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Size isn't everything

Small is not always beautiful, according to Aberdeenshire Council, as it sets out new - and very explicit - criteria for rural school closures (page 5).

No child should be educated in a school with fewer than three contemporaries (within two school years in either direction), it says. That argument alone, if adopted on a pan-Scottish basis, would sound the death-knell for scores of rural schools and blow a hole in Scottish Government policy on school closures.

But it is Aberdeenshire's pronouncement that small primaries may be unable to make the most of Curriculum for Excellence which will prove most contentious. The methodologies promoted under CfE - including co-operative learning and peer assessment with their emphasis on group work - are more difficult, not to say impossible, to deliver in a class too small to create meaningful groups of children, it suggests.

Not for the first time has CfE been cited by a council as an argument for closing schools. The Western Isles Council argued only a few years ago that its unique P1-S2 schools were not viable as they were incapable of delivering the three-year broad, general education required in secondary by CfE. Local opposition on grounds of social benefit saw that off. Aberdeenshire, too, should beware that community interests can sometimes trump national policy.

The advantages of starting small are illustrated this week by the staff of one Edinburgh primary (page 5). Dean Park teachers - all but two of the 32-strong staff - became infected by the professional collaboration bug. What started as a professional book group of six caught virtually the whole staffroom up in a programme of team-teaching, self- and peer- evaluation and joint working.

Aberdeenshire's directorate would perhaps argue that such successes are only possible because numbers have reached a critical mass. But if there is one message that rings out loud and clear from CfE's evolution, it is the necessity to share practice and learn from one another. That should not rule out small schools - they just have to be more innovative.

A shining example of such inventiveness is Hollybrook, a special school in Glasgow which, at just under 140 pupils, is small by secondary standards. Here, teachers have sought out support from private, public and voluntary sector businesses, organisations and individuals in their quest to transform the learning experiences of their pupils (page 25). There is a suspicion that special schools may be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to sharing out the ICT equipment goodies. Hollybrook's teachers have shown that their pupils can benefit as much as, if not more than, their mainstream peers from technology-enhanced learning. By thinking big, Hollybrook's teachers have given their youngsters the confidence to meet the world post-school with confidence.

Elizabeth Buie, Deputy editor

Gillian Macdonald is away.

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