05 February 2012

Should We Really Increase Primary School Class Sizes?

by Dr Mark Keown

There was a time when I was a primary school teacher. I started back as a young man in the mid 80s and spent some years teaching in a South Auckland Intermediate School. In my first year I taught Year 8 (Form 2) and from day one had 36 in my class. As a pretty green young fellow straight out of school and tertiary study it was rather a shock to the system. That first year of teaching was a stunning introduction to the realities of NZ society. It almost killed me and was a critical factor in my seeking answers to the problems of the world, a journey that ended with me finding Jesus. Over the next few years I continued to teach classes of about 35 students. I also got to know other teachers, and, despite what is being claimed, without doubt class size affects teaching quality – the more students you have to work with, the harder it is to maintain educative quality.

The thing is that teaching is about relationships – in particular, the relationship of the teacher with the child. Indeed, research tells us that the single most important educative factor in the child’s life, outside of the child itself, is the teacher! That being the case, the more kids there are in a class, the less time they will get. Children prosper through personal interaction; being noticed, listened to, known and encouraged. The more children that are bustling around the classroom, the harder it is for those other than those who demand attention in one way or another, to get noticed. Jesus got this principle when he had focussed his attention on a small core group of followers, the Twelve.

With this background in mind, it is with some horror that I heard the news that the Treasury were recommending that NZ increase class sizes and some schools closed. Theoretically, the savings will be used to improve the quality of teaching. The theory seems to be that the money saved can help teachers upskill. With all due respect, I don’t get it. I asked a highly respected teacher and educator what they thought on this. They said that they were very cynical that these actions would lead to improved education. They suggested that this was “ugly, pragmatic, and falsely based” – I can’t but agree. Surely, if we are facing hard times, there is another way. Why should the children suffer? For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

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