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Don’t worry, size doesn’t matter


Parents who think good-quality teaching comes by paying over the odds for small class sizes are misguided, says Melanie Butler.

‘You can have it cheaper, you can have it better, or you can have it faster’ – the old adage goes. ‘Pick two.’

Yet when agents ask parents to pick the things they want in a classroom, they get the answer: ‘cheaper with smaller classes’ – with the proviso: ‘the teacher can be any old native speaker as long as they are white.’

Let’s start with cheaper. The problem is that the biggest fixed cost in any form of education or training is teachers, who typically account for 50 per cent of turnover. There is one very simple way to cut costs without cutting teacher quality, and that is to increase class size.

But, at least outside Asia, parents and agents are convinced that class size is critical. Schools compete on how small their classes are. And in private language schools that can be very small indeed; twelve to a class is normal, eight not unusual and some schools boast a maximum class size of four.

The only way to run tiny classes cheaply is to slash teaching costs. And that is what many schools in the West have done. They have dumped their permanent staff in favour of casual teachers on zero-hour contracts or given them bogus self-employed status. Hourly rates of pay have plummeted since the financial crash – they are down 30 per cent in Ireland and as low as €8 an hour in parts of Spain.

As levels of graduate unemployment have dropped in English-speaking countries, so has the supply of cheap native-speaker graduates. Schools have responded by dropping the level of teacher qualifications they require. Alternatively, they have flown in qualified, white non-native speakers from countries where they cost less, and hope that students don’t notice.

A recent Gazette investigation into a sample of fifty accredited UK schools revealed that nearly 60 per cent had at least one teacher who did not meet the basic British Council qualifications requirements of a first degree and a certificate.

And 42 per cent of schools had teachers without a first degree, although non-graduate teachers are correlated with lower learning outcomes across the OECD. Almost all the summer schools we examined seemed to employ non-native speakers, who typically were rather better at teaching than their inexperienced native-speaker peers, according to British Council inspectors’ reports.

Parents have kept the smaller classes they demand but, at least in the English-speaking world, they have not got them any cheaper. As teaching costs have dropped, the agents’ commission has risen to between 30 and 40 per cent of all student fees, leaving many schools one bad summer away from bankruptcy.

Is the learning better, or faster? Almost certainly not, if educational research is to be believed.

Take the work of John Hattie of the University of Melbourne, highlighted in a recent article in The Economist magazine. He has crunched the results of more than 65,000 research papers on the effects of hundreds of interventions on the learning of 250 million pupils. He found that aspects of schools that parents care about a lot, such as class sizes, make little or no difference to whether children learn.

What matters is ‘teacher expertise’.

But isn’t language learning different? EL Gazette research indicates that, at least according to British Council inspection reports of UK accredited schools, it is not.

These reports are, as far as we know, the only published evidence available on the comparative quality of private language schools. They judge each school in fifteen areas – including teaching and learning – and report if it has exceeded or met the standard, or has failed to meet it.

In order to compile our rankings of UK accredited language centres, published in this month’s edition, the Gazette checks every report on every school twice every year. In nearly a decade of looking, we have found no correlation between class size and school quality.

Let’s examine the results of two private language schools, one right at the top of the rankings, the other languishing near the bottom.

The one at the bottom has class sizes of between two and four. It costs £820 a week, excluding accommodation, for eighteen hours of teacher-led classes, with additional self-study and a cultural activity programme, both free. It also offers one-to-one tutorials at extra cost. The school at the top, by contrast, has a maximum class size of sixteen. It costs £330 a week, excluding accommodation, for 24 hours of teacher-led classes with additional online self-study.

There is also an in-school activity programme and tutorials for students staying more than two weeks, all included in the price.

And which is best at teaching? The one at the top has a large, stable permanent staff, 90 per cent of whom are diploma qualified. At inspection, it exceeded the standard in all five components of teaching and learning.

The other had no diploma-level teachers, and six teachers, mostly specialists on temporary contracts, who did not meet the qualification requirements. It met all the standards for teaching and learning at inspection but exceeded them in none.

Smaller classes or expert teachers? You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Chinese dodgy documents swoop

The Chinese government clampdown on foreign teachers using fake degree certificates, Tefl certificates and visas has led to the arrest and deportation of 1,000 people in one month this year, according to the blog China Scam Patrol.

In March this year, the government department responsible for foreign teachers announced that up to one third of foreigners teaching in China, an estimated 10,000 people, were ‘fakes’.

In May, China Scam Patrol named 1,000 teachers who had been deported the previous month, most for using forged certificates or visas.

Chinese officials are using the False Documents Law, originally aimed at counterfeit luxury goods, to clamp down on unqualified teachers, according to the blog.
Teacher forums support the website’s claims that authorities are setting up sting operations and offering rewards to citizens reporting fake teachers.