David Zyngier

Stop all government funding for private schools. (Why and how we could do it)

Along with many fellow Australians I was momentarily heartened last year by the United Kingdom’s Labour party announcing that it would scrap elitist private schools in the UK (which are confusingly called “public schools”) if it won the UK election. Had it happened, those UK private schools would have been nationalised, their charitable status removed and their endowments, investments and properties redistributed to the state sector.

I have often called for the defunding of private schools in Australia, but I want to make the distinction between defunding and nationalising. I don’t believe all private schools in Australia should be nationalised. I do believe no private school should receive public funding via governments. Private schools that are unviable without being funded by governments should transition into becoming faith-based public schools, similar to the UK model of faith-based public schools.

UK faith-based public schools

Most faith-based schools in the UK are part of the public system (as they are in most European countries and in Canada).  Religious schools (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh) are public schools and almost fully funded by the public. They do not charge additional parental fees – and follow the same National Curriculum, enrolment and staffing rules as public schools.

The difference between the UK and Australia

In the UK, private schools are not publicly funded but have tax deductible status and there are far fewer of them than we have here in Australia, currently they educate only around 7% of the UK population. They rely totally on fees raised from parents and donors.

This was also the situation in Australia prior to the 1963 with the beginning of what has been termed State Aid to Catholic schools aimed at bringing their “systemic” or parish school science facilities up to a comparable standard to science facilities in public schools.

So began the long-term process of providing federal benefits to private schools in Australia. At that time some 25% of students were enrolled in private schools in Australia and in 1965 these schools received 25% of all Commonwealth funding. 

The morphing of Australia’s school funding into the unsustainable model we have today

Today private schools in Australia receive 75% of all federal funding. We have gone a long way past just bringing poor Catholic parish schools up to public school standards. These days the poor schools across Australia, those needing help, are public schools. Today we don’t just fund Catholic schools, we now fund all religious schools including two Scientology schools with fewer than 50 students, each receiving almost $10,000 per student every year from the public purse. We also fund 31 Exclusive Brethren schools that in many cases get more government funding per student than nearby government schools.

In Germany the “Church” of Scientology is an illegal organisation. In Australia they are a tax-exempt charity. And you might remember Kevin Rudd labelled the Brethren group as “an extremist cult that breaks up families.” But now we gift them more money for their schools than we give to many public schools.

The recent OECD Education at a Glance 2019 shows that Australia is the 4th most privatised country for education. Whereas countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Luxembourg spend almost no private money on school education, Australia ranks 4th as the most privatised school education spending in the OECD after Mexico, Columbia and Turkey, with 35% of students attending private schools.

In Australia private schools on average receive about $10K per student from combined government funding on top of the parental fees which can be as much as $35k per student (non-boarding).

According to research by former Productivity Commissioner Trevor Cobbold, real government funding (adjusted for inflation) for public schools between 2009-2017 was cut by $17 per student (-0.2%) while funding for Catholic schools increased by $1420 per student (+18.4%) and $1318 (+20.9%) for so-called Independent schools per student.

Total real income per public student over that time period fell by $58 (-0.5) per student for public schools but increased by $1888 (+17.8%) in Catholic schools and by $2,306 (+15.1%) in Independent schools.

May I remind you most Australians (around 65%) still send their children to public schools.

Value for money spent on private schools?

It is claimed by conservative commentators that private schools are more efficient in their use of money. In 2018 2,558,169 or 65% of Australian students attended public primary and secondary schools. Combined government recurrent (non-capital) expenditure (latest figures 2016-17) averaged $17,531 per student across all states and territories. In the Catholic and Independent schools this figure was $19,302 including $10,664 of public funding per student, the rest being mainly made up of parent fees.

For example, public schools in NSW are operating with less than 70 per cent of the income per student of private schools, with public schools reporting a net yearly income of $13,318 a student compared to the private schools’ income of $20,053 a student.

Given recent research finds that public schools (excluding select entry schools) equal or outperform private schools when socio-economic status is considered, one must ask why does it take so much extra money to educate private school students? Perhaps it is because the decline in Australia’s performance in international tests over the decade is primarily due to falling results in private schools, the falls being similar in both Independent and Catholic schools.

Money matters for disadvantaged schools

Study after study indicates that money does really matter in education in disadvantaged communities but not in wealthier ones.

Unfortunately, in Australia it seems that most of the additional government spend on education flows to private schools that don’t need this additional money.  According to ABC research

  • Half of the $22 billion spent on capital projects in Australian schools between 2013 and 2017 was spent in just 10 per cent of schools
  • These schools are the country’s richest, ranked by average annual income from all sources (federal and state government funding, fees and other private funding) over the five-year period. They teach fewer than 30 per cent of students
  • They also reaped 28 per cent (or $2.4 billion) of the $8.6 billion in capital spending funded by government.

Over the past decade, public funding to private schools has risen nearly twice as fast as public funding to public schools. Recurrent public funding to private schools topped $14 billion in 2017.

What should happen

I believe any private school that charges fees over the agreed Schooling Resource Standard (the SRS is $11,343 for primary and $14,254 for secondary students in 2019) should immediately lose all public funding. Elitist schools across Australia charging over $20,000 in fees do not need public money. They will not lose too many students if they need to raise their fees even higher. Those private schools unable to meet their recurrent costs could voluntarily become public schools, opening enrolment to all students in their local area.

Private schools charging less than the SRS should have their public funding reduced gradually by 10% per annum until it is zero. Again, if these schools cannot meet their financial obligations they could be taken over by the state and become, as in the UK and elsewhere, state-run faith-based schools open to all children in their local area. This would be an actual saving of money for Australian tax payers over time.

Given that Catholic and Independent schools in Australia were subsidised by $14.03 billion in public funding  in 2018, should some close and even if 5-10% of their students were to enrol in public schools there would be no problem integrating all these kids into an equitable multicultural diverse public education system. We would then return to the same situation prior to the beginning of the “school choice” phenomenon.

I believe this is what we should be planning because all of the data indicates that what we are doing with school funding in Australia is blatantly unfair and financially unsustainable.

David Zyngier is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. He is a former school teacher and principal. He spent most of his teaching career in disadvantaged public schools. David’s research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students, but in particular how these can improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage by focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He is on Twitter @dzyngier

2019 REPORT CARD for Australia’s national efforts in education

It’s the end of the school year and school reports are being sent home. Let’s imagine every Australian household received a report on Australia’s national efforts in education. This is what it might look like based on the latest  OECD Education at a Glance 2019  (which covers data between 2010 and 2016 and compares statistics across 42 countries).

(For those not familiar with the Australian A to E school reporting scale: A means Very High Achievement, B means High Achievement, C means Sound Achievement, D means Limited Achievement, E means Very Limited Achievement and there is no ‘Fail’.)

Early Childhood Education     

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

There has been a surge of policy attention to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in OECD countries in recent decades, with a focus on children under the age of 3. Enrolment of 3 year-olds in early childhood education and care is still low in OECD countries despite increasing awareness of its importance.

In  Australia the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, was developed in 2008. It aims to maintain universal access to quality early childhood education programmes for all Australian children in the year before full-time school, that is all Australian 4-year-olds. However enrolment in Early Childhood Education and Care among Australian 4-year-olds is still below the OECD average, although the gap has narrowed.

In 2017, 85% of 4-year-olds in Australia were enrolled in Early Childhood Education and Care, slightly below the OECD average of 87%. Enrolment among 3-year-olds is even worse: only 67% of Australian 3-year-olds are enrolled, well below the OECD average of 79%. 

Teacher remuneration      

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

It is often claimed that Australian teachers are well paid in comparison to other countries. This on the surface may be true. But Australian teachers work more hours than teachers in other OECD countries and, the distribution of salaries is comparatively flat in Australia, both over the course of teachers’ careers and across educational levels. For example, it takes only seven years for a secondary teacher to progress from the statutory starting salary to the top of the scale, compared to 25 years on average across OECD countries. However, it is at the top of the scale, that Australian teachers lose out as their pay is only 48% more than starting salaries at all levels of education taught, compared to 61-67% on average across OECD countries. Money isn’t necessary viewed as the reason why people go into teaching, as respect and esteem is often seen as equally important.

Class sizes     

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

Successive ministers have often pointed out the considerable cost of reducing class sizes in Australia, as have conservative education commentators. One minister even wanted class sizes to be increased so as to employ fewer teachers. This isn’t borne out by the evidence from the OECD and elsewhere. Across all schools from 2005, the number of teaching staff per student (an approximate proxy for class size) dropped only marginally, from 14.2 to 13.9, a negligible 2.2 per cent change. According to the 2019 report since 2005 average class size in Australia has fallen from 24 to 23 students only. At the primary level, the average class in OECD countries has 21 pupils.

Spending on school education    Result: Fail

Australia’s Federal education ministers claim that Australia’s spending on education has never been higher and that expenditure has increased 25% or $10 billion since 2010. This ignores the fact that our student population has dramatically increased requiring spending on new schools, school infrastructures and of course more teachers. $8 billion of the extra funding (or 80 per cent) went to a mix of “everyday” items: rising student numbers, wage increases, and the ongoing costs of increased investments in government school buildings. Student numbers grew by 9 per cent, so the real increase per student was 14 per cent. Educating these extra students cost just under $4 billion, or two-fifths of the overall increase.

While Australia spends just above the OECD average per student on school education, it spends far less than countries like Luxembourg, Norway, Austria and Belgium. Australia ranks 8th in spending on school education as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product in the OECD behind New Zealand, Norway, Israel, UK, Iceland Belgium and Columbia. Australia increased the share of GDP invested in tertiary educational institutions by over 10% but reduced the share invested in school education by at least 5% during this period. Australia’s total school expenditure as a proportion of GDP is just at the OECD average but as a percentage of total government spending on school education Australia spends less than the OECD average of 4.4%.

Equity     Result: Fail

In Australia, 36% of total investment on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is privately funded compared to only 18% on average across OECD countries.

Australia spends only 40% public money on public tertiary education which is less than any other country in OECD except for England. Only Chile spends less public money on public tertiary education. Australia also “transfers”, that is subsidises, over 21% of public money to private tertiary institutions tertiary education, again only second to England.

However real funding for public schools over that period was cut by $17 per student (-0.2%) while funding for Catholic and Government supported private schools increased by $1,420 per student (18.4%) and for private independent schools by $1318 (20.9%) per student.

Whereas countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland, Luxembourg spend almost no private money on school education.  Australia has the 4th highest “most privatised” school education spending after Mexico, Columbia, Turkey.

Principal’s Comment

The data is clear. Australia seems to be coasting. If she invests more effort and resources she could improve her outcomes immeasurably. Compared to many of her cohort she is not paying enough attention to the things that would make a difference – a good public school in every suburb, resources based on real need, and equity among all schools.

Next year Australia needs to try a lot harder to base her policies on evidence that promotes equity. She needs to do this with some urgency or she will keep slipping behind. Australia is very capable of achieving much more, but only if she puts her mind to it and makes equity a priority.

David Zyngier is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. He is a former school teacher and principal. He spent most of his teaching career in disadvantaged public schools. David’s research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students, but in particular how these can improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage by focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He is on Twitter @dzyngier

Charter schools: an old, flawed idea and wrong for Australia

A new report proposes Australia adopt a US styled charter school, or UK type academies, approach as a solution to our falling scores on international tests. It even suggests Australia should consider for-profit schools. The report comes from the Centre for Independent Studies, a conservative pro-business pro-privatisation think tank.

US charter schools and UK academies are privately run public schools. They are schools that are 100% publicly funded but are run independently like private schools. For-profit schools are exactly that, they are run as a business to make money.

It would be incredible for Australian education authorities to seriously consider adopting policies developed in education systems that are more lowly ranked than Australia as a solution to falling scores. The USA is ranked 34 and the UK 23 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) rankings in mathematics while Australia outperforms them both at number 19. Australia also beats them at 16th in science and 14th in reading.

Privately run public schools in the US (charter schools) and in England (academies) are not performing better than equivalent public schools in those countries. In fact research suggests the opposite. A national study in 2009 of charter schools in the US by a pro-charter school body CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) suggests that less than one hundredth of one per cent (<0.01 per cent) of the variation in test performance in reading is explainable by charter school enrolment. The actual finding from the study is that of the charter schools researched, 17% had better results than the comparison public schools, while a whopping 37% had worse results.

Follow up independent research in 2013 concluded that the test-scores of US charter and public schools are almost identical.

Research from Stanford University also found charter schools in the US generally perform no better, and in many cases substantially worse, than traditional public schools in reading and mathematics.

There is also an issue with these schools attracting students, getting governments to pay for their start up and then, for various reasons, closing down.  Over 300 Charter schools have closed in Florida. Across the US the closure rate is about 8%. Millions of taxpayer funding has been wasted and thousands of children have had their education disrupted.

If we are serious about improving our education performance we should not be copying what is happening in the US and UK. We should be implementing, in full, the recommendations of our own Gonski Review. These are recommendations to reform the way Australian schools are funded, tailored to meet the unique needs of Australian children. It is an Australian solution for Australian schools.

Funding is at the core of the problems we are having here. The line between public and private schools has become blurred. It is estimated that by 2017 many, if not most, Catholic schools in Australia will be in receipt of MORE public money than public schools. As it now stands the Catholic Church contributes only three per cent of recurrent costs of its 1700 schools while almost 80% comes from public subsidies and 20% from parent fees. Many of the so-called low fee religious schools, which are mushrooming in our cities growth corridors, are up to 90% publicly funding. This is money mostly handed out on a per capita basis, not accounting for the needs of the student or school.

As for for-profit schools, one of the authors of the CIS report suggests that for-profit schooling:

“has offered benefits to children in the developing world, where for-profit schools are a way to enhance equity in educational provision. ‘Budget’ or ‘low-fee’ private schools, many of which are run like a small business by a sole proprietor, proliferate in some of the poorest parts of the world. Local governments are often unaware of their existence, which is in many cases key to maintaining these low fees – which could not be sustained if they had to comply with all the regulations and standards mandated by governments.”

And that is the crux of the issue. Unregulated schools can exploit staff, who would be largely unprotected because of their inability to join a union. There would be a lack of accountability that could lead to inadequate facilities, large class sizes and so on. We need to learn the lesson from what has happened in 7-Eleven stores in Australia.

The CIS report incredibly states:

“Studies comparing for-profit schools to non-profit charter schools have mixed results, ranging from no difference to a small positive effect of for-profit status”.

Given this caveat why would Australia contemplate adding for-profit schools to the mix?

Currently our governments, at both state and federal levels, do not permit for-profit schools to operate in Australia.

The Australian Education Union’s Victorian president, Meredith Peace, joined the debate by saying the government should be focusing on supporting under-resourced schools rather than boosting competition in the system. She said:

“In Victoria in recent years, schools have become increasingly isolated and are forced to compete more and more with each other with limited funding. This is producing a wider equity gap and a wider gap for our kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The Australian Education Union’s federal president, Correna Haythorpe said the Minister Christopher Pyne’s Independent Public Schools (IPS) scheme, which is very similar to the charter school/academy concept, had been rejected by most states and territories because “they recognise there is no evidence” that introducing a two-tier public school system will lead to better results for students. She also said:

“NSW, Victoria, SA, Tasmania and the ACT have all accepted money from the IPS fund but will not create a single Independent Public School. These States should be commended for standing firm and rejecting a policy that has no evidence to back it.”

NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, promised (in June 2013) NSW will not be introducing charter schools or independent public schools because there is no evidence that they improve student performance.

Such statements encourage those of us who oppose following the US and UK down the charter school track.

The CIS proposals have been roundly rejected by education experts, parent groups and detailed fact checking here in Australia. As recently as September 1st the claims made by CIS’s research are refuted by expert analysis by the National Education Policy Center in the US, which disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions.

The overwhelming research evidence from the US, the home of charter schools, does not support any claims that charter schools are a solution to Australia’s education problems.

A few days ago the Supreme Court in Washington State in the US ruled charter schools unconstitutional.

It seems the Centre for Independent Studies is once again flogging old ideas about education that elsewhere in the world have been considered, tried and dumped.

 

David-Zyngier-263x300 copyDavid Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

The ‘right’ to government subsidised choice of schools is another wasteful snout-in-the-trough entitlement

Parents who choose a private school for their child have a ‘right’ to expect governments to help with the costs because they are taxpayers; so the argument goes in Australia. Certainly chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria, Michelle Green, makes such an argument.

But where does this so-called ‘right’ come from? Neither Michelle Green nor anyone else making a similar claim has an adequate answer.

We pay our taxes so that our governments can provide public services such as public hospitals, public transport, the armed forces, the ABC and so on. These are services that private industry cannot or should not provide. Just because someone chooses not to use public transport does not entitle them to claim a public subsidy for their car costs! Emergency medical treatment at casualty is free at public hospitals but costs $500 at a private hospital. We pay our taxes for public security provided by the police. If we want additional private security for any reason we pay that ourselves and don’t expect a subsidy from our neighbours.

There is a choice. But choice is only available for those who have the wherewithal to make that choice.

We have heard about the end of the age of entitlement. However, when a person on the basic wage of $35,000 a year pays his or her taxes, that person should not expect their taxes to help someone who is on a salary of $150,000 or more per annum to exercise school choice. Any notion of choice in this case is bogus.

The reason for the strong enrolments in private schools in the growth corridor suburbs in major cities in Australia, mentioned by Green as evidence of people exercising their ‘choice’, is due in part to the lack of public infrastructure and planning. At the same time, government funding for capital expenditure by private school systems and independent schools has become incredibly generous, another reason new schools are proliferating.

Governments inspired by ‘providing choice’ will always find it easier and more ideologically satisfying to get private systems to build those extra new schools, than to go to the trouble of providing the schools themselves.

Green mentions so-called “low-fee” private schools. However these can be up to 85% publicly funded. As to her claim about the wonderful multicultural make up of private schools, she does not give us details. Some children who were born overseas, or whose parents speak languages other than English at home, come from very socially or educationally advantaged families. There are clear divisions of such advantage across different ethnic backgrounds. I point out the Gonski Review found that 80% of all disadvantaged children are in the public system.

More than 40% of Australian secondary children now attend private schools, either so-called independent or faith-based systemic schools. Australia has one of the most privatised school systems in the OECD since Chile withdrew all public funding to private schools in 2014.

Prior to the late 1960’s private schools in Australia received little government funding. When such funding was introduced, it was to help bridge gaps for very poor Catholic schools, the sentiment was egalitarian not entitlement. What has grown since then is unique in the world, and not in a good way.

While most OECD countries have private schools, very few of them receive public funding as it occurs here. Take England for example, the home of the elite private school, and the exclusive private schools in the USA: not one cent of taxpayer’s money goes into their budgets.

The purpose of an excellent, appropriately funded public education system is to help ameliorate the inevitable inequalities that result from the lottery of birth. No better mechanism for creating a well-educated general population has so far been discovered.

The importance of choice for parents has been promoted at the expense of equity for students. The choice model promoted by federal and state governments has contributed to the decline in enrolments in public schools nationally.

Stephen Dinham of University of Melbourne and the president of the Australian College of Educators wrote:

It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons. If these developments continue then the inevitable outcomes will be greater inequity and continuing decline in educational performance that will provide the proponents of change with further “evidence” to support their position and for even more far-reaching change.

Funding for private schools in Victoria, for example, increased by 18.5% per student, or eight times that of public schools between 2009-2014. The Australian average increase for private schools was $1,181 per student compared to only $247 for public schools.

However the savings to governments for shifting the responsibility of schooling to private institutions and systems is illusionary.

The most comprehensive review of school funding  since Gonski by Lindsay Connors and Jim McMorrow argued that state and federal governments would have saved $2 billion annually over the past four decades had they educated private school students in the public school system.

Increased public investment in non-government schools between 1973 and 2012 has increased the overall costs to governments rather than producing overall savings.

Recent trends in school recurrent funding analysed  by Bernie Shepherd and Chris Bonnor  strongly suggest that over forty per cent of students in Catholic schools in 2016 will average as much, if not more, public funding than students in similar government schools. By 2018 an additional forty per cent will most likely join them. Half the students in Independent schools are on track to get as much, if not more, than government school students by the end of the decade.

This finding emerges as one of the most significant to date from analysis of My School data. School funding in recent years has done little for student achievement and nothing for equity, including the $3 billion over-investment in better-off students, without any measurable gain in their achievement.

On current trajectories State and Federal governments, within four years, will be funding the vast majority of private school students at levels higher than students in similar government schools.

Concerns about funding equity should now be joined by concerns about effectiveness and efficiency in how we provide and fund schools.

Each private school pupil now receives, on average, a non-means-tested public subsidy of over $8000 per year and yes I believe this is indeed at the of expense of the less privileged public school student.

The focus of our investment in education should urgently be in public education systems not in providing ‘choice’ for some families.

And so much for all the talk about the end of the age of entitlement.

 

David-Zyngier copyDavid Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

Class size DOES make a difference: latest research shows smaller classes have lasting effect

Money spent on reducing class sizes has not been wasted as Education Minister Christopher Pyne believes. The advice he has been given is wrong.

Reducing class size does make a difference, and the biggest difference it makes is to the schooling outcomes of our most vulnerable children.

I have just completed a comprehensive review of 112 research papers on class sizes written between 1979 and 2014 by researchers in Australia and similar education systems in England, Canada, New Zealand and non-English speaking countries of Europe.

I found that reducing class size in the first four years of school can have an important and lasting effect on student achievement. The more years students spend in small classes during grades K-3, the longer the benefits for achievement last during grades 4-8.

Smaller class sizes are especially important for children who come from disadvantaged families. I need not point out these children are overwhelming the responsibility of public schools in Australia.

The policy advice and commentary that says class size doesn’t matter, or is a waste of money, relies heavily on a Grattan Institute  report by Ben Jensen’s on Australian education and teacher quality.

Jensen suggests that the majority of studies around the world have shown that class size reductions do not significantly improve student outcomes, and that the funds should have been redirected toward enhancing teacher quality. The results of individual studies are always questionable.

But most significantly a range of newer peer reviewed studies on the effects of small classes have now emerged and they paint a very different picture.

I have used these in my review.

Notably, of the 112 papers I reviewed, only three authors supported the notion that smaller class sizes did not produce better outcomes to justify the expenditure.

Reducing class size to increase student achievement is an approach that has been tried, debated, and analysed for many decades. The premise seems logical: with fewer students to teach, teachers should achieve better academic outcomes for all students.

For those who choose private education for their children in Australia, it is often cited as a major consideration.

So it is important that politicians and educational decision makers get the right advice and the right information about class size.

For example it is commonly assumed that class sizes in Australia are smaller than they have ever been. This is not the case. While older members of our society may recall being in classes of 40 or more students in the 1950s and early 1960s, by 1981 class sizes in Australia were generally capped at 25 in high schools and 22 in technical schools. These caps have increased since their low point in 1981, even in primary schools; while the early years in many jurisdictions are capped below 26, grades 3-6 are treated like secondary classes and capped between 28 and 30.

In Australia commentators and politicians alike point to high performing systems such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, where large class sizes are the norm, as evidence that reducing class sizes is a futile exercise. But research indicates that students from Confucian heritage cultures are socialised in ways that make them amenable to work in large classes, so that management problems are minimal and teachers can focus on meaningful learning using whole-class methods.

An educational system forms a working whole, each component interacting with all other components. Isolating any one component (such as class size) and transplanting it into a different system shows a deep misunderstanding of how educational systems work.

However let’s look at how our class size compares. In 2010 Australia’s average public primary class size was 23.2 – above the OECD average of 21.3 and EU average of 20. This compares to 15 in Korea; 17 in Germany and the Russian Federation; 19 in Finland; 20 in the UK, Poland and Luxembourg; and 26 in India (OECD 2013).

Class sizes are smaller in both the Independent and Catholic sectors in Australia. As far back as 1979 there has been evidence that smaller class sizes make a difference.

Class size can make an even bigger difference when teachers change their teaching methods to suit smaller groups.  Read my paper for more.

You might be interested in this list of things that happen in smaller classes:-

  • Teachers were more able not only to complete their lessons in smaller classes, but to develop their lessons in more depth;
  • Teachers moved through curricula more quickly and were able to provide additional enrichment activities;
  • Teachers reported that they managed their classes better, and classes functioned more smoothly as less time was spent on discipline and more on learning;
  • Students received more individualised attention, including more encouragement, counselling, and monitoring;
  • Students were more attentive to their classwork;
  • Students had to wait less time to receive help or have their papers checked, and they had more opportunities to participate in group lessons.

Go to my paper for more lists of beneficial outcomes of smaller class sizes.

Policy makers, politicians and media too often discuss data about class sizes and impact on student learning without an evidence base, relying largely on second-hand research or anecdotes. Too frequently, advocates for particular positions select their evidence, conveniently ignoring research that raises questions about their favoured position.

Class size reduction is about equity – any policy debate must start with the basic inequality of schooling, and aim to ameliorate the damage that poverty, violence, inadequate child care and other factors do to our children’s learning outcomes.

I suggest we should have a policy to reduce class size in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools during  the first four years of education specifically when children are developing literacy and numeracy skills. This is more cost effective than an across the board approach.

While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall in closing the widening gap between the lowest and highest achievers.

Anyone looking at the bottom line of future costs to Australia needs to urgently and seriously consider further policies to reduce class size.

Dr David Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.