Mixed-age classes and small-group teaching go hand in hand, says lay inspector Elizabeth Forster. Over the past year I have been involved in inspecting more than a dozen primary schools, mostly with about 100 pupils in each. These small schools form 10 per cent of primaries in England and are generally found in rural areas.
Lately, the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, has talked a lot about about the need for whole-class teaching which has made me wonder what he knows about small schools.
The funding formula usually ensures some extra funds for small schools to cover those costs that are independent of the number on roll. But the days of having small classes in village schools are long gone.
Commonly, children aged from four to 11 are organised into three or four classes, which means that all the classes have an age range of at least two, and sometimes three, years. Most schools try hard not to have classes with pupils from more than one key stage but even this is not always possible.
Staffing has to be very economical - a headteacher and three or three-and-a-half other teachers because the head is expected to teach at least half the time. With three core subjects and seven others to cover, each teacher usually has responsibility for three subjects covering both key stages. This can increase to four if a newly qualified teacher is not to be overloaded. Often, teachers have to be responsible for subjects for which they've had little experience or training.
Trying to ensure that subjects are properly monitored and co-ordinated is a nightmare, particularly as small schools can seldom afford supply cover to allow for non-teaching time.
Curriculum planning is probably more, rather than less, complicated when dealing with mixed age classes - pupils who may have the same teacher for three years certainly won't want to "do" the Greeks more than once. And imagine having to plan for 30 children aged from four to seven for every lesson; so it's not surprising that the teaching strategy of small groups is used - there is no other way to ensure the work set matches the abilities.
So what are the benefits of small schools? Certainly there seem to be fewer behavioural problems because every child is well known to the staff and all the children know each other. A caring family atmosphere enhanced by parental involvement can give a great sense of community. Older pupils have plenty of opportunities for taking care of younger ones.
Teachers quickly learn to use their time efficiently and become proficient at coping with whatever is thrown at them. Their wholehearted dedication provides an excellent role model for the children. Teachers know the capablities of their pupils and become adept at stretching the more able or giving extra support where needed.
Pupils feel a sense of ownership of the school and this often reflects in their taking responsibility for their own learning. Certainly standards achieved in small schools do not indicate that children have been disadvantaged.
But please remember, Mr Woodhead, that when you advocate a return to whole class teaching in primary schools, there will be 10,000 teachers in England who will feel you have ignored the conditions in which they work.
Elizabeth Forster lives in Amersham, Bucks.