A teacher recently said to me, “We could teach under a tree, Dee. It's not about the buildings.” While I have no doubt about that, we do know that infrastructure that facilitates learning outcomes for our kids is important. But it's not the only factor. If it was, we’d be leading the world, not lagging behind countries such as Kazakhstan on the global report card of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
According to TIMSS, we've dropped from 18th to 28th in grade 4 maths, and from 12th to 17th in both year 8 maths and science. Why is this of concern? Because a large proportion of future jobs will require strong maths and science knowledge and skills.
A former Head Teacher (Principal) in England has put the case to me that small class size is not the panacea to improving educational outcomes either. After bringing a poor performing primary school in a low socioeconomic area to the forefront with families subsequently moving into the area to take advantage of the school’s educational outcomes, she now mentors and consults to other ‘failing’ (her term, not mine) public sector schools to drive performance improvement and change their culture.
In our discussions she said that their class sizes of up to 30 “absolutely work, it's how you manage it.” She advocates that teaching methods and school culture are paramount to achieving great learning outcomes.
In the literature, there's little in the way of current, comprehensive, internationally renowned research on class sizes because of the many variables that exist. It's not a one size fits all. What research has shown, is that smaller class sizes have best effect in the very early primary years of grade 1 and 2. This is particularly so for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or who have English as a second language.
This English consultant and mentor argues that teaching methods and class management processes drive the educational outcomes that parents are seeking and children are needing, not smaller class sizes.
No doubt there are many more variables at play in Victoria, including a jam packed curriculum.
All of this creates a range of questions, not least of all relating to tradeoffs, because funding is not infinite. It’s what we do with the funding. The infrastructure needed for smaller class sizes creates huge capital allocations to build, operate and maintain. Similarly, if class sizes changed for some years with research and improvements to teaching methods demonstrating better outcomes, funding may be freed up to further invest in rebalancing teaching contact hours and professional development.
What I do know is that that if we do what we're currently doing we can’t expect a different outcome. Outcome improvement takes innovation, a willingness and flexibility to change the status quo, try new things and benchmark. It doesn't always mean more money either. It does, however, mean reliable research that will provide us with the sound knowledge to improve performance and educational outcomes.
Parents and children should expect no less.