Class Sizes

October 9th, 2011 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Imogen Neale in the SST reports:

Teachers and parents are calling on the government to cap class sizes, despite a leading academic saying it’s not the size of the class but what you do with it that matters.

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association contends the Ministry of ’s staffing formula disadvantages larger schools and puts them under pressure to have classes with more than 30 students.

It’s trying to make it an election issue and is pushing the ministry to reintroduce limits.

The would not specify an ideal size but the Sunday Star-Times understands it’s around 25. A Star-Times readers poll found that parents’ preferred was 15 to 24.

As reported above, the scientific research has found that class size has a minimal impact on learning outcomes, and the quality of the teacher has a major outcome.

Honorary Auckland University education professor John Hattie said this year that size was “irrelevant”.

“I’m not a fan of whether it’s 15, whether it’s 30, or whether it’s 60. We’ve proved that New Zealand has some of the best teachers in the world in classes of 25 to 30, so why are we worrying about class size?”

He was responding to reports of a British school teaching children in classes of up to 70.

We’d probably do better if we sacked the bottom 20% of teachers, and gave their salaries to the top 20% in return for taking on their classes also!

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40 Responses to “Class Sizes”

  1. Mighty_Kites (77 comments) says:

    Is this coming from your years of experience as a teacher?

    [DPF: Nope even better, my years as a pupil]

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  2. wat dabney (3,422 comments) says:

    It’s also the case that a teacher’s credentials are absolutely no indicator of how effective they are.

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  3. peterwn (2,932 comments) says:

    I read somewhere that many years ago that some classes hadf 60 pupils, discipline was tough and teachers were paid on performance (ie inspectors’ visits and exam results).

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  4. Brian Smaller (3,915 comments) says:

    Class Size has been “an election issue” since as long as I can remember.

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  5. Scott Chris (5,672 comments) says:

    Neale – “despite a leading academic saying it’s not the size of the class but what you do with it that matters.”

    Oversimplification. The child is the most important factor in achievement, next in importance is the quality of the teacher.

    Also rated highly is one on one teacher time with the child. Plainly this would increase with a smaller class size.

    Also rated highly is quality of measurement and evaluation of the child. Plainly this would improve with a smaller class size.

    Personally, I’ like to see a core class size of 20, but with good teachers teaching expositionally to maybe 200. Whatever works best.

    Gotta measure those teachers first though.

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  6. Neil (525 comments) says:

    Agree with Mighty_Kites.Kiwiblog has a record of slagging off teachers and their conditions.
    Huge numbers in a class is the leading cause of burn out and the leaving of the profession. Good teachers who struggle with 30 kids in their class. Teachers dealing with dysfunctional students from dysfunctional families- what an easy life ! There’s more to working life than that !
    No doubt my detractors will say that teachers live in an ivory tower with huge amounts of holidays and good pay. Well, just go to a school and see the **** that teachers have to put up with. Sure, teachers are human and do make make mistakes and act stupidly- don’t lawyers,farmers,accountants do the same thing.
    To see our idealistic students enter the profession and then within a short period of time become cynical because the system and some of their students have let them down.
    Let’s at least be capable of rational thinking. To see these enthusiastic young teachers losing that spark from lack of public support. Maybe we should support teachers just like most of us support nurses,most police and other caring professions.
    And I am a middle/right supporter.And an ex-teacher.

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  7. wat dabney (3,422 comments) says:

    The solution, of course, is vouchers and competing private schools. Then class sizes is no longer a political issue but an empirical one which will be resolved by the market.

    Well, just go to a school and see the **** that teachers have to put up with.

    Any teacher who opposes corporal punishment is probably getting their ironical just deserts.

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  8. Michael (880 comments) says:

    Why do some Asian schools with class sizes twice the size of NZ ones beat us at Maths and Science? I bet there are many schools in Korea and Japan who we beat some of our schools at English as well!

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  9. Anthony (736 comments) says:

    Anyone who has seen a good teacher in action and a bad one knows that class size has little to do with it!

    Don’t mention paying teachers on performance!!!! I mean, the very thought!!!!

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  10. David in Chch (503 comments) says:

    My daughters went through an intermediate school that used streaming. For one of them, the class had 39 pupils but because they were bright and self motivated, there was never a discipline problem. Oh, and the parents were motivated for their children as well. Parents can have a significant influence.

    The students worked together on many tasks, and those same students went on to great success at all of their subsequent high schools and beyond. The same school had 20 pupils in the lower streamed classes where the students needed more attention.

    So no it isn’t class size, it’s how you work with that, and the resources. Horses for courses, as they say.

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  11. marcw (206 comments) says:

    @WD “The solution, of course, is vouchers”

    I’m sorry I just don’t get it. So next year my kids get a voucher which entitles them to choose to attend any school they like. They apply, along with 90% of the rest of the city to their “perceived” ideal school, and we now have 15,000 or so others wanting the same thing. How do you sort this out? Does the school then get the right to pick the winners and the rest told to bugger off, making the problem worse next year? Or, even if our preferred school was in the block next to us, we would be told sorry, we don’t want you here (you’re not ethnic enough, can’t have you bringing down our averages)? What would be the enrollment procedure to enable the system to cope?

    At the moment I believe we have the fairest system in zoning – if you live in the zone, then you have first option to attend your local school. And all schools have have a small further option to accept a fixed proportion from outside their zone under defined criteria – old-boys, special needs, unique courses, sporting or academic traditions etc.

    I just don’t understand your opinion that “The solution, of course, is vouchers and competing private schools” will help.

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  12. Falafulu Fisi (2,176 comments) says:

    As someone who coaches maths/physics to (both primary/secondary school) students in the evening (an anecdotal evidence only), I have noted that when the number of students per session increases (3, 4 or 5), then I have to do a longer duration session to bring them up to the same level, because I split my time with each one just to make sure that they’re on the same page. You can’t introduce them to a new topic and assumed that they’re all on the same page. I frequently asked if they understood what had been covered and they all said yes, but when I went one on one, I found that 1 or 2 didn’t really understand it. They weren’t lying when I asked if they all understood what we had just covered. They honestly believed that their interpretations of the new topic/s were correct, but that wasn’t the case. They had wrong interpretations which they had mistaken to mean they understood the topic. Once I find a hole/shortfall in their knowledge of a particular topic, then I plugged that.

    The question to ask is how would have the holes in their knowledge be found out? Well, the answer is obvious. Spend more time with them (if possible – go one on one). This basically means that the larger the number of students in a class, the less time you spend with each student. The smaller the class size, then the teacher has enough time to spend with each student. I believe that research on class size is centered mainly on size versus students’ performance and nothing else. It is a uni-variate statistical study which is error prone .There are other factors that affect students learning capabilities which should be taken into account.

    We all know that sports’ superstars of today had one on one coach (an undeniable fact) in their upbringing. They weren’t in a class of 10, 15 or 20? WHY? They spend more time with the coach one on one, which is something impossible if they were in a class of 10 or 15.

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  13. Imogen Neale (1 comment) says:

    Scott forgive me, I’ve only got one sentence to sum it all up.

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  14. Falafulu Fisi (2,176 comments) says:

    the scientific research

    I had previously pointed out here on Kiwiblog, that there is a huge difference in scientific study and statistical study. Research into class size is statistical and not scientific. Marketers/advertisers use the same statistical methods. Well, they’re not scientists. Are they? The authors of the book The Spirit Level called their own study scientific, just to be taken seriously. There is nothing scientific in their study whatsoever. All data collection & analytical methods they used were statistical. It’s the same thing as class-size studies. They are statistical studies and not scientific, because there is nothing science in there.

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  15. wat dabney (3,422 comments) says:


    It would clearly take time for the impact of vouchers to be felt, but over time the effect would be that bad schools would have to improve or they would simply close.

    Is it “fair” when children are condemned to a bad school simply because it’s nearest and they weren’t lucky in the lottery to get into one of the better local schools or because their parents were not wealthy enough to move to the right zone? That’s their future gone out the window right there. That’s not fair, that’s tragic.

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  16. Neil (525 comments) says:

    David in ChCh has summed up the problem perfectly.
    It’s a combination of parental interest,ability, school culture. 20 slow learners would challenge anyone.
    National Standards will NOT solve that problem. Low ability means that those slower learners will achieve results below the norm. It’s great to hear the pollies bewailing that 20% of students achieve below average in literacy and numeracy.These kids never left primary school before WW2.
    Loved peterwn’s comments with plenty of discipline. How would that go in todays permissive climate ?
    Comments that Asian schools achieve much with larger numbers. True but parental expectations are so high that most of those kids have individual tutoring. Realise the pressure those kids have. Many of our schools nonachievers are third or fourth generation failures. Asia sees many suicides for school failure.

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  17. marcw (206 comments) says:


    Sorry mate, still I can’t see how vouchers will work, short term or even in the future where the inequalities will get even worse. This is why we have “Tomorow’s Schools” with Boards of Trustees (or Commissioners if they don’t do their job), the ERO, and now, National Standards. If you think your school is bad, then you have the opportunity to get it fixed. If what you call a bad school closes, then the parents are not doing their job.

    I would like to hear how schools would be able to select their enrollments if a voucher system was in place – what criteria would they use to select or exclude voucher holders.

    I’m still a supporter of the current zone system.

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  18. transmogrifier (518 comments) says:

    I would put more stock in what Hattie says if he actually pursued genuine research with null hypotheses, controls and replicated trials. No, he just does a literature survey of other people’s work and then makes bold claims to get his name in the paper.

    Hattie is especially disingenuous as he loves to claim it is the amount and quality of the feedback from the teacher that makes the most difference, something that is obviously linked to the number of students you have to get round in a given time period. Yet because class sizes are always a hot button issue, he will keep on banging the drum “no, you don’t need small classes” because it gets him the publicity he craves.

    I’m a teacher, and smaller class sizes make a huge difference – at least at the mid-decile school I teach at, where individual classes often have a huge range of abilities and (probably more importantly) behaviour. Individual feedback is so important, and all other things being equal, I can offer more of that the smaller the class. This goes for feedback that is done from outside the classroom (i.e. marking practice essays) – I plan to have my Year 11 Geo class write a practice paragraph in the last 15 minutes of every lesson in the two weeks leading up the the NCEA exams (the time limit to get them used to exam conditions and working to the clock), mark it overnight and give it back the next day with comments. I can do this because I have a class of 26, but add another 10 to that, and it becomes unfeasible very quickly with all the others classes I have to do on top of that. And there is no point getting them to do the essay in the first place if I am not going to mark it and give them feedback.

    There was also a special Geography and History class trialled this year at Year 12, which specifically targeted students who were struggling with NCEA. The class was capped at around 20 (I think, maybe 22), and by all accounts it has been an amazing success, with the students involved getting the individual attention they needed and tasting success that helped spur them on for the rest of the year.

    I think many non-teachers forget that the average NZ high school student is not anything like the average NZ university student – at university, most (some?) students have proven to be motivated enough, have the organizational skills, and be mature enough to handle large, note-taking style lectures. But that would be a bloody disaster in the school I teach at.

    I guess in my round-about way, I would support a nationwide target for teacher-student ratio (1:28 at high school, maybe?) while still allowing schools to go above this for certain classes that warrant it. I don’t think there is much to be gained from not allowing any class in the country to go above a certain number, because there needs to be some capacity for individuals to make decisions based on circumstance (gasp!).

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  19. Max Call (212 comments) says:

    have to agree with Falafulu Fisi here – the amount of one-on-one time you spend with a student is very important.
    In a high school situation you only have a student for somewhere between 3-4hours per week (if they are present at school).
    While Falafulu Fisi can increase the amount of time he spends in a session with those he is tutoring this is usually not the case in a school. Obviously there is a big difference between class sizes of 30 and 20 and the amount of attention each individual gets.
    While John Hattie says class size is unimportant he also says that quality feedback/feed-forward is important.
    Remembering that the average high school teacher may teach up to perhaps 150 students a week (5 classes of 30 students for 4 periods each) and that they have to do other things apart from ‘quality feedback/feed-forward’ such as preparing for classes, including resources, preparing assessments, marking, moderation, duty, meetings, communication with other staff, parents etc, writing reports, coaching sports, mentoring, etc, etc, it seems that the quantity and quality of feedback/feed-forward would be greater if there were less students to do this for.

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  20. transmogrifier (518 comments) says:

    Yeah, the Asian school comparison is flawed, considering that the majority of high school students in Korea attend private institutions or have home tutors after public school finishes for the day (and I’m not exaggerating for effect here – a student who doesn’t go to a private academy is seen as strange), such is the pressure to pass the Korean equivalent of the SATs, which establishes what university they can go to and pretty much dictates their success in life. It’s at these academies, where classes are much, much smaller, that the students can get the individual feedback that they can’t get in their regular high school classes.

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  21. chrisw76 (82 comments) says:

    It is frustrating to be reading Kiwiblog at the moment. Outside of an election period the posts at least seem to take on board what the opponents are saying and make a reasoned argument for a policy position. Now it seems that cheerleading is the rule up until the end of November.

    >> DPF comment: [DPF: Nope even better, my years as a pupil]

    This is weapons grade trolling right here! {sarcasm} Obviously you had better keep an eye out for my opinions on statistical analysis based on my years of reading poll results in the paper. {/sarcasm}

    I don’t agree with a lot of what the PPTA says, but even a smidgen of common sense would suggest that large class sizes can’t be good for individual learning. And even if you make the case that a teacher through skill can overcome this to an extent, the sizeable amount of work that happens outside of the classroom is being completely overlooked.

    With 25 kids in a class and 5 classes a week, a teacher teaches 125 kids. With 35 this goes up to 175 kids. Assuming for a second that somehow the classroom teaching time is effective for those kids, consider the amount of administration that now follows them. A teacher now faces a 40% increase in out of the classroom work for NCEA assessments (rough back of the envelope number).

    This is time that they won’t spend on preparing, up-skilling or resting (sleep is important!) and will compromise their classroom time performance.

    This isn’t even a hypothetical – haven’t you noticed how many teachers have left the profession in recent years? Some were definitely useless, but a good deal simply looked at the workload and said “it isn’t worth it”. What is more worrying is the ones that are just hanging on trying to balance work and home life. They’ll probably be in the bottom 20% unless they are exceptional.

    So, the idea that if you sacked the bottom 20% of teachers (nice arbitrary number by the way), and gave the money to rest is just simply partisan stirring. Yes, the PPTA can be dicks, but you know sometimes they have an actual point.

    Cheers, Chris W.

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  22. big bruv (12,318 comments) says:


    Both DPF and I went to the same school, he will tell you that in our day class sizes of over 40 (and often approaching 50) were not uncommon.

    Discipline was tough but the teachers (most of them) were outstanding.

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  23. elscorcho (138 comments) says:

    Hattie is being disingenuous

    His own meta-study showed that the amount of time a teacher spends providing feedback to a student is a key determinant of success.

    From that we have a simple mathematical equation: number of potential time available per student = total time of lesson/number of students

    How Hattie can imagine that a teacher with 50 students can provide the same amount of feedback (which he himself has said is important) as one with 25 students is beyond my comprehension.

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  24. Artcroft (2 comments) says:

    As a primary teacher I couldn’t agree less with the idea that class size makes no difference. Best teaching practice today is much more of a mentoring process, with regular individual/small group conferences, detailed individual feedback/feed forward and coaching students into understanding where they are at and where they need to go next. There’s no “one size fits all” about this approach to teaching. BUT you can’t mentor groups over twelve effectively.

    Of course recognising the reality of the situation and developing suitable solutions is far too hard and expensive. Better, quicker and cheaper for politicians to deny unpleasant unreality and just spin an empty line.

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  25. Paulus (2,289 comments) says:

    When will some of the correspondents realise that National Standards is not an educational/teaching tool but a definition of pupil levels within a school/class from and to which specific educational needs/tools can be applied, as required.

    Better/Worse teachers will be seen from the exercise, but that is not what the unions want.

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  26. Anthony (736 comments) says:

    The class size issue is the usual distraction. The impact of a bad teacher is much, much worse than having a few extra kids in the class. But of course the teacher unions don’t want to know about bad teachers!

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  27. chrisw76 (82 comments) says:

    @Big Bruv: With respect, how do you know your teachers were any good? Apart from an individual or even class size subjective opinion, what analysis did you conduct to show whether or not your teacher actually made a significant difference to your learning outcome?

    Consider that we all go to the doctor at some point. Apart from being a nice person, I have no way to know whether or not they are any good until something goes wrong with my health. And even then I will probably still be left wondering as I am only a sample size of one and they might get lucky or unlucky with the diagnosis.

    @Anthony: I think the PPTA would argue that one way to take not-so-good teachers (assuming we have a more than a black and white good/bad scale here) and improve the outcomes for their students is to lower their workload to allow them to become better teachers. I am of course assuming you are serious about improving the educational outcomes and not just using the old “bad teacher” argument as a rationale not to do anything.

    Cheers, Chris W.

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  28. transmogrifier (518 comments) says:

    So Anthony, your solution is to get rid of the bad teachers (who do exist, of course) and as a reward for the good teachers, increase their workload and make it more difficult for them to do what makes them good properly?

    It’s a false either/or argument, that it is a simple choice between lower class sizes/keeping bad teachers and higher class sizes/with 100% great teachers. For me, lower class sizes are better for all teachers (good or bad) for obvious reasons. And bad teachers are a blight on the profession, but this needs to be addressed at the training stage and with more rigourous performance standards NOT by ridiculing the idea of smaller class sizes as a union smokescreen.

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  29. elscorcho (138 comments) says:

    Most of the people I studied with during teacher training I wouldn’t trust to teach my cat.

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  30. Scott Chris (5,672 comments) says:

    chrisw76 – “With respect, how do you know your teachers were any good?”

    The old 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 rule seldom fails.

    A third of teachers are good teachers.

    A third of teachers are not really suited to teaching.

    A third of teachers are borderline criminals.

    Works for any occupation. Try, say, cops…

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  31. Viking2 (10,683 comments) says:

    We could make a serious difference by doing two things. Different the pupils and thus their pathway at school and allow young people to leave school when they are ready and able to start work. Just like we usde to do.

    We used to separate out for learning those that wanted to follow an academic course and those that were more likely to follow a trade or some other vocation. Some bright person decided that was no longer PC, scrapped the idea of schools being a prerequisite to work and replaced that with everyone is a uni student thereby increasing the school rolls, dismantling the non academic training and ensuring that education became a failure for many and a frustration for more and then ensured the cost went way up.
    Further the useless in charge then decided that it was a good idea to remove youth rates thus discriminating against youth and ensuring that even if they wanted and were able to work no employer could afford to take them on to train them.

    Dismantle this self interested pathway that the teaching profession and its friends have put in place and go back to what always worked.
    Then the cost savings can be used to better effect including smaller classes and smaller schools.

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  32. Anthony (736 comments) says:

    I’m not saying increase class sizes or have fewer teachers but class sizes is a distraction. I agree teachers are overworked with too much paperwork nowadays so that should be looked at.

    I don’t agree with all this “its difficult to tell how effective a teacher is” – yes it might be difficult to tell between good teachers – but nearly everyone knows a poor teacher when they see them. The kids have little respect for them, their class runs riot, they often know less than their students about the subject they are meant to be teaching them . . . It’s not rocket science!

    Some people are just not cut out to be teachers and this idea that they just need more or better training is PC nonsense! Let all hold hands with the poor teachers shall we and sing Kum bi ya!

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  33. transmogrifier (518 comments) says:

    Viking – I totally agree. I see at our school so many kids staying on far too long, never showing an aptitude and/or interest in classroom learning but with absolutely no other viable options (or at least, obvious options, because many of them don’t exactly have initiative). They are literally wasting two years until society says they can’t go to school anymore and then drift into something else with no direction.

    That is one easy way to reduce class sizes in the senior school – provide other pathways towards the key factor in a happy life: work.

    Smaller schools, smaller classrooms, smaller number of teachers needed, so easier to weed out the incompentent by making teacher training courses more competitive…..pretty straightfoward. But it seems that our politicians prefer to measure success by the easiest to count but most meaningless number imaginable – number of kids who stay in school.

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  34. transmogrifier (518 comments) says:

    Anthony – I agree, if you are going to improve teacher quality, it is at the bottom end you need to start, getting rid of those teachers offering nothing. The place to start is being more ruthless with trainee teachers.

    I disagree with performance pay in a public school setting. It’s a false economy with a fixed amount of “consumer” money available to spend on the brilliant teachers – so if you reward the top 10%, say, with a 30% pay increase, there has to be an equal drop in pay over the rest of the teachers. Ideally, this would cause the more useless teachers to drop out, but they need to be replaced because the numbers of kids to be taught will stay the same, and if these newcomers are great, they are still scrambling for a fixed amount of spending in the public school system. In a private school system, schools could attract new customers with increasing quality of their teachers, but that doesn’t happen in our schools because of governmental imposed budget for education spending on the behalf of our customers.

    I don’t think there is a fair way to objectively measure teaching performance in a public school setting where we don’t get to choose our customers. For example, I have a very challenging form class with several kids who are trouble within the school, and I think I have done my best to reduce the extent to which they have got themselves in trouble. I’ve had some stand-downs and fights (outside the classroom), but given what I know of the kids I got given at the start of last year, I’m happy that I have done everything I could for them and been of benefit to them. However, a good friend of mine at the school got given one of the top classes for his form class, and he has barely had a problem with them, and all those kids are doign very well. So does he get paid more than me because his kids are performing better than mine (as they are expected to do)? Or do I get paid more because I have (arguably) had a greater influence on the behaviour of my kids based on their background? Why should either of us be punished for the classes we were given? And if we both get paid more (and remember, the school salary budget has to stay the same), who gets paid less? And if those who get paid less leave as a result, and better teachers come in, where do they get their increase in salary from? Am I going to lose my extra pay if I’m deemed not as good now, despite doing the exact same quality of job as the previous year?

    And so on.

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  35. Anthony (736 comments) says:

    I agree the biggest impact can be made by dealing with the worst teachers. Performance pay does have the issues that you list. However, I do have a problem with the almost automatic increment that teachers get based on years of service. No one else gets this anymore.

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  36. Max Call (212 comments) says:

    fair enough point.
    however, that automatic increment only happens several times (most of us start more than half way up the scale due to our quals) and then you are at the ‘top’ of the pay scale with no way of increasing your pay except to take on management duties.
    I am not at the top of the scale yet as it is only my fourth year teaching but I do get extra for being a Dean. I get a MA and MMU which equates to $5k per year before tax. I also get 3 hours a week on my timetable to do the job which means I teach 4.5 classes rather than 5 and teach slightly more than I am supposed to. Due to the rolling timetable this is only a half an hour a week on average. The shared half class brings it’s own challenges of coordinating with another teacher. Over and above the 3 hours given to me do the job, I spend on average at least another 12 hours per week on deaning. Including the holidays between terms (which is when I also spend a lot of time on class planning, marking and NCEA paperwork). So much for our wonderful holidays that everyone loves to refer to! Obviously, I do not do the deaning for the money! It is a very challenging part of the job though. It often brings a lot of stress and worry as usually it is dealing with students who aren’t going so well. It also gives you a unique insight into which teachers are not coping or teaching well. Maybe I am lucky? But I can tell you at the school I teach at (State), it is far less than the 20% DPF wants to get rid of. Out of our 70 staff I can think of only 2 that are struggling. Obviously out of the rest there is still a variance of ability.

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  37. mpledger (428 comments) says:

    In England they are trialling class sizes of 70 but the teaching staff in the class are two teachers plus two teacher assistants.
    That’s a 17.4 to 1 teacher ratio.


    Noise issues hinder learning and 70 kids in a classroom can generate a lot of noise.

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  38. Mick Mac (1,091 comments) says:

    I really don’t know why each teacher scan’t have 2/3rd year students during term time as class assistants as part of their rotations.
    It would weed out the crap and give them hands on experience over 2-3 yrs.
    20-25 per class is fine for secondary.

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  39. Anthony (736 comments) says:

    I think DPF was probably exaggerating about the 20 percent of poor teachers but it would vary according to the school. Anyway, the best solution would be to have teachers on renewable maybe three contracts that schools didn’t have to renew.

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  40. znz (1 comment) says:

    Some New Zealanders have an absolute disdain for the teaching profession, teachers can be amazing, they can be flawed but so can every other profession on the planet. Become a teacher and understand what it means before you comment on how useless we are.

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