The proposers of the 11-16 free high school in Stoke by Nayland are currently waiting to hear if they have got through to pre-opening stage. One of the key characteristics of their proposal is that the school will be small, and that this is inherently good.
To quote from the website of the Stoke by Nayland High School Academy Trust:
“Size - The school will be a manageable size – following the principle that the student that is known best, learns best. The project is for a school of 600 pupils.”
School size is of particular interest in this area partly because much of Suffolk is rural and partly as we are going through a reorganisation from 3-tier to 2-tier, which necessarily means the Upper schools (and the primary schools for that matter) need to expand to take on two additional year groups. Suffolk County Council has made clear that this reorganisation will result in many high schools being of optimum size - for them 1,200. However, many supporters of a new school in SbN have made the point that they feel Great Cornard Upper School (the school most set to lose pupils to a new school in SbN) would be ‘too large’ at the proposed size of 1,200.
Much of the discussion about the proposed school, and our (COMPASS-Suffolk) opposition to it concerns whether small is indeed good. Disregarding for the moment how pupils’ progress is tracked through school (which it seems to me is key to how well a student is known), I am curious as whether there is in fact a relationship between school size and performance.
I am neither an academic nor a teacher, so only have my personal perspective, but it seems to me there are two issues here: firstly whether there is a relationship between size of school and performance, and secondly how to provide effective schooling which creates best value from public funds.
|A cursory Google suggests that this is a complex area; a quick look at results just within Suffolk shows that variation in size does not correlate with variation in GCSE results. For example, in 2010, in one of the largest schools in Suffolk, Kesgrave - which had a pupil roll then of 1,719, 60% of pupils achieved 5 A*-C grades including maths and English. In one of the smallest, Newmarket College, which then had a pupil roll of 563, only 29% pupils achieved this (N.B. this was a significant drop from the year before). These are just two examples from the Suffolk performance table produced by the DfE, but I could have chosen plenty of other examples which show that being small does not necessarily tally with better outcomes, anymore than being large does.
What is true, I think, is that we as parents react differently to the size of schools and often feel that a larger school will be somehow less personal, fearing that our children will be lost. And it certainly may be the case that some children feel more comfortable in a smaller school. But it does not follow that just because large numbers look more impersonal to us, that our children will either feel this for themselves or that they will do worse at school. (Putting academic issues aside for a moment, in a larger school they are more likely to have a good range of sporting, musical and other activities to draw on than in a smaller school so may be better able to find their own mark.)
Turning now to what a school can offer, it is clear that economies of scale mean that larger schools can offer a wider curriculum and more extra curricular activities. Smaller schools can only do this if they compromise on other areas or if they charge fees.
Private schools are often seen as desirable specifically because they can offer a more individual approach – though they are not always small schools. It seems to me that Free Schools draw on the element of choice which is fundamental to private education, and on the same sense that schooling can be more individual in focus, but with one crucial flaw: these schools receive (once properly established) no more funding for their teaching than any other state school.
Smaller state schools are relatively expensive as they duplicate core costs. In rural areas such as parts of Suffolk it is inevitable that some schools will be relatively small, as it would be ineffective and bad for communities if children were transported significant distances simply so all schools could be the same size. But – as indicated above – it does not follow that because they are small they are intrinsically better.
Local Education Authorities (at least currently) have the job of planning educational provision in a way that should provide best opportunity to the children in the area whilst a sustaining communities and providing effective value for money. In 2008 Suffolk County Council wrote an educational strategy called Transforming Learning with Communities. Included in this are the principles of the Schools Organisational Review (SOR). Amongst other relevant points, these clearly state that post-SOR:
"The preferred size for secondary schools will be in the range of 6-10 year groups, with an optimum size of 1200, excluding sixth form
School sixth forms be no less than 200 in number (I include this point here as it is germane - a school with relatively small year groups will not sustain a sixth form of this size)."
I am certainly no apologist for Suffolk County Council. However, I do believe that in determining these principles the council has assessed what educational provision needs to be made in Suffolk, and has sought to balance this with what can be provided with the resources available. They are not proposing ‘giant’ schools. But in relation to the planned high school at Stoke by Nayland, it is clear that the proposers do not plan a school big enough for six forms at entry - four is possible if they reach the maximum size suggested. (Indeed Stour Valley Community College has fewer and has opened with around 180 pupils across three year groups).
In summary, I do not believe that size (whether large or small) is in itself a determining factor in school success, but I do believe it is unreasonable to duplicate costs across the system in order to provide a range of small schools when there is no evidence that they will, simply due to their size, provide a better education than other schools. And crucially, I believe that larger schools of the size proposed by Suffolk County Council offer a wider range of opportunities that I think most children will benefit from. I remain curious though, about the perceived association between small schools and good outcomes, and would be interested to hear what others think about this issue.