An open mind on closure

15th August 2008 at 01:00
The reorganisation of Welsh schools should be based on reason, not emotions

Few issues raise more howls of pain and anguish than the proposed closure of a school. Emotions run high - well beyond the school walls - as childhood memories and local interests feed into "save our school" campaigns. But should every school be saved? Is the maintenance of the status quo the best or even the only option? Are smaller schools better learning environments? Are their pupils happier? Are the relationships within them superior?

As rolls fall, money gets tighter and building repairs lag further behind. Supporters of the status quo make many claims for the benefits of very small schools. But what is startling is that many of these assertions are not subject to rational scrutiny. For instance, Estyn found little difference in the standards achieved by pupils in small schools or the quality of education provided.

There also seemed to be little difference in the quality of teaching. For schools, size seems to be irrelevant. Smaller class sizes in themselves also seem to give little advantage. In fact, research by London University's Institute of Education suggests the opposite might be true. The institute studied thousands of pupils in their fourth, fifth and sixth year of schooling in England. It found no evidence that children in smaller primary classes did better in maths or English, but did find evidence of a "positive relationship" between class size and Year 6 literacy: pupils in larger classes made more progress.

Of course, exam results and grades are not the only things that matter in education. Supporters of small schools assert that the qualitative experience of children in small schools is much better. It may be, but again it has not been proved. In a controversial report published within the past year, David Reynolds, professor of education at the University of Plymouth, argued that pupils in small rural schools in Wales were offered access to a more restricted range of teachers and fewer extra-curricular activities.

What of staff? Surely they must prefer to work in the more relaxed environment of a very small school? In fact, Estyn found that staff often experienced more pressure because they had to juggle more. It judged that small schools generally do not do as well as others in leadership and management, staff development and curriculum planning. In small schools where the head has a substantial teaching commitment there is an increase in the school leader's workload which is unsustainable in the long term.

No one is claiming that very small schools are bad. It's just that some claims made for them are not backed up by hard facts. We need more substance, less rhetoric. We must keep an open mind and keep questioning. Proponents of change argue that larger schools provide efficiencies of scale and a critical mass of resources that enable one-off expenditure of a scale that would be impossible in a smaller setting. This argument needs investigation and should not be summarily dismissed.

The maintenance of small schools is not a purely local affair; it affects pupils and staff in our larger schools. With an increasingly tight budget, all providers of education in Wales will need to ensure they are getting value for money. It is also vital that money is targeted where it can make most impact. With the focus on increasing participation and retention, it makes sense to target funds at those in most need - wherever they live. We know that for some at risk of alienation from education, small classes are money well spent, but they should be populated by need, not the luck of geography.

One thing is certain: this issue will not go away. Declining school rolls, tighter budgets and the escalating costs of building repairs will make matters more acute. Banners and marches, accusations of linguistic betrayal, evocations of a long-vanished rural idyll - these are not going to help anyone. But hard research, courageous decisions and clear vision will.

Planned change can bring together the best of the old and the new. Piecemeal, ad hoc responses, grudgingly made from economic necessity, will produce the worst possible world. In some parts of Wales the local authority has engaged effectively with its communities to ensure the best provision for children. Pembrokeshire was singled out by Estyn for particular praise.

Children, staff and parents are also said to be happier after school mergers and amalgamations. The larger new school is able to offer pupils and staff a much better environment for learning and play. The new school is still small by most international standards and can build new, vibrant relationships with the communities from which its children come. The Welsh Local Government Association could provide crucial leadership in sharing best practice and practical advice around its membership. Real engagement with the affected communities, a pledge to keep any savings made within the education budget, and job security are vital.

When considering the question of school reorganisation, the educational needs of pupils should be paramount. How small can a school become before it starts to lose the critical mass that ensures sufficient social interaction, extra-curricular activity and staff diversity that seem to promote learning and teaching? Children and their education should not be used as proxies in other campaigns and causes; nor should they be used as surrogates in debates about other societal changes. But then, perhaps, we come up against the most fundamental question of all: are the educational needs of children paramount, or can they be sacrificed for a greater good? I don't think they can. Others may disagree.

Dr Philip Dixon is director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru.

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