What future for small schools?
22 Jan 2008 The Guardian
Recognising the good of small schools
The debate about small school closures may not be new but it is about to come into sharper focus, says Mike Baker
Tuesday January 22, 2008
That is why the National Association for Small Schools is planning a renewed campaign to stress the merits of small-scale schools. Formed 30 years ago to oppose school closures in Staffordshire, it has had some success without turning the tide.
One sign that things may be moving its way, though, is the Conservatives' recent green paper, which promised support for small schools and warned local authorities they would be required to consider splitting up large failing schools.
Also positive is government support for the Young Foundation's "Studio Schools". These schools, with a maximum of 300 students, are aimed at bridging the gap between school and work for 14- to 19-year-olds.
Despite these developments, though, the long-term trend towards larger schools is rooted in both Labour and Conservative policies. One in seven pupils in England are now in a secondary school with over 1,500 students and the number of pupils in schools of over 2,000 has doubled since 1997. Promoting "parental choice", by encouraging popular schools to expand, clearly conflicts with a policy of protecting small schools.
How clear is the evidence in favour of small schools? Extensive research from the US supports the educational case for smaller schools. In the UK, the view has been that good management is more significant than size in determining school performance.
In 1999, after inspecting every primary school in England, Ofsted reported on the comparative performance of small schools, which it defined as those with fewer than 100 pupils. It found that small primary schools achieved markedly better test results, but after adjusting for socio-economic factors, the differences were marginal.
However, there was much else that was positive for small schools. Ofsted argued "the quality of teaching in small schools is generally better than in larger schools". Inspectors concluded that their "positive ethos" and "important place in the community" meant there was "a good case" for small schools. In short, they tick all the Every Child Matters boxes.
A more recent study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that, at secondary level, medium-sized schools (those with 180-200 pupils in each year) performed best, while very small or very large schools performed worst. The primary study was inconclusive, although it certainly did not support the current trend towards larger schools.
Even evidence suggesting that smallness is not detrimental to education performance is significant, since much of the drive to close small schools has derived from the view that primary schools with fewer than 105 pupils, or secondary schools with below 500, are barely educationally viable.
Indeed, according to Mervyn Benford of the National Association for Small Schools, "the evidence has been moving towards us for the past 10 years". Yet, despite that, small schools are still being closed or forced to federate. The argument that small schools find it hard to provide extended services is the latest stick to beat them with.
The crucial factor in 2008, though, could be that the political debate is turning from a focus on results towards greater concern about social cohesion, child welfare, mental health and poverty. And the case for children's welfare at small schools is very strong.
As Ofsted reported, small schools have a positive ethos that fosters "a family atmosphere", "good standards of behaviour" and "close links with parents and the community". That sounds like a recipe for solving many current problems, not only in rural areas but also, perhaps especially, in urban areas too.