Padraic P. McGuinness, “A new angle on teaching,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, December 24, 1994, p. 14.

Do we really need more schoolteachers? Whenever the condition and performance of our schools are debated, the first cry to come from the teachers’ unions and their supporters in the community, and indeed often enough from governments, is that class sizes must be reduced and more teachers must be employed. But surely we need fewer and better teachers.

Thus documents like the National Report on Schooling in Australia, which simply summarise statistics on spending per pupil and numbers of pupils per class, are pretty useless and uninformative since they tell us nothing about the actual performance of the system. Like the statistics issued by DEET training on the tertiary education system, they are worthless since they measure nothing in terms of quality or outputs, nor do they make possible not just gross comparisons, which could equally be interpreted to indicate which of the States and systems are more wasteful than others, but systemic and individual school comparisons.

The fundamental issue, which needs to be restated since it is so often denied by educationists who are not interested in the results of genuine research, is that there is no evidence that teacher or pupil performance is related in any linear fashion to class size. Study after study has shown that within wide limits, class size does not matter. Thus small-group teaching can have many benefits for pupils. But between limits as wide as 15 to 40, class size is irrelevant to the quality of outcomes.

In itself, this is not an argument for higher pupil-teacher ratios in any particular school. The number of class hours per day taken by any one teacher is important to the quality of his or her performance — the burden of preparation does not vary with the number of pupils in a class, but the burden of marking and other forms of assessment, as well as individual consultation, clearly does. So for the number of teaching hours, class size obviously does matter. However, it does serve to demonstrate the over-simplification of the issue which occurs when class size is debated.

The record of education spending over the last 25 years also serves as a demonstration of the fact that simply spending more on education does not necessarily improve the quantity and quality of outputs by any sensible criterion. The Whitlam Government did not begin the era of lavish spending on education, but it did begin the process of escalation virtually at the demand of teachers, with expansion taking place without any analysis of its results. The fact that it is difficult to discern clearly that educational performance has improved or worsened over the past generation is the result largely of the obscurantist approach of teachers and bureaucrats. It is tempting to say that it has worsened, but this cannot be proved.

What is obvious, however, is that the average quality of teachers has declined. This does not mean that there are no good people going into teaching — there are. Indeed, the fact that there are so many good teachers still in the system is what makes its generally poor performance so universally frustrating. But before the huge expansion of the university and college system which was initiated by the Menzies Government, virtually the only avenue of tertiary education for working-class kids was through the teaching system. Now everyone who can scrape into university has a chance of becoming a lawyer, a bureaucrat, a social worker, a journalist or a white-mouse wrangler. The result is that the average quality of the pool from which teachers are drawn has declined, through no fault of teachers.

So there is a desperate shortage of good teachers. What is important is how to employ this minority most effectively, so as to minimise the harmful influence of the rest. The answers to this should be pretty obvious. We have seen the effects of mindless union militancy in those industries where unions have a stranglehold over the introduction of new technology and better management and organisational methods. We have also seen in recent years the dramatic productivity growth which can take place, in the service as well as in manufacturing industries, when the pressures to adjust are applied. Budgetary restriction is a crude, painful, but effective way of bringing such pressures to bear. It would be better, almost always, to introduce reform without accompanying financial restrictions — as the volume of noise accompanying the essential cutbacks in the Victorian health system has shown.

When one reflects on the extraordinarily rapid rate of technological change in most industries, it is amazing how old fashioned education looks.

Education is still dominated by the old idea that it is about face-to-face teacher-pupil interaction. As with all service industries, this will remain important. But there is clearly great scope for more efficient and effective means of delivery — better customer service. This is already happening even in the Australian education industry, as the broadcast media experiment with open learning. Much of the locally produced material of this nature is fairly low quality — especially in areas like “Australian Studies” or environmental subjects, much of which is pure propaganda — but it does illustrate the possibility of delivering high-quality teaching, visuals, and printed materials to a student population.

Computers are being introduced into the schools quite rapidly now, and as more is learned about the materials which can be handled with them (not just the gimmicks like CD-Rom multimedia encyclopedias), and the ways in which they can be interconnected with high-quality teaching materials and sources from elsewhere in the world, the need for the average plodder of a teacher, no matter how well-intentioned, clearly will decline.

What education research and funding ought to be directed increasingly towards are technologies and modes of teaching and pupil organisation which will drastically reduce the number of traditional-style class teachers, while ensuring that the educational inputs rise in quality. This will also involve some fundamental reconsideration of the standard model of educational and school organisation in Australia.

Research in the United States by Chubb and Moe has demonstrated conclusively that the mode of free-standing schools competing for pupils (though not necessarily competing for funds) produces the best results.

Naturally these results have been attacked by the US teachers’ unions and the parents’ organisations. On the one hand, the teachers have a vested interest in a bureaucratic system within which they are not answerable according to the quality of their performance. And too many parents are attracted to the “democratic” model not realising that when they control the system, rather than simply choosing between schools, they damage its performance.

(in order of appearance on
  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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