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17th January 2003 at 00:00
Good things come in small packages - and that includes education

Small schools offer children and teachers the chance to develop close personal relationships. Children may have a greater opportunity to find their own voice and participate in a community than they would in a larger school, and teachers have the satisfaction of working in greater depth with fewer pupils.

A visit to the Julia Richman education complex on Manhattan's Upper East Side, New York, tends to confirm these advantages. Here, what was once an outsized high school building now houses six micro institutions. One specialises in performing arts, one is an international school for children who have been in the United States for less than four years, and another is just for ninth-graders. There is an elementary school , a school for young people with autism and the Urban Academy, a "transfer school" for students who have been unhappy or in trouble at other schools.

Nineteen-year-old Felix Yukilevich is in his third and final year at the academy. "We learn to work together," he says. "Generally, people in the school are friends. That creates a positive learning environment."

Ann Cook, co-principal of the Urban Academy, says: "Comprehensive schools can offer a great range of courses, but how many courses can kids take? We're a small school but we have a rich curriculum and offer interesting ways of learning. How many kids leave school with a passion, an interest, a curiosity they can hold on to, that connects them with the human experience? Many schools are doing a pretty good job of turning kids off."

The Urban Academy's size sets education on a different footing from other New York high schools. Pupils and staff are on first-name terms; teachers do administrative work as well as teaching. Hierarchies are out. "Young people here can connect with adults. They see adults talking to each other, having fun," says Ann Cook.

But small, in itself, is not enough, she adds. "You have to ask, what does small give you an opportunity to do? Change teaching, change timetabling, change space."

The academy offers students an "enquiry-based" approach to learning; small class sizes and secure relationships underpin the extensive debating and out-of-school work. Enticingly titled courses - Oh my God; Talking about Cuba; About Men and Women; Project Adventure - lead students into active learning based on exploring ideas, conducting research and presenting and defending their findings.

The academy takes up most of the second floor of a large utilitarian building, and shares library, canteen and sports facilities , as well as a nursery for students' babies, with the other schools on the site.

Soft couches, a coat stand, and student photography on the walls all contribute to a homely informality. The students' verdict? "Oh that's easy," says "chief justice" Chuck, fresh from a mock supreme court debate on copyright. "No more 'school sucks'." Almost all Urban Academy students go on to further or higher education.

ONES TO WATCH

Human Scale education Charity advocating child centred schooling

Stantonbury Campus, Milton Keynes Around 2,600 students divided into five "halls"

National Association for Small Schools Campaigning to keep village schools

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