Quartersize my school

8th September 2006 at 01:00
A large comprehensive is dividing itself in four because staff want to get to know their pupils better

An experiment that could transform the working lives of secondary teachers and the fortunes of urban schools starts at Burlington Danes academy this week.

The idea is simple. Pupils from tough inner city backgrounds need a lot of pastoral support but are unlikely to receive it in large anonymous institutions.

Now the west London secondary is addressing the issue by splitting into four smaller schools within the academy, with around 300 pupils each.

Each school will have its own head and deputy and around 15 teachers. The hope is that they should be able to get to know their pupils individually, something virtually impossible in schools of more than 1,000.

Spokey Wheeler, the academy 's principal, said: "In this inner city area, every supportive and aspirational message we can give our pupils is absolutely crucial.

"They are getting messages from outside about what their chances are and they are living cheek by jowl with some of the most privileged kids in the country."

And he believes staff will benefit as much as the students. "It is about giving teachers back their essential role as pastoral leaders of children,"

he said.

"As a teacher here you will be part of a definable team with a loyalty to a small group of staff with lots of opportunities to work together."

Jay Altman, education director of Ark, the charity co-sponsoring the academy with the Church of England, became enthusiastic about small schools when he began researching how to improve inner city education in the United States.

"I wanted to know how does the education of the few become the education of the many," said Mr Altman, a former independent school teacher in America.

He drew up the basic set of principles being adapted to Burlington Danes after touring the best state schools serving poor areas in cities such as Boston, New York and Oakland.

As well as schools having no more than 300 on their rolls, the measures also include encouraging aspiration among pupils, clear expectations of good behaviour and a focus on staff professional development.

"Not just about training but about staff meeting regularly to solve problems, " he explained.

Mr Altman put these principles into practice in a charter (state-funded independent) school for 11 to 14-year-olds that he set up and ran in a poor black area of New Orleans.

Its record was impressive: pupils who arrived up to two years behind their age group left with results matching the state average.

But after he joined Ark last year Hurricane Katrina struck. He returned to New Orleans to find the original school "wiped out". It had been flooded to the ceiling and had mould growing on the walls.

It has, he admits, been "an intense time".

But his passion for schools has been excited by the freedom to innovate offered by the seven academies that Ark, backed by financiers, hopes to open in England eventually.

"As an American it has been inspiring to be involved in British education at this time," he said.

He thinks that it is going through a renaissance that could have the same dramatic effect on the opportunities for inner city pupils as 19th-century sanitation had on public health.

Mr Wheeler agrees. He caught the small school bug accidentally as head of a Forces school in Dortmund that suddenly lost its pupils when the Berlin Wall came down and the British Army left Germany.

By the time numbers had fallen to 180 he realised he had something special on his hands. He said: "As a head I knew every child in my school. There was no way that anyone could be left languishing for six months."

Now he hopes that breaking down big schools into bite-sized chunks will replace the "fallacious" model that relies on failing inner city schools being turned round by heroic heads.

"You can't keep doing it all the time," he said. "What happens when the hero has a heart bypass? he asked.

"Our interest is in a sustainable achievement over the lifetime of a school, not the lifetime of the headteacher."

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

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