Super-size me: the rise and rise of primary numbers

5th November 2010 at 00:00
Analysis: Schools across England are rapidly expanding to cater for the increasing number of primary school pupils, writes Helen Ward

Gerry Hudson, head of Starbank Primary School, Birmingham, waved off 90 Year 6 pupils at the end of last year. In September, he welcomed 180 five-year-olds into six reception classes. The doubling of the school's reception numbers has been one of the most dramatic solutions to the rise in pupil numbers in the city.

"It's been very, very busy and time-consuming," Mr Hudson says. "We were asked to do this about 15 months in advance. There is a real issue in the area with insufficient school places; all schools are full and have waiting lists, and if the authority didn't do anything about it there would have been children out of school.

"Most of the kids we have taken on come from within three-quarters of a mile of our school; previously we could not have offered them a place here."

Starbank will take in 180 reception children this year and the next and these children will stay at the school until Year 6. But in 2012, it is hoped an all-through school will open nearby and Starbank will shrink back, possibly to a four-form entry rather than its current three.

But are such large schools the only option? Mervyn Benford of the National Association for Small Schools says it shows a lack of imagination."In large schools, simply because of sheer numbers, you have to have remarkable headteachers," he argues. "There are schools with remarkable headteachers but these people are few and far between. The problems of managing a large school and inspiring a staff are more difficult than when you have three or four teachers to work with.

"Small schools are as good as any other and in key respects, such as quality of teaching, Ofsted has shown them to be better.

"Some people argue there is nowhere else to put these children, but we should be providing small schools in urban areas - that would be the real answer... We are arguing for urban villages, where no primary would be bigger than 100 pupils. Pupils could be taught in small units close to their homes, run as a federation by the same head. And why not use empty shops? When authorities say there is no space, they have no vision, no lateral thinking."

Back in Birmingham, already 26 - or nine per cent - of the city's schools have more than 600 pupils. Les Lawrence, the children's cabinet member for the authority, has already called for a "robust discussion as to whether there is a size for Birmingham primary schools above which we should not go".

Starbank is one of nine schools in Birmingham that expanded this September and the council is planning to expand a further 23 in September 2011. But in the longer term, new schools will be needed to cope with 7,000 extra pupils in primaries by 2020.

The same situation is being repeated across England. The Department for Education has released projections, which show there will be more primary-school children in every region by 2014. Birmingham may be able to open new, smaller schools, but for some expansion seems the only answer currently available.

Matthew Paul is deputy head of commissioning, delivery and service improvement in Richmond upon Thames. The London borough, which has been top of the primary league table for years, has a growing demand and no surplus places. Its expansion plans will include the creation of the borough's first four-form entry primary.

Mr Paul says expansion was the only option - class-size legislation means that schools cannot expand by a few children each, the price of land rules out buying anything large enough for a school and the Government's plans to convert old shops into schools only applies to free schools, not maintained ones.

"We would be wary of anything larger than four-form entry, but who knows," he says. "A decade ago, we had a clear need for extra places so we put 250 extra places in. People at that time thought it would be enough for a generation to come but less than 10 years later we are in the same position again."

These large schools are still a relative rarity. In January 2010, half of the schools in England admitted 45 or fewer pupils a year. But the trend is upwards. The number of smaller schools has been steadily falling, while in 10 years there has been a 33 per cent rise in the number of two-form entry or 400 pupil-plus schools, and a 77 per cent rise in the number of primaries with more than 600 pupils.

So how best to run these schools? Academics warn against simply importing the lessons learned in smaller primaries.

At the beginning of the decade, Geoff Southworth, the former deputy chief executive of the National College of School Leadership, recognised the need to study leadership in large primary schools - defining these as schools with more than 400 pupils on roll. He soon realised that already a "very large" category of primaries with more than 600 pupils was emerging - primaries which are larger than half of all secondary schools. When his book Primary School Leadership in Context was published in 2004, leaders in large primary schools were responsible for one in five of all pupils. Now it is one in four.

Professor Southworth, along with fellow researcher Dick Weindling, asked the heads of large schools about the disadvantages and advantages of large schools. Almost all said that the benefits included a greater availability of staff expertise and more opportunities for peer support for teachers. Three-quarters also said there was enhanced curricular provision for pupils and greater financial flexibility.

There was less agreement on the drawbacks. Some were concerned about not knowing all the children and communication, but few said parents were worried by the size of the school. For heads, it seems, the difficulties in leading large primary schools lie not so much in making sure that pupils feel valued as in making sure their staff do.

Starbank was chosen for expansion, Mr Hudson says, because it has two sites. The main site now accommodates pupils up to Year 4, with Years 5 and 6 pupils on the second. The problems of sorting out playground space, lunchtime rotas, car parking and home-time melees has largely been done; the ongoing work is about keeping in touch with people.

"From a child's point of view, they are still in a class of 30 with a teacher and a teaching assistant," he emphasises. "The difference is more noticeable from a staff point of view. We have five NQTs this year. I'm not their NQT induction mentor, but I appointed them so I touch base and make sure they know me.

"I will never know every child's name in my school and I accept that. But I do expect every child to know me. I'm in the playground, I do assemblies, I go into the dining hall so I don't become an isolated figure.

"The office door is usually open - the negative of that is I don't get as much done, but I prefer a leadership team which is not tucked away."

Professor Southworth concluded that leading large primaries was qualitatively different from leading small ones. Heads needed to be able to develop other leaders; it was not just about sharing leadership, but distributing it so that year or phase team leaders become key players.

He added that heads of large primary schools should not be left to learn how to lead on their own, assuming they will pick it up. He suggested training was put in place including internships, mentoring and coaching, both for heads and deputies.

Mr Hudson had been a head for 16 years before joining Starbank five years ago and already had experience in leading two schools at once. "I would not have wanted to take on another three forms if I'd been here six months, but I'd been here three-and-a-half years and I'd got the hang of it," he says.

"But it all comes back to need - the children of the area are crying out for a school and we have results that are improving. I think if you are going to take on a super-size school you need to be up for the challenge. One reason we were up for it was because I have a good strong leadership team. I like to think the authority wouldn't have asked us if they didn't think we could do it."


2011: 4,125,000

2012: 4,202,000

2013: 4,304,000

2014: 4,409,000

* Figures: DfE.

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