All things small and beautiful

9th March 2001 at 00:00
When it comes to choosing the size of school you want to work in, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, reports Jill Parkin.

It's all to do with fishes and ponds and the fact that in personal things - such as the school you'd like to work in - size really does matter. And small may be just what you're looking for.

The idea of a small school conjures up that story in Cider With Rosie, where 13-year-old Spadge Hopkins, squeezed behind his tiny desk "like a bullock in ballet-shoes", finally loses it with Crabby B, the teacher who's goaded him for years. He picks her up and perches her on top of her own cupboard, where she is left drumming her heels and weeping.

These days, according to Mervyn Benford of the National Association for Small Schools, a teacher who chooses small may get the opportunity to see how young children really learn best: in a social setting which mirrors the real world and is close to family and community.

"A small school is usually well-integrated with the local community, which creates a favourable learning situation. From an early age children learn from the family and from their own small environment. They do well if their first school is like an extended family," he says.

"In a small school, you're likely to be teaching across the ability range and across quite an age range. But the real world is mixed age and mixed ability and as long as you find a way of stimulating your more able children, they're all ideally placed to learn.

"The security of being part of a small team makes it easier to tackle the extra burdens of life in a small school. You become much more competent all round, because there's a constant interchange of ideas and methods."

For funding purposes, the Department for Education and Employment defines a small primary school as one with no more than 200 pupils, and a small secondary as one with no more than 600. The difference in professional life, though, becomes more noticeable the smaller you go. A school with fewer than 100 pupils may well have just our or five teachers, including a head who teaches her own class. There may be three or four classes, or even just two - key stages 1 and 2.

Without the luxury of 'specialist' staff, you need to be able to turn your hand to most things and be a team player. You very rapidly get to know all the pupils and the families too. That's why a change of head in a small school is often a major upheaval for the village of which it is a central part.

"But once things do settle down and everyone gets to know everyone else, the head has a great asset in a supportive and interested community," says Sue Mundy, head of the 74-pupil St Michael's C.P. School, Withyham, East Sussex. She has been there for 13 years, teaches two days a week and has two full-time and two part-time teachers.

"I was attracted to a small school because I wanted to influence school policy," she says.

"There are myths about small schools, that it's all cosiness and small class sizes. In fact you're very likely to be teaching a class of 25 to 30. But the interaction you get between children of different ages and abilities can be academically very profitable, and of course satisfying for the teacher.

"Children find stability in being taught by the same teacher for more than one year. In a small school every child contributes.

"Those who aren't top flight in things such as art, music and sport often don't get the chance to have a go in those fields in big schools.

"Every member of staff is a contributing member too. Whole-school decisions can be better-made, more easily carried out and better monitored.

"For heads, running a small school is a demanding job, rather than a soft option, because you have to teach as well as manage."

A small school could be just the pond for you if you are willing to muck in and go the extra mile. But check for tall cupboards first.

The National Association for Small Schools, which campaigns to keep small schools and have their value recognised, has a website at www.smallschools.org.uk


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