Small is beautiful

1st June 2007 at 01:00
Jan Trebilcock discovers how one large school changed from a factory of facts to three homely communities

After a trip to San Francisco to look at the work of the small schools movement, Jon Whitcombe returned to his school in Kent with some big ideas.

Jon is headteacher of The Westlands School in Sittingbourne, a specialist maths and computing foundation school with more than 1,600 pupils. Seeing the results of breaking large schools into smaller units was something of an epiphany for him.

"I was impressed by the friendly and humane atmosphere. The quality of teaching was less than in the UK, but the quality of learning was significantly better," says Jon. "I saw education organised for the individual. I came back and looked at Westlands with new eyes."

Last September, less than a year later, Jon began to replicate what he had seen. He and his team divided Westlands' pupils vertically into three learning communities, or schools within a school, with the sixth form remaining a separate entity.

Jon says the idea is simple - children need to feel valued and part of a community, something that is unlikely to happen in large, anonymous institutions. "There was a sense that Westlands was impersonal and lacked the human touch - it was more like a 19th-century factory model.

"We don't want a child just to be a repository for facts, we want to enable them to be adaptable in an ever-changing world, to be self-reliant in their learning, not totally dependent on their teacher. We are aiming for a huge cultural shift," says Jon.

The school's catchment is a mix of affluent agriculture and one of the most deprived areas of Kent, with about a 15 per cent entitlement to free school meals and the lowest birth weights in the South-east. Westlands is a good and improving school, in the top 5 per cent nationally in value-added scores.

Pupil learning and welfare are at the heart of the changes. Each community of 450 pupils - named Norman, Stuart and Tudor - has its own school tie, principal, vice-principal and two learning leaders, with Jon expecting each mixed ability community to develop its own personality. Each section also has two non-teaching pupil support managers who deal with pastoral issues and pupil behaviour. Curriculum leaders co-ordinate teaching and learning across the three communities.

"Previously, just four staff were responsible for dealing with the academic and pastoral welfare of 1,000 children, now there is a team of 10 adults,"

says Jon. And he adds that Westlands already feels a happier place. There is a significant improvement in pupils' attitudes, 20 per cent feel there is less bullying and attendance figures have improved by 2 per cent.

"The children have more pride in their school, they feel more confident and at home. And the teachers' reactions have been positive, because they are able to get more involved with the children."

Plans are being drawn up for Westlands to be rebuilt in three areas as part of the Buildings for the Future initiative. "By 2013 it will be transformed," he says.

Westlands is one of 28 state secondary schools, and a consortium involving three local authorities, which are all involved in a Human Scale Education project with the Gulbenkian Foundation. They aim to create smaller learning communities and a more human experience for their pupils.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at the University of Buckingham and special adviser to the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, estimates the optimum size for a secondary school is 800 pupils.

He is concerned about the lack of intimacy in large schools and its effect on behaviour. "Part of having a rounded education is being known and valued as a person, to learn a sense of discipline, take responsibility for yourself and be able to work and study in a social context.

"It's vital for children to have a sense of being an important human being, otherwise they are likely to get fed up with school and take revenge by misbehaving."

Splitting a large school into smaller learning communities is going in the right direction, says Professor Smithers. "It's a move away from the trend of anonymous learning factories with children on an examination production line."

Sheila Dainton from Human Scale Education says: "Teachers need to know children well to teach them well. Small is not an end in itself, but it is an important step in creating the kind of learning relationships and positive attitudes that can make all the difference in improving young people's achievements."

But does size matter to pupils? Poppy thinks so. The 16-year-old has returned to a small secondary school in Hereford to study for her GCSEs after a stint at a large school in Oxford. "The Oxford school had about 2,000 pupils, there were lots of fights and it was scary and daunting at first," says Poppy. "It was anonymous and easy not to be noticed. I soon discovered that I could do less work, then I just didn't bother going to school."

She is now studying at a computer in the office of Chris Barker, head of Fairfield High School in Peterchurch. Poppy isn't enthusiastic about working for her exams, which is why she is not in a classroom, but she feels more comfortable at Fairfield. "It's relaxed and calm here," she says. "You feel safe and it's easier to learn."

Fairfield, a leading-edge school and specialist art college, nestles in rolling hills. But this apparent rural idyll belies the fact many local hill farmers are struggling economically and the area suffers from rural isolation and a lack of infrastructure.

Its most recent Ofsted report rated the school as outstanding and praised its exceptional climate for learning. This is no anonymous institution. It has just 363 pupils and is small by design. "My main concern is trying to make this school similar to home," says Chris.

"An unhappy child can't learn. I aim to make this a place where teachers and children want to be. I want every lesson to be exciting and different and the pupils to learn the school is theirs and that they are responsible for it. I trust the pupils and they know that trust brings responsibility."

The atmosphere is laid back, but strict. Bad behaviour is not tolerated. In the music room at lunchtime, you'll find unsupervised pupils doing their own thing.

"I've been told by heads of big schools that they just can't do what we do here. I think communication is the key. Everyone here knows each other and has a voice. That engenders a sense of trust, teamwork and mutual support.

In a small school it is easier to create an open dialogue and a structure where everyone is empowered."

That's good news for teachers. Lyndon Eatough-Smith, a music teacher, says:

"It's hugely satisfying to work here. You have the support of management, the parents and the enthusiasm of the children.

"I have worked in a large school with 180 pupils in one year group. So many skills are involved in music you need to know your pupils well, but you can't with such big numbers. You just get to know those who make a nuisance of themselves and the very talented."

"It's easy to assume that the smaller the school, the more restricted the curriculum will be, but it's not true," says Chris. "We have created a comprehensive programme of vocational experiences for pupils by employing specialist staff. Some pupils take 14 GCSEs.

"The joy of a small school is that initiatives can reach every child. A pupil who is weak at maths, for example, can be responsible for collecting the eggs laid by the school's hens, marketing them and keeping accounts. We feel like one big family."

Human Scale

National Association for Small Schools


Gareth Matthewson is head of Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, the largest secondary school in Wales with 2,400 pupils.

"When it comes to delivering quality education, large schools have advantages," he says. "Teachers can be part of a bigger team concentrating on their own subject area, building up huge subject expertise and sharing ideas and responsibilities. That's good for pupils and for staff development."

Other pluses include the ability to offer a wider range of curricular and extra curricular options. "At GCSE level, our pupils have 35 academic and vocational options and at A-level they can choose from 34 options," he says.

Economies of scale are another plus. "We can use our budgets more efficiently and look after things such as our own maintenance."

Where small schools claim an advantage, he believes, is when it comes to pastoral care. But he adds: "Large schools can achieve high standards of pastoral care by breaking their organisation down and ensuring pupils always know someone they can go to for help."


The number of secondary schools with more than 1,500 pupils rose 85 per cent between 199798 and 200405, from 151 to 280.

The number of secondary schools with less than 1,000 pupils fell by 6 per cent, from 21,938 to 20,589 over the same period.

Between 199798 and 200405, the number of permanent exclusions has fallen by:

43 per cent in schools with fewer than 1,000 pupils.

19 per cent in schools with 1,000-1,500 pupils.

35 per cent in schools with more than 1,500 pupils.

25 per cent in all schools.

Temporary exclusions in schools with more than 1,500 pupils in 20045: 8 per cent Temporary exclusions in schools with 1,000 pupils or fewer in 20045: 3.7 per cent Source: Department for Education and Skills

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