Class sizes matter to teachers, principals and parents

President’s Comment 22 October 2013

Earlier this year I wrote about the real life stories flowing into the QTU as a consequence of the LNP government’s decision in its 2012-13 budget to allocate 519 fewer teachers to schools than were needed to cover the growth in student enrolments (President’s Comment “Staffing shortfalls start biting in schools”, 8 February 2013).

Late last week, the Department of Education, Training and Employment (DETE) published the 2013 class size data. The very clear conclusion from this data set is that the consequences of the restrictions of education staffing are being felt by many schools and by our most vulnerable students.

Of some 40,000 primary school students in over-sized classes every day, more than 25,000 are in years prep to 3. More than 1500 students are trying to learn in classrooms with 29 or more students, four or more over the class size target. The LNP government has made much of its alleged commitment to improving resources for the early years, acknowledging the critical nature of these years in establishing the foundations for learning. The government's rhetoric is undermined by its actions.

Overall, the number of over-size classes has increased in all year level groups. The increases have been smaller in the secondary years, but come after several years of improvements in the trend data on class sizes.

The DETE and Ministerial responses to the media following the revelation of what schools already know to be a dire situation leaves much to be desired. In essence, the Minister has sought to absolve the government of which he is a part of any responsibility, claiming that the government has given schools the resources they need to meet the targets, but that decisions about individual class make-up are local. It seems that the Minister erroneously believes that the blame for the number of over-size classes lies with principals!

The QTU recognises the rights of principals to make decisions that suit their local circumstances, but not when decisions are forced on them by a lack of government resourcing.

Part two of the defence is equally fallacious, with spokespersons asserting that class sizes have no impact on student outcomes. Those of us who live in the real world know better. It is a simple equation – dividing a teacher’s time by the number of students in the class reveals the increasing limitations on opportunities for individualised attention. Similarly, each additional student in a class brings with them added complexity and potential for challenges in classroom and learning management. Teachers, principals and parents understand this.

Let’s be very clear about the issue here. The evidence is in. Schools have been robbed of critical resources as a consequence of the LNP government’s decision to slash front-line government services, including education. Government attempts to deflect valid criticism of its decisions add insults to injury and amount to neglect. The consequences of the denial of resources to schools are real and measurable. At a time when the employer is about to launch a major offensive on “teacher quality” based to a very large extent on student outcomes, our profession should be very concerned about the ongoing consequences for classroom teachers and principals alike.

The 2013-14 budget appears to return to a full allocation of staffing to meet that year’s growth in student enrolments, predicted to exceed 10,000 students, but did nothing to address this year’s shortfall. Schools will operate now and forever with a deficit in human resources unless the government returns teacher numbers to where they belong. The QTU’s submission to the 2014-15 State Budget process will be finalised in the coming weeks and the demand for these resources to be returned to schools will once again feature prominently.

In the meantime, you are urged to strongly support the ballot currently underway in your school which, in part, is designed to counter the continued attack on class sizes as recommended in the Costello Commission of Audit (recommendations D7/87, p. 1-40). Reclaim your classroom, reclaim our profession!

Kevin Bates

22 October 2013