A teachers’ lament. Forwarded to me for anonymous publication:
Treasury have said that they want to raise class sizes so that they can pay for fewer teachers, so they can allocate that money to other things for education.
For a start, whenever anyone suggests monkeying about with education, the litmus test I use is: what would happen if you did it to doctors? For example: If a hospital had the best and most state-of-the-art equipment but almost no doctors to use it, most people would call that a bad idea. Most people would ask, I imagine, why the hospital couldn’t have the fancy equipment AND a large staff of highly-trained doctors. Actually, a lot of people have been asking that question for a very long time now. Especially those on waiting lists. Of course, the moment it stops being about something important (your health) and starts being about something that doesn’t matter in the slightest (your children) then all of a sudden the stakes don’t seem so high.
The government (you remember those guys) has said that it will not under any circumstances discuss class-size – even on the rare occasion it is willing to offer us more money and non-contact time. They often throw John Hattie’s research on the table; specifically the bit that says class size makes no difference to achievement. What doesn’t get thrown around so freely is how those sorts of statistics get compiled. Here’s a scenario for you…
My school has 75 kids starting this year. (We have many more, but I’m being hypothetical here…) We are going to divide them into three classes, called The Smart Class, The Average Class, and The Dumb Class. (There’s a longer discussion about the fun euphemisms schools use to describe these things – but be honest; whatever they were called, you knew which one you were in when you were in high school, didn’t you? So we’ll be damningly truthful about the titles for now and you can yell at me later.) Each of these three classes should have around 25 students. Except of course, the students in The Dumb Class need more help than their more able counterparts. They need more one-on-one time and more personalised assistance In addition to this being basic common sense, it’s also been proved in studies quoted by the Ministry of Education (which they follow with studies that say increasing class size won’t matter, which is sort of cognitive dissonance, but who am I to judge?). In order to make sure that the lower ability students are properly catered for – and have a chance to achieve at the same level as their peers – we take certain steps, such as giving a teacher-aide to that class. The main step we take is to ensure that the class only has fifteen students in it.
To accomplish this, of course, we have to move the ten most able of the bottom-end up to The Average Class. Which now has 35 students. So we have to move the five most able of them into the Smart Class.
I start the year with The Smart Class and The Dumb Class – The Average Class is taught by some other poor doomed soul, so they leave our narrative for now. I spend all of Monday explaining the work, and they have Tuesday’s period to complete the task.
Here’s how that goes in The Dumb class: Fifteen students in an average period of one hour have myself and the teacher-aide to sit with them, explain the task, help them with it etc. The maths works out as each student having eight minutes of one-on-one time with an adult to assist them with their work. (60÷15×2) Also, if one of the students is disruptive, I can move them away from their peers (probably right up near me – you remember how that works). If they continue to be really disruptive, I can take them out into the corridor for a while, while the teacher-aide watches the rest of the class, and I do my student-whisperer act to calm them down.
Next period, The Smart Class of 30 comes in and I try that again. The absence of a teacher-aide means that this class has only two minutes each of one-on-one time with an educator to help them. (60÷30×1) Of course one hopes that members of The Smart Class need less one-on-one time to understand the work. But 75% less? Sure, they might not need eight minutes, but what if they need three? This is particularly pressing because, you’ll remember, five (at least) of these students aren’t actually high-ability – they are (cue menacing music) Average, but have been shunted uphill to even-out the class numbers. They’ll start drowning if I go too fast, but the rest of class will lose interest if I slow it down too much. If one of the students is disruptive (and yes, The Smart Class has less of this than The Dumb Class, but when you cram 30 teenagers into a stuffy room in the February heat, oddly enough they’re not all on their best behaviour) I can’t easily move them – there are 30 desks in my class and no one is away that day. In order to move the naughty student, I have to look into the eager eyes of the Good Student who volunteered to sit next to my desk and say “Oi you, the hard working one who’s always eager to please and wants to do well academically. Go sit up the back with a pack of hooligans who hate you, because I want their ringleader to sit in your seat. Off you toddle.” Also, if one of them is really disruptive, I have to think long and hard before taking them out of class, because that would mean leaving 29 others (who are all het-up and excited that one of their number is getting in trouble) on the other side of a door without direct supervision for five minutes, which is enough time for some of my students to get into extinction-level trouble.
So, because The Dumb Class are all working at roughly the same level and the school has gone to great efforts to create a positive and constructive learning environment, they all get a grade of Achieved – basically a C in oldspeak. This is a minor miracle, as most of them have never gotten such a high mark in their lives, and proves that I’m a great teacher. Let’s have a look at The Smart Class’ results…
Because at any given point over fifteen percent of the class was struggling to keep up with the work, and the learning environment was one where not only did I have difficulty catching them up, but where I had almost no one-on-one time with the students and where behaviour problems escalated rather than diminished, most of these students do remarkably badly. These top-end, Merit/Excellence students only get grades of Achieved. This means that I – and the school – have failed them. Instead of pushing them to bigger and better things, they have ended Year 9 roughly as clever and with approximately the same amount of knowledge as they began it.
So, after all this has been done, Ministry Faktdrones™ come in and look at one piece of paper that has all of our grades on it. They don’t look at the students as humans, don’t look at any of our processes, and often don’t even look at previous results which would let them know things like value-added results. They look at one sheet of results and say “Look here – the class with 30 all got Achieved, and the class with 15 all got Achieved too. That means, statistically, class size doesn’t make a difference. Let’s cram forty of the little firestarters in there next year!”
Something I constantly and tiresomely have to harp on about when I’m talking to (at?) people about this and other education issues, is that the students are not statistics, and sometimes can’t be pigeonholed to fit a statistically clean model. That means in order to explain the truth behind the “clean” stats presented by the Ministry, I have to ramble on for pages just to get a simplified version out (and let me tell you – the above was a lot of smooth lines compared to the dirty reality of timetabling) but the Ministry can point to one page of clean, fresh statistics and say “Look, it says here they all got the same marks – pay no attention to the raving hippy.” That means – simply in terms of PR and getting the message out – that their job is easier, and their message is more palatable and easy for the public to understand. Doesn’t make it true, though. And it sure as hell doesn’t help the students, which is what they tell me is the point of this whole exercise in the first place…