Warning! Overcrowded classrooms ahead

30th October 2009 at 00:00
The rise of the 'super school' has sparked outrage among parents and teaching unions. Richard Vaughan asks just how big is 'too big'?

Last Wednesday, Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, trumpeted a new milestone under a Labour government. According to Mr Balls, more new schools opened this September than at any time since the Victorian era.

But behind the numbers, a new shape is emerging amid this new generation of institutions. It is a growing breed of school, often double and in some cases treble the size of a normal one. It is the so-called "super school".

In September, the Nottingham Academy opened its gates for the first time, a vast estate that spreads over three campuses. With a pupil body of 3,600, it will become the largest school in Europe when finally completed.

The super school, serving thousands of pupils under the control of one executive headteacher with a pervasive ethos, has proved to be an attractive solution for many local authorities.

However, such large schools have drawn both concern and criticism in equal measure from parents and teaching unions, who are concerned about the effect such large schools will have on pupils' learning.

But while super schools are a point of contention at secondary level, the idea of their creation at primary level has sparked outrage in certain corners of the country.

As The TES reported last week, discussions are being held in south-west London to create one of the largest primary schools in the country.

Belleville Primary, located in the wealthy, middle-class haven of Wandsworth, has been selected by the local authority as a possible candidate for a hefty expansion, increasing the school's 621-pupil roll by at least 210.

The decision has incensed parents, who believe the move will compromise children's education, and has mobilised the community to begin petitioning against the council's plans.

According to Wandsworth Council, the reason behind the proposed expansion is the increase in the birth rate by 25 per cent since 2001. Demand at reception age is far outstripping supply.

However, the school was rated "outstanding" by Ofsted and is heavily oversubscribed, and many parents believe this is why it is being put forward for development. Should the school be increased, it will result in a reduced playground space and pupils being housed in temporary classrooms until 2013.

John Bangs, head of education at teaching union NUT, says there is nothing intrinsically wrong with large primary schools, but if expansion is led by the council, it can be a matter of "real anxiety".

"You have to be very careful," Mr Bangs says. "A large school can be fine if it is organically grown and the head is in full control. But if it is driven by the local authority, it can create major problems in terms of controlling that growth.

"You have to have the right systems in place and ensure the right middle management is there to control and manage the growth in the right way."

But according to one headteacher, who successfully fought off a proposal to expand her own school, unless the head and the governing body are opposed to the idea, there is little parents can do.

Melody Moran, head of Brentside Primary School in Ealing, west London, was approached by her local authority to increase the size of the school from one-and-a-half-form entry to three.

Like Belleville, Brentside was also rated "outstanding" by Ofsted and Ms Moran believes this played a big part in it being chosen for expansion. But unlike the Wandsworth primary, it serves a far more deprived community, a fact that played an equally significant role in persuading the council to drop its plans.

"If the headteacher is backing the local authority, then parents concerned about the expansion have no chance," Ms Moran says. "I was approached, placed under a lot of pressure and told not to have a view on the proposal. As a headteacher, you have to go with what the local authority wants.

"But the parents began to become concerned that their children's education would be compromised. So I decided to stand my ground. Thankfully, I had the support of the chair of governors.

"Our children come from a very deprived area where there is a lot of overcrowding at home, so we try to provide quality space for play and learning. We are on a very constrained site and to expand would have compromised this massively."

In fighting the plans, Ms Moran began to research schools that had three-form entry and above in all councils across London.

"What we found is that bigger schools - three-form and above - particularly in areas of high deprivation, had poorer performances and were trailing the other schools," she says. "The council is now pushing two other primaries in the area the same way. It's ridiculous."

Human Scale Education (HSE), a pressure group that focuses on promoting "small-scale learning communities", shares this view. Although it tends to work in the secondary sector, it believes at primary level smaller is definitely better.

Simon Richey, HSE's development officer, says: "If a primary school becomes too large, it makes it more difficult for teachers to get to know the pupils they are teaching. Relationships are critical in primary learning.

"If a child is able to form a relationship with their teacher, it makes good learning possible. If not, the opposite occurs."

But the organisation claims there are solutions to schools that increase greatly in size, particularly by creating "schools within schools" and breaking these down into "smaller learning communities".

This type of approach has largely been adopted by Uphall Primary School in Ilford, Essex, which has a pupil roster of 800 and 120 infants at nursery school.

Sherlyn Ramsay, the school's head, says she empathised with parents who are unhappy with the idea of their child's school expanding, but says it is possible to create a "small-school mentality".

"Having such a large school just multiplies everything," she says. "But the key for me is to keep that small-school mentality. We try to create little communities that still feel part of a bigger group."

To achieve this, Ms Ramsay says internal communication between her leadership team is essential. The school employs 37 teachers, 43 learning-support staff, 13 administrators and 24 teaching assistants, catering for a pupil group that speaks 41 different languages.

But despite the efforts of Ms Ramsay and her staff, there is a price of running a primary school on this scale.

"We are trying to build a bigger playground, and space for group work is almost impossible," she says. The local authority really needs to rethink these things. Also, we rarely have the whole school together, apart from on the school field. It takes from 9am to 11am to hold the weekly assembly on a Wednesday morning, as we have three separate sittings."

Although schools such as Uphall manage to provide a good learning environment despite their size, evidence suggests, at least according to the Conservatives, that smaller schools are what people want.

Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, says: "We think popular schools should be allowed to expand if that's what the teachers, governors and parents want. But the evidence is that parents want smaller schools with smaller class sizes and that's not what they're getting at the moment."

And this is integral: if a school is to expand, it must be led by the headteacher, with a coherent plan, backed by their staff and supported by the governing body. If all this is in place, it will be possible to get the parents on board.

However, if it feels like it has been taken out of their control and there is a belief that the best is not being sought for their child, it will most likely lead to petitions, picket lines and problems.

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