Saturday, 5 January 2008

Does size matter??

Photo: Signs for the four new smaller schools on one campus - converted from one large school
I recently read a media report that noted how the number of secondary students attending ‘titan’ schools (over 2,000) in the UK had increased fourfold to over 50,000 students, with many more in schools of 1,500 or more. One of the apparent reasons for this has been given as that as popular successful schools get requested more – they have been allowed to get larger…..but at what cost?

Whilst this is subject of a political debate in the UK it raises a number of issues. The key one is that of student identity, being known, feeling valued and having the opportunity to feel an important part of the school compared with relative anonymity of massive numbers.

Using my own experience of headship of small secondary schools right through to over one thousand students - give me smaller numbers every time. In one of these schools which became increasingly successful, existing parents were most concerned about not letting it get too large with the accompanying risk of losing that which was ‘special’, the increasingly good relationships and communication. I certainly did, for a long while, know every students name – as the school grew – I could not hope to maintain this important feat- -something I always did regret.

One of our successful moves in the Cayman Islands sixteen months ago was the conversion of a challenging one thousand big school into four smaller schools of 250 students as part of one campus, each with its own leader, own staff, individual identity, autonomy, uniform and initiatives. Whilst I am not claiming that this rapid conversion (achieved in 16 weeks) got everything right instantly, the response of all parents, most students and staff was overwhelmingly positive. Students feel that staff know who they are, what their abilities are , and as one students put it “a lot of staff have their interests at heart” – “there is no escape from not doing work or misbehaving, they (the staff) just want us to do well.” (NB most staff- not all – u that is a different subject right now!)

Our new high school campuses are being built on the same model – it makes much more sense to us right now.

Allegations in the UK that behaviour is worst in the larger schools is met by a Government response that many large schools “are in challenging inner city areas”. My contention is that these are precisely the sorts of schools where students need to have real identity and significance in the school if they are to have real hope of academic and social achievement. Our own more modest scheme has resulted in better behaviour, increasingly improved standards and improved pastoral care.

Interestingly the percentage of exclusions from smaller schools in the UK is decreasing whilst rising in larger schools. Schools in New York and Chicago have significantly improved behaviour and standards by creating smaller schools with better relationships.

As always the whole thing depends on management, leadership and effective, consistent systems. Of course large schools can work if they are run extremely well and focus on the students first and foremost. Ofsted confirmed that successful schools “knew and were able to detect and deal with problem students early” (their phrase not mine). They do acknowledge that there is a “certain point” where size affects achievement and note that schools can be split into houses or multi facility sites.

My concern is for those students that attend these massive schools that don’t create smaller groupings. The trend towards larger schools may make increased financial sense – but at what student cost

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