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The battle of the big battalions

John Clark and David Henderson report on whether small primaries are really beautiful. As parents around the country show they are determined to leap to the defence of small schools threatened with closure, plans to build a 924-pupil primary at Newton Mearns raised no eyebrows last week at East Renfrewshire's education committee. Yet it would be, by far, Scotland's largest.

Any debate on optimum school size has centred on secondaries or primaries deemed too small to deliver a balanced 5-14 curriculum. When councils are facing expensive repair or building works, the argument intensifies since it is difficult to divorce cost from teaching and learning. But large primaries seldom become the focus of parental or community wrath, largely because they tend to be popular and attract placing requests.

Primaries in the old Renfrewshire have always been larger than the Scottish average of 188 pupils per school and that tradition is continuing in Newton Mearns. Four existing primaries are at or near full capacity and Newton Mearns primary, requires major work costing Pounds 500,000. It is also badly located next to a busy shopping centre.

The extension of the M77 motorway has provoked a spate of private housebuilding on the south side of Glasgow and 400 more children are expected to live in Newton Mearns within nine years. The council wants a new four-stream primary, with two 50-place nurseries. The Pounds 4 million school would have to built under the Government's private finance initiative or by generous borrowing consent from the Scottish Secretary.

Eleanor Currie, the council's director of education, admits there is no off-the-shelf design but is enthusiastic about the prospect of a school that size. "It might actually mean a computer room and space for drama, an outdoor play area and swing park. It would be a community complex and obviously we would build in accommodation for parents," Mrs Currie said.

One of the four schools at capacity is Carolside primary in Clarkston, arguably Scotland's largest with 775 pupils. It pips Banchory in Aberdeenshire by five pupils, if attached nurseries are excluded.

Mary McIntyre, Carolside's headteacher, has 32 teachers and five clerical and auxiliary staff in an overflowing primary and does not believe big is bad. Quite the reverse. "It's a nonsense," Mrs McIntyre says of parents who go to any lengths to defend small primaries. "They are denying their children a full education."

Mrs McIntyre, who has worked in a range of primaries and came to Carolside from a 420-pupil school last year, commented: "When I came here I thought it would be horrendous but it is not the problem I thought it was going to be." Working in a school that is receptive to learning and has an attendance rate of 97 per cent may have helped. In a more disadvantaged area, the concerns may be different.

Mrs McIntyre adds: "Parents think there is a more personal touch in a smaller school but it is down to the management of the school and its ethos. It does not mean to say that because there are all these children here they are not being attended to. We have just taken in 123 primary 1s and they have walked in, sat down and got on with it. They have got their teacher and they do not know anything else."

She argues that the great advantage of the larger school with class sizes between 28 and 31 is the ability to free the management team from class commitments, although the three assistant heads and depute support teaching in the mornings. Each senior member of staff takes responsibility for a different age-group, creating schools within the school. "Keeping an overall view on everything. That is the real management skill. You have got to know what is going on and communication channels have to be well defined," Mrs McIntyre states.

The larger the school, the more time for essential administration. "In a small school, where they do not have the staff, the head has to put in the same returns as I have got to do. I am able to delegate as well."

With a roll of 775, the school finds it difficult to run sports days and is unable to hold assemblies. Instead she mixes classes from each year group. "We try to make sure there is a lot of toing and froing to get a good mix. Pupils are not physically separated. They mix in the playground and we make sure there are enough helpers. We have also got two janitors. The primary 1s have their own area to play in with their supervisor."

Cost is a major plus. Bigger primaries are far cheaper to run. Classroom resources also go further. "One box of Lego does for 20 or 30 children, " Mrs McIntyre says. The school has a computer suite and computers in classrooms, while touring theatre companies at Pounds 250 a go come in at better value when spread around large numbers. Visiting specialists are other advantages.

Elizabeth Maginnis, the local authorities' education spokeswoman, is a supporter of larger primaries and told primary heads at their conference last spring it was the only way to introduce more management support, releasing heads from teaching. Primaries would improve as a result.

Fred Forrester, depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, says there has never been much of a discussion around large primaries. "The problem has been at the other end. In educational terms, you cannot argue a big primary is necessarily bad," he maintains.

Lilian MacLean, head of Shortlees primary in Kilmarnock and education convener of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland, believes catchment area is crucial in determining size, although a primary of 350-400 pupils would be more than enough for easy relationships. Her own school is a former junior secondary. "It is a big building and it is almost a quarter of a mile to walk round but children can adapt," Mrs MacLean says.

But support for large primaries is not something Judith Gillespie, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, has found among her members. Each year the council asks PTAs for their opinions. Mrs Gillespie said: "We do get quite a lot of comments on size and most say 'it's a nice wee school'.

"The perception is that small is better. Parents are fighting to keep schools open because they like small schools. It's absolutely the size. It is the human dimension where everybody knows everybody else. Nobody but nobody writes back saying, 'it's a lovely, huge, monstrous school'."

If she were a prospective parent she would not fancy sending her five-year-old to a 900-pupil school. "Absolutely ghastly," she says. Finding an optimum size may be difficult, Mrs Gillespie acknowledges, but a maximum of three classes per age-group would be sufficient. More significantly, none should have more than 25 pupils. But that is another matter.

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