For everyone In the classroom, size matters

One aspect of the pandemic worth celebrating was watching right-wing, neoliberal politicians – faced with the collapse of economies and healthcare systems – enact social spending initiatives that would ordinarily have seen them labelled as Communists. In the headlong rush to “return to normal”, we need to remember the truth their actions admitted: it’s only within supportive institutions that individuals can truly thrive.

This dissonance between what politicians say and what they do was no clearer than when the Victorian education minister announced that 2021 should be dedicated to supporting students who had fallen behind in lockdown. Despite having never worked harder, it seemed teachers had failed to deliver the expected growth targets in literacy and numeracy. You could be forgiven for feeling a little offended.

Research suggests that small group tuition can boost student learning by five months over one term of schooling.

But the solution was not, as you might have expected after a decade of evidence-based education research, to make individual teachers deliver more of the proven High Impact Teaching Strategies. Instead, the state government is spending $250 million to recruit and deploy more than 4,100 tutors to work with small groups of students with specific learning needs. When push comes to shove, it seems lowering class sizes matters after all.

Hang on a second… didn’t John Hattie, the demi-god of the Educational Result Cult, show that class size and ability grouping were not statistically relevant? To be fair to Hattie, a lack of evidence of their efficacy is not the same as evidence of their lack of effect – but why not spend the $250 million to employ Education Inquisitors to monitor the efficient delivery of the strategies with the highest impact?

Well, it turns out more recent research by the Grattan Research institute suggests that small group tuition can boost student learning by five months over one term of schooling. When it comes to science, you fight fire with fire.

Forced to make the utilitarian choice to work with those who need it most, my students at the top now suffer from neglect.

When I started teaching almost 20 years ago, my average class size was less than 20. Once, I even had 14 students in a Year 9 English class, which meant that in a 90-minute session I could give everyone individual feedback and spend extra time with those who needed it. I could assess their essays the week they were submitted, and I even had time to take creative risks, such as our end of year ‘Pokémon poetry night’, where small groups of parents had to explore the school by torchlight and find the students who were waiting in costumes ready to perform their best poems. Only one group caught them all.

Now I am lucky if my class is capped at 25, and my teaching has become quantitatively and qualitatively different. Not only have the extra students made the work of assessment and reporting spill into my weekends, but because the problem starts in primary school, there are now proportionally more students in need of extra help. Forced to make the utilitarian choice to work with those who need it most, my students at the top now suffer from neglect.

Worse, the kind of creativity that can make my job a joy has been whittled away by standardised teaching practices made necessary by the very conditions they claim are statistically irrelevant. Worse of all, this slowly growing workload snowball has meant that I have hardly any time to identify, let alone help, those students with bigger issues than how to craft a line of iambic pentameter. 

My hope this year is that the tutoring program will not just achieve its stated goals of lifting literacy and numeracy results, it will also improve the harder to measure aspects of student and teacher wellbeing. But I also worry that, even if successful, the tutoring program will be taken away as fast as it was given, and the government will fail to (publicly) make the link between its success and the benefits of lower class sizes.

We need to be ready to argue against the inevitable “can’t afford it” rhetoric. If a few more teachers working with smaller groups of students can make a difference, then perhaps the tutoring program – or its equivalent, in the form of smaller classes – should become part of our ‘new normal’.

It is, at least, a hypothesis worth testing.

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