Padraic P. McGuinness, “Best and less the call for schools,”
The Weekend Australian, June 8-9, 1991, p. 2.

With all the political kerfuffle in Canberra in the past week it is not surprising that important issues have been overlooked or unreported. One of the most important releases of the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week has therefore barely been mentioned.

This is the latest summary of statistics of Australian schools (Catalogue No. 4221.0) which summarises what we actually know in numerical terms about our schools. The major additional item of information which has not been included in earlier annual editions of this publication is the ratio of teachers to students in the school system. It sheds a lot of light on the perennially controversially issue of class sizes.

Now it has to be said immediately that the bureau’s careful statisticians warn that their figures of teacher-student ratios cannot be translated directly into class-size figures. Nevertheless, to a non-purist they make a fair approximation.

Let us start from the most basic facts. There are 10,007 schools in Australia (as of July 1990), of which 7490 (75 per cent) were government schools. There were 3,041,657 students enrolled in the schools, of which 2,193,347 (72 per cent) were in government schools. That is, of the Australian resident population of 17.1 million as of June 30,1990 nearly one in five (18 per cent) were school kids. This alone is a measure of the importance of schools to our society.

So how well are they served by numbers? The basic fact is that on average in Australian schools there were just over fifteen students for every full-time equivalent teacher. In primary schools the ratio was 18.4:1, in secondary schools it was 12.4:1. For the Catholic schools, the primary ratio was 21.1:1 and the secondary ratio 14:1. Now the importance of these figures is that they show that if anything class sizes in Australia are wastefully small.

Despite all the propaganda of teachers’ unions, the evidence is that up to about 40 there is no loss in educational efficiency in increasing class sizes. The figures suggest that the Australian school system is grossly over-staffed. Even if the number of teachers employed were reduced by a quarter or a third, there would be no danger to students. (Provided, that is, that the least qualified and effective were retrenched.) We could increase the salaries of the remainder substantially, with no loss (indeed a probably gain) in education performance.

There is of course much more to be gleaned from these statistics. The “apparent” retention rate (apparent, because there are complications such as students repeating school years), that is the proportion of each age group remaining at school, has increased in recent years. On average, the proportion of school students staying the whole course, to year 12, increased from 60 per cent in 1989 to 64 per cent in 1990. The retention rate varies widely, from 45 per cent in Tasmania to 87 per cent in the ACT. (The Canberra figure reflects both the higher average education and income level of Canberra residents, and students from Queanbeyan and other areas near Canberra moving into the ACT system for the last couple of years of their schooling.)

This increase in retention rates is in principle a good thing — it should mean that the population is being better educated.

As far as teacher/student ratios are concerned, there is not a great variation between States. The biggest primary classes (to repeat, the ABS says you cannot equate student/teacher ratios to class sizes, but it is nevertheless a fair approximation) were in NSW, with a student/teacher ratio of 19.8 in primary schools — but the privileged ACT had a similar ratio, 19.7. NSW had the highest ratio at the secondary level, 13.1 by comparison with the ACT’s 12.7. The point is that the range of variation is too small to account in itself for any difference in educational performance between States and Territories.

What about differences between government and non-government systems? The most interesting difference here is between the degrees of bureaucratisation. For government schools, the teaching staff amounted to 82 per cent of the total, about the same as that for Catholic schools but higher than that for the non-government sector as a while, with 79 per cent.

The specialist support staff in the government schools were 2.2 per cent of the total, while for Catholic schools they were under 1 per cent. The administrative and clerical staff were near 13 per cent for both groups. But the real measure of bureaucracy is the figures for non-school staff. These are available only for the government sector, so it is the State comparisons which are interesting.

The national average for executive staff (not including staff attached to schools, such as principals) was 7.45 per cent of total non-school staff, with NSW numerically the greatest (212), or 9.6 per cent of total NSW non-school government education staff. However, when we go down a level, NSW looks pretty lean, with just over 12 per cent specialist support staff, against a national average of 23.6 per cent; while Victoria’s specialist support staff came to nearly 28 per cent of the non-school staff. This of course confirms what is well known, that the Victorians have a top-heavy educational bureaucracy. The higher proportion of top jobs in the NSW educational bureaucracy is offset by greater leanness at the middle management level.

The statistics confirm, what is also well known, that there is an erosion of the government school population in favour of the non-government sector. However, this is not as great as the effect of the migration of school-age people to Queensland and Western Australia. Over the last three years, as the ABS demographics statistics released on Thursday show (3101.0), population has been shifting from NSW and Victoria to Queensland in particular, and to a lesser extent to Western Australia. This complicates analysis of movements between government and non-government school systems.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the latter are gaining students from the government schools, especially at the secondary level. (It is a common phenomenon for parents to rely on the State primary schools, and shift kids into the non-government sector when they begin to worry about their post-school future.)

Thus over the years 1988-1990 the numbers of students in government secondary schools in Victoria fell from 234,615 to 227,300 while the numbers in non-government secondary schools fell from 128,558 to 128,180. That is, the non-government schools were gaining pupils on a relative basis. In NSW government secondary schools’ students declined from 318,484 to 306,494 over the two years, while non-government schools picked up from 133,387 to 136,021, despite the overall loss of students from secondary education. It is clear, therefore, that parents and student were voting with their feet in favour of non-government schools — at least before the recession.

There is a lot more information to be gained from the study of these statistics. There is also much information to be gained from the testing of students at various levels on a system-wide basis, in order to be able to draw conclusions about the performance of the schools on a comparative basis. But not unexpectedly the NSW Teachers’ Federation has been doing its best to sabotage the collection of statistics by testing in NSW schools this week.

It is perhaps not surprising when as additional evidence comes to light it shows that we need better teachers, but a lot fewer of them. Why not pay the good teachers more and let the inferior ones become clerks or labourers?

[By the same author on the same subject: Padraic P. McGuinness, “A new angle on teaching,” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 24, 1994, p. 14.]

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Where Friedman is a pinko
  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. The Libertarian Alternative
  4. Libel laws block insider's revelations of Australia's industrial mess
  5. But perhaps the merchants of doom have a point
  6. The Origins of Paddy McGuinness
  7. The Itch for Influence
  8. LA safe from religious poverty
  9. Aunty should hang up her boots in face of premature senility
  10. Warning: health is a budget hazard
  11. New ABC Tory chief won't rock the boat
  12. Time to sell the ABC
  13. Youth victims of the welfare con
  14. Paddy McGuinness on class sizes (1991)
  15. More teachers won't solve the problems in our schools
  16. Paddy McGuinness on Catholics and wealth distribution
  17. Paddy McGuinness proposes inheritance tax equal to handouts received by deceased
  18. Let them swim nude
  19. Time to legalise heroin
  20. State-sponsored sports rorts
  21. The blight of the baby-boomers
  22. To reduce the problems of crime and corruption, legalise heroin
  23. We should ban Olympics
  24. Evidence shows heroin policy is not working
  25. Wowsers deny society while killing children
  26. Will Australia compete?
  27. Canberra's social revolution
  28. Paddy McGuinness in 1994 on the 2012 class size debate
  29. Why not pay for the ABC?
  30. Paddy McGuinness on David Stove
  31. Sometimes the truth hurts
  32. Paddy McGuinness on compulsory, informal and donkey voting, and breaking electoral laws
  33. Thomas Sowell, McGuinness, Aborigines and other minorities
  34. Genocide with kindness
  35. Hyde, McGuinness and Sturgess on Chaining/Changing Australia
  36. Paddy McGuinness defends comparing IQ of races
  37. Do-gooders should glorify smokers
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