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Last month the Ministry of Finance presented a policy recommendation based on studies made by an advisory group. Such recommendations are fairly common, but this one caught more than the usual amount of attention because of where it was directed.

The ministry thinks that the maximum class size for first year elementary school students should be increased from 35 to 40. In purely economic terms, such a change would result in a reduction of as many as 4,000 teachers, which would translate as ¥8.6 billion in savings for the central government alone. However, the ministry’s explanation for why the change should be implemented was not made in fiscal terms. It was made in educational terms.

Until the Democratic Party of Japan became the ruling party, maximum class size was 40, and the DPJ changed it to 35 in order to address the bullying problem. But the finance ministry says that bullying incidents have increased slightly since class sizes were reduced, so obviously it has had no effect.

Obviously, this sounds more like something the education ministry should tackle, and, predictably, the education ministry objects to the recommendation, saying that increasing class number back to 40 runs counter to world trends, which favor smaller class sizes so that students can get more individual attention from teachers.

The finance ministry has countered the objection by saying that the money saved by increasing class size can be spent on “pre-schoolers,” since the education ministry is now promoting tuition-free pre-schools for some households but have no budget for it.

As several other media have pointed out, the finance ministry isn’t really interested in education programs. It is simply moving the money from one area to another. It’s a matter of bookkeeping.

The ministry’s justification for cutting teachers is also problematic. It says that Japanese public school teachers’ salaries are higher than they are in other countries, which is a conveniently misleading truth. The salary of a median age 45-year-old full-time public school teacher in Japan is about ¥7 million, though a 2010 OECD survey found that Japanese teachers made on average the equivalent of $44,337 a year, which is $7,000 more than the OECD average. That’s probably what the finance ministry is talking about.

What the ministry doesn’t mention is that this average salary was 8.6 percent less than it was in 2000, which is perhaps a reflection of the fact that more teachers are now non-regular part-timers. Moreover, as a percentage of total public spending on education, teachers’ pay in Japan is higher than it is in other developed countries — 86 percent compared to 81 percent in the U.S. and 67 percent in the U.K. — and as a portion of GDP Japan’s spending on education is the lowest of the 31 OECD countries, and has been for five years running.

But the most significant statistic is work load. The average number of hours worked by a teacher in OECD countries is 39 a week, 20 of which are spent actually teaching. In Japan it’s 52 and 19, respectively. Also, unlike in the U.S., where teachers can get two months off due to summer vacation, Japanese teachers have no time off other than mandatory paid vacation, which means when school is out they are required to show up for work. And Japanese public school teachers do not get paid overtime.

Consequently, the finance ministry’s various justifications for increasing class size seems disingenuous, but they will probably play well with local governments, which pay two-thirds of education costs and stand to save more if class sizes are increased. However, it should be noted that in the larger scheme of things, class size reduction was never much of a policy.

The DPJ wanted to reduce class sizes for all grades of elementary and junior high school, but it became fiscally and politically unfeasible, and so they limited the decrease to only Grade 1, with the hope that later they could extend it to upper grades. But then the Liberal Democratic Party regained power.

As the Asahi Shimbun pointed out in an editorial, the policy has only been in place for three years, so it’s too early to judge its effects, either on bullying or on the quality of education in general. Since enrollment is dropping, the number of teachers will also naturally drop due to attrition. Basically, the finance ministry wants to cut expenditures and sees education as the easiest way to do it by resorting to “bureaucratic hocus-pocus,” as one part-time teacher put it in a letter to Tokyo Shimbun.

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