Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Australia: Big classes no barrier to performance

REDUCING class sizes has been a costly policy that hasn't translated into student improvement, tying up money that could have been used "for more worthwhile purposes" in schools, the Productivity Commission warns.

In a report to be released today, the Productivity Commission says a wider range of class sizes would be more cost effective and allow for changes in the allocation of teacher class time versus professional development.

It comes as analysis of The Courier-Mail Queensland Schools Guide, which allows parents to compare schools of their choice, found no correlation between student to teacher ratios and national literacy and numeracy test results.

Queensland has prided itself in recent years on its reduction in class sizes to among the smallest in Australia.

In the state system, there is maximum class size target of 25 students in Prep to Year 3, 28 pupils in Year 4 to 10 and back to 25 in Years 11 and 12.

But Grattan Institute school education program director Ben Jensen said yesterday there was "a mountain of evidence showing overwhelmingly class size has virtually no impact".

"You get a slightly bigger impact on smaller class sizes in younger age levels, but we are still talking about a minimal impact," he said.

The Productivity Commission report agrees, stating student literacy and numeracy has declined in recent years with Australian students falling behind high-performing international counterparts, despite reduced class sizes.

"The policy focus in relation to the schools workforce has tended to concentrate more on teacher numbers, particularly by reducing class sizes," the report says.

"Such reductions have been pursued partly on the presumption that, by enabling teachers to give more individual attention to each student, there will be better student outcomes.

"... Research suggests that smaller class sizes will only benefit some student groups, such as those with learning difficulties, disabilities or other special needs.

"It therefore appears that the across-the-board approach to class-size reductions has been a costly policy that has not translated into a commensurate improvement in overall student outcomes.

"It has tied up funding that could otherwise have been used for a range of more worthwhile purposes, including to better reward quality teaching and use pay differentials for hard-to-staff positions."

The Queensland Teachers' Union has been pursuing even smaller class sizes in Queensland. QTU president Kevin Bates said teachers told them smaller class sizes did make a big difference in this state.

He said individual schools had the ability to apply to have bigger and smaller class sizes if it suited their circumstances.

Data collected for the Queensland Schools Guide shows the number of students per teacher at individual schools ranged from 1.6 to 54.3, with only two schools running distance education posting ratios above 23:1.

The count includes principals, deputy principals and non-classroom teachers.


Bite-sized marking  of British High School exams could go as final exams make a comeback as regulator admits confidence had been eroded

A-levels look set to be overhauled after the exams regulator admitted confidence in the qualifications had been eroded by more than a decade of grade inflation.

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, blamed the undermining of A-levels and preceding GCSE exams on the cumulative effect of examiners giving students the ‘benefit of the doubt’, awarding them ‘small gains’ with each such decision.

Experts have also blamed a ‘dumbing down’ of the exam system on the former Labour government’s introduction of modular exams, which allowed students to repeatedly resit tests on ‘bite sized’ chunks of the curriculum until they passed.

Miss Stacey revealed Ofqual will consult over the summer on proposals to ‘move away from a modular approach’ at A-level.

Her comments herald a return to the traditional A-level where pupils take exams at the end of the course, with the AS-level exam – brought in as part of the reforms 12 years ago and sat by students at the end of the lower sixth-year – also set to be scrapped.

Miss Stacey had previously said it was ‘unhelpful and negative’ to suggest successive record results were the result of grade inflation and not ‘young people being taught well and working hard’.

But in an interview yesterday she admitted that ‘containing’ grade inflation in this year’s A-levels and GCSEs, by ensuring exam boards set ‘justifiable’ grade boundaries, was a major focus.

Last year, A-level results showed an improvement for the 29th consecutive year, with the overall pass rate up from 97.6 per cent to 97.8 per cent.

Earlier this month, an Ofqual report highlighted concerns among academics that first-year university students had a ‘shallower’ knowledge than 15 years ago, despite  rising A-level grades.

‘If you look at the history, we have seen persistent grade inflation for these key qualifications for at least a decade,’ Miss Stacey told a newspaper.

‘The grade inflation we have seen is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything, in my view, to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications.’


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