It’s 8.30am on a cold January morning at Wright Robinson College, and Year 11 pupils are sitting in the assembly hall.
Teacher Angela Smith reads out the names of each form group to check that they have all arrived. “Eleven A1?” she starts, and when a class of pupils raise their hands she moves on. “11A2? 11A3? 11A4? 11B1, B2, B3, B4? C1, C2, C3, C4? D1…”
The process goes on until she has read out the names of all 21 form groups that make up Year 11.
This is the day-to-day reality of life at one of England’s largest schools, which occupies a 22-acre site in inner-city Manchester. The school, which reopened in 2007 after a £43 million rebuild, is so big that its corridors have to be colour-coded and are referred to as “avenues” and “streets” to help pupils find their way around, as if the school were a city.
There are 2,208 lockers and 510 car parking spaces; looking from a window, it could be mistaken for a giant car dealership.
This is a glimpse into the future of secondary education in England, and the impact of a bulge in pupil numbers that has already forced many primaries to build extra classrooms and increase class sizes.
TES reported in October that councils across the country were planning for a wave of “supersize” schools. According to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act, at least 17 authorities in England expect to have secondaries with 12 forms of entry or more once pupil numbers hit their peak.
Some schools will have up to 3,000 pupils. At Wright Robinson, where there are nearly 1,700 pupils in Years 7 to 11, that figure is set to rise to 1,900 in the next few years and could, in theory, reach more than 2,000 – and that’s without a sixth form. The Year 7 cohort alone – at 370 pupils – is bigger than most primary schools. Almost 60 per cent of all students attract pupil premium funding.
“What can you hear?” Neville Beischer, the school’s headteacher, asks as we stand in the eerily quiet corridor during lesson time. “Nothing,” I reply. He corrects me: “No, that’s not nothing. It’s the sound of order.”
Mr Beischer, who has led Wright Robinson for nearly 25 years, is very keen on discipline in his school. “You have to have the kids on side,” he says. “If they wanted to use guerrilla tactics on us they’d beat us, because there are 1,700 of them.”
He describes himself as a “battle-hardened urban warrior headteacher” and he appears to be winning. As we watch Year 11 queue to get into assembly that morning, they are in neat, silent single-file rows, each holding their homework planner. “You’ll see no jewellery, no trainers, no heavy make-up,” Mr Beischer says. He’s right: the worst offences on show are a few pairs of heavily drawn-on eyebrows.
The school has a centralised behaviour policy, and, according to geography teacher Claire Newington, this makes a “massive difference”. “The system is so clear that students know not to cross the lines,” she says.
But in a school of this size, getting pupils “on side” is about more than simply enforcing uniform rules and a strict behaviour policy, Mr Beischer stresses.
It’s about creating a school culture – even a brand – to which pupils are loyal, and the headteacher spends much of his time and energy on this. The brand at this school is “Team Wright Robinson”, and there are signs with this slogan on, and others – such as “Believe in the team and the team will believe in you” – all over the walls.
“People say that it’s a bit of a cliché, but these are the things that grab children,” Mr Beischer says. “That’s where their fierce loyalty comes from.”
The message has clearly got through to the pupils. In a Year 8 class, he asks a student to name the most important thing about the school. “That we work as a team,” she replies. Her headteacher beams.
On another of the day’s spot checks, he asks a Year 7 pupil to name the most important part of his school uniform. “The badge,” the boy says, pointing to the school logo sewn on his blazer. “And where do you wear it?” Mr Beischer asks. “On the left, so it’s close to my heart,” comes the reply. “That’s right,” the headteacher nods. “Well done.”
“They’re not indoctrinated,” he says as we leave the classroom. “But over time I have learned that a school without a heart doesn’t stand a chance.”
Not another brick in the wall
Natasha, a 12-year-old pupil, says that before starting at Wright Robinson she was “quite scared to come to such a big school”, especially because she had been bullied at primary school. “But I think it has brought me out of myself more,” she smiles.
School leaders keep a very close eye on individual pupils’ progress and have big red folders containing a photo of each pupil and data about their performance in class. Sometimes a deputy or assistant headteacher will stop a pupil in a corridor and ask detailed questions about, say, their improvements in English – a move that quickly disabuses pupils of the notion that the size of the school gives them anonymity.
Audrey Meade, whose 11-year-old daughter Eleanor is in Year 7, was impressed by this. “My fear was that she’d feel lost and not known, but she’s been noticed,” she says.
When the mother first visited, she thought, “How on earth can a school this big actually look after my pride and joy?”
But, she says: “Eleanor certainly feels like she’s not just a brick in the wall. She feels comfortable enough to be herself, and that’s to the school’s credit.”
How to survive a titan school
A guide for teachers working in a supersize school…
Remember that small things make a big difference At Wright Robinson, teachers arrange for a postcard to be sent to a pupil’s home to thank them for particularly good behaviour or good work in class.
Photos are your friend The school has a big red folder containing pupils’ photos, plus data about their academic progress, so that every child is recognised and remembered.
Breaktime matters Wright Robinson has separate playground areas, known as quads, for different year groups. It makes breaktime a much less overwhelming experience, especially for younger pupils.
Break new pupils in gently Primary pupils planning to go to the school spend a day there in Year 5, and then three days there at the end of their final term of Year 6. It makes the first day of school a less daunting experience.
The future at Wright Robinson
Wright Robinson College is rated “requires improvement” by Ofsted. But Neville Beischer, the school’s headteacher, talks confidently about the possibility of it being upgraded to “outstanding” at its next inspection, in part because of a rise in pupils’ progress.
It has a 97 per cent attendance rate and, last year, 54 per cent of pupils gained five A* to C GCSEs, including English and maths. Almost 40 per cent made four levels of progress in English last year, and 31 per cent did the same in maths.
But Mr Beischer is worried about the future at Wright Robinson College. He expects the long-awaited new school funding formula to have a “drastic” effect on his budget, which could lead to the loss of resources.
“We have small tutor groups of 22 and a lot of extra support staff such as attendance officers, behaviour monitoring officers, academic progress monitoring staff. We also have a full-time head of year and assistant head of year who are not teaching,” he says.
The headteacher explains that these posts are all crucial to the smooth running of such a large school. “I’m concerned that some of the things that have helped us create this culture at our school will be affected by the cuts,” he says.