Chris Riddell was made children’s laureate this week. In an interview to mark his elevation, the award-winning illustrator told TES about the idyllic primary school he attended, Cleeve Prior CE First School in Worcestershire, which was at the time a two-class school (now three) where he remembers painting every Thursday and Friday afternoon.
It is a memory of a village primary school that contrasts sharply with government statistics published yesterday which show that in the last year there has been an increase of hike in the number of pupils being educated in so-called “titan” primaries this year.
Although the number of such schools (those with more than 800 pupils) is small, just 88 out of the England’s 16,971 primaries, their expansion has been rapid due to the combination of the pupil places crisis, a lack of building land and a squeeze on budgets.
In 2010, when the numbers of children entering primary school started to rise, there were 16 “titan schools” educating 13,700 pupils. Now are more than five times as many: 88 schools educating 79,003 pupils.
The majority of primary pupils, 61 per cent are still educated at the other end of the scale, in schools of fewer than 400 pupils. But this is, in fact a big drip – in 2010, that figure was 74.5 per cent of pupils. And in the case of the very smallest schools, such as Cleeve Prior, which have fewer than 200 pupils, there are 1,568 fewer than there were five years’ ago.
Earlier this year, Channel 5's programme Britain's Biggest Primary School ventured in to Gascoigne primary in Barking and Dagenham, to discover just what a primary with more than 1,000 pupils is like. This is a school with three assemblies a day and two weeks’ worth of nativity plays.
Or as Erica in Year 3 explained to new arrival Refa: “There’s no need to be shy. When you’re playing outside there’s lots of choice. Now you’re new, you’re going to have a lot of friends.”
But if parents worry about their 11-year-olds being overlooked in 1,000 pupil plus institutions, just imagine the concerns about four-year-olds in such schools?
Headteachers in these very large primaries schools help children settle in exactly the same way as their colleagues do in the smaller ones. They create a sense of belonging through setting up smaller units within the school, so pupils have a strong relationship with their class teacher.
They will also ensure pupils feel a sense of belonging to their year group, albeit with six, seven or even eight other classes. There may be a house system and certainly other sporting, music or social groups, with all these then align to the school’s values.
There may be a different atmosphere in a supersized urban primary to a village school with mixed-age classes but the ethos of caring for each other and a respect for learning is the same.
And this approach has begun to spread. Some secondaries, four out of five of which have more than 800 pupils, are now looking to adopt the primary approach especially for their Year 7 pupils by setting up “schools within schools”.
Smoothing the transition between primary and secondary has been a concern since at least the 1960s. And it remains an issue. Ofsted in its latest annual report published in December 2014 warned that “too often, the move from primary to secondary is not handled well enough”.
But perhaps the growth of “titan” primaries will have the unintended, but positive, side effect of improving this process, because the pupil experiences in both are increasingly similar.