The big U-turn on class sizes

Reflecting on Education Review's biggest topics from the past 20 years


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The pre-Budget ‘at a glance’ summary in 2012 didn’t ruffle many feathers. Most schools interpreted it to mean they were relatively unaffected by the Ministry of Education’s proposed new staffing ratios, although some questions were raised about why technology staffing appeared to be missing.

Clarity came on Budget day: the technology ratio for years 7 and 8 had been removed, and the replacement ratio dramatically reduced staffing for schools with students at these levels.

At the post-Budget briefing, Education Minister Hekia Parata explained the rationale for this particular decision was to invest the money saved from changing the ratios into raising the quality of teachers and teaching. The money was to be used to move forward with postgrad initial teacher education (ITE).

Class sizeFor full primary, intermediate and middle schools, however, it really just boiled down to one thing: teacher cuts. The announcement resulted in widespread anger across the sector, not only directed at the policy decision, but at the manner in which it had been communicated; many felt the Ministry had failed to consult effectively with the sector on this issue.

In the 14 days that followed, the Ministry was put under intense pressure from the education sector. Media releases were issued, schools sought the support of parents, and many met with their local member of parliament. Significantly, parents and communities got behind the protest. Petitions, Facebook pages, and other tactics helped to show the depth of the public’s disapproval.

The first attempt to mollify the public reaction was the Government’s announcement to cap the staffing loss at affected schools to no more than two teachers per school.

The New Zealand Association for Intermediate and Middle Schooling (NZAIMS) conference, scheduled two days after the ‘capped cuts’ announcement, provided a further opportunity for members to join forces and further convey their dissatisfaction about the decisions being made by Government.

The public dissent and prolific media attention, along with ongoing lobbying and meetings with prominent government officials, eventually resulted in a Government announcement that the policy had been reversed, much to the relief of the sector.

However, schools felt resentful towards the Ministry over the lack of consultation – and this should have been one of the Ministry’s key learnings from the debacle. Christchurch intermediate schools, in particular, felt under attack, with many of them facing closure at the time of the Budget fall out.

The Government had hoped to save in the region of $114 million through changing the teacher/student ratios, and as a result, plans to shift initial teacher education to a postgraduate focus had to be put on hold. However, the tertiary sector claimed there would be very little cost involved in restructuring teacher education programmes, which casts a question mark over the Ministry’s sums.

The ratio u-turn also came at roughly the same time as charter schools were making their appearance on the New Zealand education scene and talks of National Standards league tables. There was a general feeling of unrest across the sector, with many principals feeling that public money could be better spent on innovative, transformative educational programmes that are focused on getting better outcomes for students.

Ultimately what emerged from the commotion around the proposed teacher cuts and other contentious education policy decisions was the importance of strength, professionalism, and unity in the sector.


More Education Review coverage:

Reflection: NZAIMS President, Gary Sweeny:


Opinion: Massey’s Professor John Clark:

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