The big u-turn on class sizes

December 2012


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The Ministry of Education’s backdown on the decision to change the teacher: student ratios that are used to fund state schools was met with relief from the sector. But what are the long-term implications?

Gary Sweeney, President of the New Zealand Association for Intermediate and Middle Schooling (NZAIMS), says schools “breathed a sigh of relief” when the Ministry pulled the pin on its plans to change school staffing ratios.

Budget shock

Most schools interpreted the pre-Budget ‘at a glance’ summary to mean they were relatively unaffected by the new ratios, although questions were raised about why technology staffing appeared to be missing. The answer was revealed 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.

For intermediate and middle schools, however, it really just boiled down to one thing: teacher cuts. “According to the Minister, this was not an attack on intermediate schools – but this was exactly how it was felt on the ground and in the intermediate schools across New Zealand,” says Sweeney.

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.

The 14 days that followed were laden with intense pressure on the Ministry from the education sector, particularly from groups like NZAIMS, whose members would be directly affected by the cuts. Media releases were issued, schools sought the support of parents,and many met with their local member of parliament. 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 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.

Significantly, parents and communities got behind the protest. Petitions, Facebook pages, and other tactics helped to show the depth of the public’s disapproval. Sweeney credits this grassroots focus for adding further weight to their protest.

“While the Government might have been able to override sector and union protests, the arguments stemming from the parent and whānau environment were harder to ignore,” he says.

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.

Schools’ reaction

The “sigh of relief” in response to this announcement was audible throughout New Zealand.

Richard Paton, principal of Chisnallwood Intermediate, says that the impact for his school, had the proposed changes gone ahead, would have been huge.

“Schools use their staffing to the maximum to provide essential specialist and support opportunities. Any reduction to this would impact significantly on the ability to deliver the curriculum and provide the wider skills necessary to succeed and contribute fully in life,” he says.

Brian Diver, principal of Tauranga Intermediate, agrees and says the impact upon his school would have been “absolutely devastating”.

Wayne Codyre, principal of Ross Intermediate, says the decision would have had a major effect on how his school delivers its learning programmes.

“If it had gone ahead, we would have lost two teachers. I was appalled at hearing the Minister in question time on Parliament TV say that no school would lose more than 2 teachers– and that's a good thing? Any loss of teachers in schools is not a good thing,” he says.

Marion Henriksen, principal of Matamata Intermediate, says the whole debacle around staff ratios has been “very stressful” on principals, staff, boards, and parents.

“How could a quality school operate on significantly less staffing? The amount of staffing to be lost, particularly in intermediate schools, suggested immediately to me that this was either a giant bungle or a deliberate ploy to get rid of intermediate schools by taking away their special nature character,” she says.

Colin Dale, principal of Murray’s Bay Intermediate, says the attempt to reduce potential staffing cuts to a transition of two teachers maximum was an attempt to carry on a policy that is “profoundly ignorant”.

“The use of research out of context for political purposes has marginalised the intelligence of the profession – a pity when we could all work together.”

Bemoaning a lack of consultation

Dale’s sentiments are shared by many in the sector. What appears to have irked schools more than anything is the bulldozer approach taken by the Ministry. The lack of consultation with the sector has been viewed by many as its approach to education policy-making.

“It was disappointing that the change in staffing ratios came completely out of the blue,” says Henriksen. “There was no consultation by the Ministry with those at the chalk face. If widespread systemic change was called for to tackle the 20 per cent failing, then surely the power of all those in the education sector agreeing on strategy would have been more appropriate.”

Diver believes the failed policy was indicative of Ministry decisions made since then as well. “This Government initiative is typical of many under the current Ministry of Education that are poorly thought out and demonstrate a complete lack of insight as to what is actually happening at the grassroots in New Zealand schools,” he says.

Codyre agrees. “Since this issue, we are seeing countless examples of the Ministry pushing through their own agenda without consultation. I guess I personally am sick and tired of feeling let down by a Minister and a Ministry that are clearly not consulting with the sector or working with the professionals who on a daily basis are relating with families, students, and communities to make our kids achieve. I don't see how policy analysts and administrators can decide what is best for our future educational needs.”

The fallout

These opinions seem to reflect the general unsettled feeling that has permeated Intermediate schools since the policy retraction.

Sweeney says that while on the surface it appeared to be business as usual, other issues in education, such as charter schools, league tables, Novopay,and the re-organisation of Christchurch schools, have prevented schools from fully returning to “normal”.

“2012 will go down as a year where the distractions and unsettled environment for boards of trustees, school leadership, teachers and parents have been many and one has to wonder at the continued ability of a system to deal with this, absorb it, and maintain the provision of innovative and personalised learning to all New Zealand students,” says Sweeney.

However, Sweeney is quick to point out that there has been a concerted effort to increase communication with the sector.

“Two larger groupings, both reasonably formal, have been established. Educational professional and union groups are closer and working together moreso than they have been for some years, and the Minister of Education has brought together a group of educators and others from outside education to provide the Government advice and ideas that range from early childhood to tertiary and the workplace.”

How both groups will impact upon current and future policy will be seen over the run up to the next election.

Christchurch intermediates

Some intermediate schools in Christchurch, however, could be forgiven for not feeling upbeat about future education policy. The proposed re-organisation of education provision in greater Christchurch has been extremely hard on the Canterbury Intermediate's cluster, says Sweeney.

Five intermediate schools are proposed for closure, ranging from the largest school in the South Island to much smaller intermediates.

Interjectors at community meetings in Christchurch have voiced their concerns that the Ministry of Education is launching an “attack” on intermediate schools. However, the Minister of Education has stated categorically, face-to-face to the Canterbury Intermediate Principals’ group, that the decisions being made were not an attack on intermediates.

“What is a fact is the Christchurch Ministry of Education team put proposals to the Minister of Education that included some intermediates be closed. This option was amongst the ones chosen to proceed with,” says Sweeney.

The group of Christchurch intermediates are well into their consultation phase and will be making strong cases for their retention.

Sweeney suggests that the Christchurch re-organisation provides an opportunity to focus on students in the middle years (Years 7 to 10), a work stream NZAIMS is starting with the Ministry of Education.

“Time will tell whether this is successful or not.”

Where to find money not saved

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

Dale questions the Ministry’s logic, saying the savings that need to be made are “all a matter of perception”.

“We already have an extensive coaching of teachers construct in our best schools that relies on present expertise in each of our schools and has a correlation to the raising of the effectiveness of teaching, which in turn, impacts on the achievement of our students. So why was there a need in the first place to move so many millions of dollars to raising the competence of teachers when we are already on that highway?”

Many principals believe the Ministry should be focussing on different areas to make cuts, many calling for National Standards and charter schools to be scrapped.

“If National Standards would disappear and the focus placed on a more holistic, engaging learning environment, we have every chance of being a world leader once again,” says Dale.

Codyre agrees. “If the Government has to look at making cuts, then they could remove National Standards, which they haven't resourced effectively. You can now compare schools but there is no consistency in how these schools made their judgements. They could also abandon the concept of Charter Schools, which again is going to come at a cost.”

“Forget about charter schools,” echoes Henriksen. “Let those who elect to attend private schools fund themselves. Forget about performance pay and all the bureaucracy that it will entail. Schools are places where we rely on the expertise of each other, the sharing of ideas. We work collaboratively, each taking leadership as necessary to provide the best possible learning environment for our students.”

Lessons learned

The commotion around the proposed teacher cuts and other contentious education policy decisions has taught sector groups the importance of strength, professionalism, and unity.

This was certainly the case for NZAIMS, says Sweeney.

“NZAIMS, as a professional group, realised through the furore around the proposed loss of technology teachers in intermediate schools and other schools who provide technology to Y7 and 8 students across New Zealand that its organisational structure was not sophisticated enough to not only deal with ‘issues’ of the day and ‘workload’, but as an organisation, it also needed to be more strategic and forward looking.”

As a result, the NZAIMS membership approved the move towards an executive officer model and the new structure will start from 2013.

Associations like NZAIMS appear hopeful for better consultation with the Ministry on future policy decisions. As Dale says, “The way forward in working together should not be too difficult as long as the listening transforms in to hearing and we make changes that are educationally sound.

“Surely New Zealand could lead the world with innovative transformative educational programmes – we are poised to do just that.”