Small is beautiful - and it gets results

24th October 2008 at 01:00
Why should our city kids be denied the wholesome start to school that their rural cousins get as a matter of course?

The size of schools in the UK is creeping up the political agenda again: the Conservative party now wants smaller secondaries; Plaid Cymru lost control of Gwynedd county council after trying to close dozens of small village schools; and the Mayor of Barrow, in Barrow-in-Furness, England, lost his seat for trying to impose a big city academy on a community happy with its three small secondaries.

The National Association for Small Schools has argued for an "urban village model" for primary education for the past 10 years. The academic achievements of pupils at small schools disprove the long-held myths about the apparent downsides: small peer groups, too few specialist teachers, old buildings and a narrower curriculum. None of these factors has been proved disadvantageous. In fact, in the right hands, they have clear advantages.

England's Ofsted inspectorate has argued for small schools because of their academic achievements and community contribution. And, for four years running, the Commission for Rural Communities has reported that schools with fewer than 100 pupils get the best results.

Two years ago, the Scottish government reported that the smaller the school, the better. Children in their smallest schools were 25 per cent more likely to enter higher education, while those from disadvantaged families actually made progress - a rare phenomenon in UK education, and something that should be noted urgently by politicians concerned for the education of children living in poverty.

Ceredigion, with the smallest schools in Wales, has long enjoyed consistently good results at 18. Sadly, it now surrenders to the rationalisation nonsense.

My association wants greater numbers of small urban schools because the rural model helps children feel safe and secure: they are known to everyone and know everyone themselves, while their parents and teachers share values and ambitions. In this environment, effort seems worthwhile and achievement possible. Our city kids desperately need that wholesome, effective start to life.

To erase this model, which gives children what they really need, reflects irrational envy and misplaced judgment. So the Assembly must ignore David Hawker, director of the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, and his apparent distaste for the small schools that represent such a rich seam of Welsh culture. Evidence from the US, confirmed in Australia, along with Scottish data, shows that as schools get larger, the gap between rich and poor widens.

The rural model also sits effectively in the debate about community sustainability. Almost every issue of rural life is affected by the existence, or otherwise, of a school and its dynamic young families.

Inspectors in England and Scotland invariably judge small schools to be good or better value for money. Yet this assessment rarely effects the financial considerations associated with closures and amalgamations. Councils merely compare a school's unit costs with a statistical average that embraces wide variation. But unit costs used so exclusively unnerve otherwise honest politicians into supposing small schools are too expensive. In fact, England's Department for Children, Schools and Families reports that only 5.4 per cent of primary teachers work in schools with fewer than 100 on roll, so these schools are hardly draining resources.

Research studies have argued for more sophisticated levels of economic analysis. Taking into account the now enormous costs of educational failure, and improved tax revenues from more enduring achievement, small schools are cheaper in the long term. UK exam results reflect this.

Few closure and rationalisation proposals properly show the cost of transport to alternative schools, and still less the escalation of fuel costs. Transport over an academic year can cost between Pounds 1,000 and Pounds 1,500 per pupil, per five-mile journey. So heating, lighting, cleaning and maintaining rural school buildings is now cheaper than hiring buses and drivers. A 1999 French study of 50 schools, later reorganised to become 28, found transport costs had made them more expensive to run than keeping the 50 schools open.

The overwhelming evidence of the quality of small schools is virtually indisputable. New-build primary schools must be small, serving streets not entire estates, close to home, with teachers and parents on the same wavelength. Up to 50 per cent of outcomes still reflect home background; the other 50 per cent quality of teaching - not buildings, organisation or systems.

Ofsted has reported proportionately more good teachers in small schools. But Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, has said little. We must inject facts into policy, something neglected in David Reynolds' limited study of early Welsh amalgamations. His report, commissioned by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, ignored most of the hard evidence in support of small schools. His research has been peer reviewed and found wanting, both in terms of methodology and conclusions. It is unwise if such conclusions are shaping policy in Wales.

Mervyn Benford, Information manager at the National Association for Small Schools.

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