Missing links: class size, discipline, inclusion and teacher quality

Government schools Classrooms Education Learning and teaching Australia

The Vinson Report on Public Education in NSW contains a wealth of information, and makes important points about schools, teachers and education in public schools throughout the state.

The Report’s recommendation on class sizes has attracted more attention than any other. This is unfortunate because it is on this issue that the Report is weakest.

There are two central problems. First, the review of research findings on class size and achievement is inadequate. Second, the conclusions drawn on the basis of the limited information presented are debatable.

A more thorough appraisal of the research on class sizes reveals the following:

  • Many studies have methodological problems that make their application in a real world context doubtful.
  • Many studies have introduced other reforms such as curriculum changes at the same time as class size reduction, making their individual effects impossible to determine.
  • The large majority of studies have found no significant effects of class size on student achievement. The remainder have shown small benefits, usually only when classes have less than 20 students.
  • Reducing classes from 25 to 20 would cost an extra $1,150 per student per year, and would obtain only two minutes more individual instruction per day.
  • Class size has less effect when teachers are competent.
  • The single most important influence on student achievement is teacher quality.

It is far more valuable, both in educational and fiscal terms, to have good teachers than lots of teachers. The Vinson Report and the Ramsay Report of 2000 reveal that teacher education in NSW is ineffective in preparing teachers for the classroom, and that professional development is unacceptably meagre.

The Vinson Report’s recommendations on class sizes will eventually cost billions of dollars and serve only to undermine the more important issue of teacher quality.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). She is the author of Families, Freedom and Education: Why School Choice Makes Sense (CIS 2001) and co-author with Ross Harold of Issue Analysis No. 20 .

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