The real heroes? Teachers in the smallest schools

The size of a school has a big impact on the teaching experience – I’ve learned to respect those teachers in tiny schools who constantly have to wear multiple hats

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Every time I’ve moved school, I’ve taken a step down in size – and every time it’s opened my eyes to what an impact scale has on a school. If you’ve only ever taught in small schools, then you might not have a sense of the level of organisation required to manage a very large one; for others, the burdens of small school teaching may have escaped them – so let me share what I’ve found.

As a new teacher, I was one of seven in my team. I had no subject responsibility and plenty of colleagues to share planning with: even our maths sets had parallel classes. My year team was larger than many primary schools, and my life was relatively easy. I had time to hone my craft in the classroom because schemes of work already existed, and support was plentiful.

For my first four years of teaching, I continued to have no subject responsibility, and didn’t even teach some subjects because we had specialists permanently in the building for subjects like music and PE. Not many can enjoy that luxury.

My second school wasn’t much smaller in size, but the challenges were quickly evident.

We had eight year groups of three classes, rather than four year groups of six. At first glance, you might think that similar budgets would go just as far. But not quite so. A junior school with 14 classes needs resources for four year groups’ curriculum content; a through-primary of a similar size ends up with a very similar budget, but now needs to cover twice the curriculum content.

There are economies of scale: a four-form-entry junior school can buy one set of class readers to share between four classes; the two-form entry primary needs twice as many sets of books. For me, having been used to specialists for subjects – and specialist facilities – I found myself having to teach music, without the benefits of so much as a separate room.

Surprise and demand

Moving to a one-and-a-half-form-entry school brought yet more surprises. Suddenly I didn’t just need to learn a whole year’s curriculum cycle, but two. Mixed-age classes bring their own challenge – and that’s before you even begin to think about smaller schools that have to change their class set-up every year.

The task of teaching Year 4/5 one year then Year 3/4 the next must bring its own demands on both teacher and school. It’s also the stage at which, instead of being able to sidestep subject leadership for years, it’s as much as you can do to limit yourself to a single subject.

Of course, there are benefits, too. You’re more likely to know everyone’s name – you might even all be able to fit into the staffroom together for lunch. That has real advantages for communication. In schools with more than 600 children, email and noticeboards become the main way of communicating because it’s the only way of catching everyone; in a smaller school, you might just be able to talk to everyone face-to-face.

The real heroes, to my mind, are teachers in the smallest schools, with just one form of entry or less. Everybody wears multiple hats and struggles with the challenge of needing to be in two places at once.

Responsibilities that might belong to specialist admin or pastoral staff simply fall on class teachers. For lesson planning, you’re on your own – and every resource seems proportionally more expensive. There are advantages, to be sure: a small close-knit team; the family feel; knowing every child’s name. But no doubt about it: compared with those in small schools, my first few years were an easy ride.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets as @MichaelT1979

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