What is the use of tiny schools? Val Hall phoned one to find out. But the whole staff was out playing rounders together...
What lies in store for the newly qualified teacher in a small school? "It could not be a better place to begin," says Mervyn Benford, National Association for Small Schools co-ordinator. "NQTs can look forward to a happy, co-operative, challenging environment where they will be well supported by a close-knit team. The quality of teaching is better, they can learn practical strategies and get close to the important business of child development across a wider social and maturity spread, and the whole community is involved."
The Office for Standards in Education survey (Small Schools: How Well Are They Doing? March 1999), supports these views: "Small schools are strongly represented in the top 100 performing schools ... the quality of teaching ... is generally better than in larger schools and there are proportionately more good teachers."
There are about 2,700 small schools in the UK of which 700 are very small, with 50 pupils or less, and most have fewer than 100 on roll. Great Hormead School, near Royston, Hertfordshire, has 103 pupils. Headteacher Carol Baby says her NQT Kirsty Hawkins "has had opportunities to take assemblies, run her own induction mornings and take responsibility for a core area after the first year. It's amazing in comparison with what I experienced at a big school and gets you off the ground quickly." Ms Hawkins agrees: "I've had to be prepared to take on more than the usual tasks, including an assembly every week and three co-ordinating roles, including PE in the first year. It was all done gradually, though, and I wasn't ever thrown in the deep end."
Alexander Mitchell, now in his fourth year at the 108-pupil Seagry Primary School in Wiltshire, found himself taking on co-ordinating roles, starting with geography in his first year. "I quickly got to know the children and after a few weeks felt like I'd been there a long time," he says. An inevitable challenge is coping with mixed-age classes. But, as Ofsted states: "There is plenty of scope to achieve a good balance of direct teching and independent working." At Mr Mitchell's school, there are at least two ages in each class: "We have to pitch every class to less and more able pupils and teach a wide range of subjects. We work round it with extra training and support from colleagues." He has done Wiltshire-run assessment and group work courses for NQTs.
Elizabeth Henley is working as part-time headteacher relief at the 39-pupil Maryculter West Primary School, Kincardineshire, teaching children aged seven to 12. She thinks that small groups are inevitable and opportunities for whole class teaching limited. "But you soon notice children become more independent and responsible," she says.
Support and teamwork is crucial, according to Mike Carter of the National Small Schools' Forum: "NQTs have excelled in their first position, been given lots of responsibility and get a wider view of mixed-age children and the whole life of the school. But successfully completing the first year is dependent on the school's support systems, including the additional help often provided by teachers within clusters of small schools." Both Ms Hawkins and Mr Mitchell have experienced strong support. Ms Hawkins says:
"I didn't feel flustered because I had so much help from colleagues and close contact with the head, mainly through informal chats."
Only one real disadvantage emerged: "I haven't gone on as many courses as I'd have liked," says Mr Mitchell, "and I've observed a colleague's lesson only once, due to the costs of supply cover."
NQTs appreciate the family environment and close links with the local community. When I telephoned Mr Mitchell's school at the end of the school day, everyone - head included - was out playing rounders. Mr Mitchell says the parents are extremely supportive. "Some help with reading, and after-school activities. We also get lots of help organising events such as fetes." Kirsty Hawkins agrees: "We go into the playground and bond with parents and pupils at the end of each day."
The National Association for Small Schools (Mervyn Benford, tel: 01295 780225) and National Small Schools' Forum (Mike Carter, tel: 01743 233893)