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Big talk on smaller schools

Blair suggests that huge, impersonal secondaries should be split up. Michael Shaw reports

Plans to create "schools within schools" on an American model so that pupils receive more personal attention are being considered by the Government.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said this week that the Labour party would announce more radical change for education in the next few months and that he wanted schools to personalise learning.

The proposal to split large schools into units or "small learning communities" also aims to ease the transition between primary and secondary.

Ministers are interested in an American scheme in which large secondaries in New York and Chicago have been split into smaller schools with duplicate heads of departments and staff in each one.

Salisbury comprehensive in Enfield has already adopted this approach.

Labour officials have praised the north London school, noting that the majority of parents and pupils believe it has improved lessons and behaviour.

Schools could also create small learning communities by introducing house systems, ministers believe, or by grouping pupils in the first three years into individual blocks led by their own staff.

In the US, the city of St Paul, Minnesota, is dividing all 14-year-olds in its schools into "academies" of 300-500 pupils, according to their subject specialisms.

A memo on Labour's proposals says: "If a school is large and impersonal, pupils may feel that they do not belong."

Mr Blair referred to "personalised learning" four times in his speech to the Labour spring conference in Manchester last weekend. He said it meant "success for all pupils, whatever their talents" and that it was vital if all teenagers were to stay in education or training until 18 or 19.

He stopped short of saying the official school-leaving age of 16 should be lifted but said he hoped the changes to schools would help it to become irrelevant.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said large schools already recognised that they needed smaller communities so that they seemed less imposing.

But Dr Dunford said that economies of scale would be lost if schools were divided more formally and that it might undermine the Government's efforts to broaden students' opportunities.

Small learning communities are not the only US education initiative to attract Labour's interest.

In its Big Conversation consultation exercise, the party asked for views on whether there would be benefits to introducing schools similar to American charter schools. These are state-funded but are privately run by companies which are allowed to make a profit.

A spokesman for the National Union of Teachers said: "The introduction of charter schools would destabilise teachers' salaries, working conditions and job security and would undermine teacher morale."

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