Edited version published in the NT Suns on September 5 2017
SCHOOL STAFFING A 40 YEAR OLD YO-YO
It’s on again! For the past 40 plus years, the issue of class sizes has occupied the minds of educators. The subject is one that has dominated the thinking of parents, classroom teachers, principals and system administrators. Documenting the changes that have taken place in both primary and secondary schools, urban and rural over the years, would fill the pages of a large book.
The argument about class sizes grows from educational theory and classroom practice. It includes issues of student age and ability. It differentiates between desk based learning and more practical lessons requiring the engagement of specialist teachers and equipment.
The current Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) between the Department of Education and teachers is due to expire in October. Among changes being sought by the Australian Education Union (NT) is for Territory class sizes to be reduced from 27 to 25.
The NT Government became responsible for administering Territory Education in 1979. During the 38 years since, there have been innumerable expansions and contractions in class sizes. These changes have been endorsed as part of the process attached to policy management and shifts in educational priorities.
The staffing formula once used to determine teacher entitlement took one side of an A4 page. In recent years, that has changed. Calculating exact teacher numbers for schools is no longer a simple process. It is one that has been made more complex by the fact that student classification (including special teaching needs and behaviour management) is taken into account when determining staff entitlements for each school. What was a simple process is now a complex issue.
Practical matters also cloud staffing considerations. When teachers are absent, it is not always possible to employ relief staff to cover classes. There are generally more positions in schools to be filled than relief teachers available for employment. Relief teachers will not always accept employment because of travel difficulties and other problems.
When causal teachers are not available, groups may have to be split, with students adding to the numbers in other classes. For primary, middle and senior schools, teachers may have to forego release time.
Assigning specialist teachers to general classroom teaching duties is another ‘solution’, that while necessary, is certainly not desirable. It can mean program changes and students missing out on art, music, physical education and other specialised subjects.
It is one thing to develop a formula for class sizes and another altogether to make it work.