 23 students in the whole school than in a large public school or a large private school (both about 40 students per class).

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  11. Patrick Boyle

    Consultant and Visiting Fellow

    Thanks for your good summary article David. One particular aspect, your references to Prof John Hattie's research and argument, generated one thought that frustrates me regularly. Good quality research/evidence exists on many questions that should help develop better public policy (such as Hattie's on the determinants of better student learning, which has been around for quite a while). Yet, other noise, often ideologically based, seems to win out too often.

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  12. Antony Eagle

    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Adelaide

    Let's suppose it's true that already effective teachers perform even better in smaller classrooms. But that's only relevant to the children lucky enough to be in the classes of those effective teachers. The reality is that any large scale attempt to decrease class sizes will increase the number of classes (given a fixed number of students). This in turn will involve recruiting many new teachers, and finding many new classrooms for them to teach in. And the studies Jensen cites do suggest that in…

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    1. John Travers

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Antony Eagle

      A very good argument Antony. As a retired school principal I have heard and engaged in both sides of this argument for 40 years, and am now convinced that we have made a major error in fighting for small class size to the exclusion (to some degree) of the real solutions. The best point I have heard on the issue is that when asked what is the ideal class size teachers respond: '3 or 4 less than I currently have!' As David Zyngyer acnowledged in his article, small class improvements only appear when…

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    2. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to Antony Eagle

      As I said in my article above:
      " the problem is that teachers in smaller classes are adopting the same teaching methods as in their previously larger classes.

      Small classes or shared teaching spaces require a move from transmission education through to viewing students as co-learners and even teachers. This is a major re-conceptualisation of what it means to be an excellent teacher – from control to trust and participation, as Hattie explains.

      Many of the more powerful influences Hattie identifies clearly show that teachers would be even more effective in smaller classrooms."

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    3. David Zyngier

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education at Monash University

      In reply to John Travers

      I concur with you - what we need is a paradigm shift - schools might decide to have for example a class of 120 for a lecture in English Literature then break into tutorials of 15 pupils for close analysis of a text.

      4 teachers might work with a group of 110 students - 1 teacher with 50 -1 teacher with 5 etc.

      The point I make is that the research demonstrates that for children from cultural, linguistic and economically disenfranchised communities smaller cases allow the teacher to work more to meeting their learning needs.

      Teachers need to not only alter their pedagogies to meet the diverse needs of their learners but they also need more time to prepare and professionally develop their skills.

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  13. John Perry

    Teacher

    I think the best advice I got from this article, and from many other articles, is that whatever John Hattie says is probably right.

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  14. Peter Farrell

    teaching-principal at at a small rural school

    “Small classes or shared teaching spaces require a move from transmission education through to viewing students as co-learners and even teachers. This is a major re-conceptualisation of what it means to be an excellent teacher – from control to trust and participation…”

    I have been teaching a small multi-age class, our senior class, for more than 10 years and I think there is more to it than just small class size. I reckon it is in the continuity of a positive class culture, where the re-conceptualisation…

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