The rush to create large “titan” schools is “misguided” and comparable with the post-war boom in cheap high-rise housing, a leading private sector head has said.
Dr Sarah Welch, the new chair of the Independent Schools Association, said she failed to see how educating pupils in these “vast schools” could be to the benefit of individual children.
She said that although there were clearly economies of scale, the problem of an increasing school population could not be solved by “simply slapping on extra classrooms”.
The trend to “go large” is taking off as councils attempt to create the 80,000 extra secondary places they say will be needed in the next four years.
Earlier this year, TES reported that Claycots, in Slough, Berkshire, had become the first primary to register 1,200 pupils, and it aims to grow to 1,800 when full. It is one of 10 primaries in the country to have more than 1,000 pupils.
In her first interview since becoming chair of the ISA – which represents around 370 private schools – Dr Welch said: “Let me make an analogy: back in the 1950s and 1960s there was a population boom and we built lots of very tall tower blocks around the place and now we are knocking them down.
“I think there has to be a very thoughtful approach to anything to do with education. It’s not simply, ‘We’ve got more children coming through the system so therefore we make the schools bigger to accommodate them'.
“I think there’s a much larger debate there and a lot of future planning that needs to go ahead. We need to look beyond how we get through this rise in a primary school population by just slapping on extra classrooms. I do think it’s got to be thought through a lot better.
“[Titan schools ] are misguided. I would question the reasons why it’s happening – why is it being done? I think this is financially driven, it’s to do with budgets and economies of scale but we are not talking about manufacturing industry, we are talking about education.”
Dr Welch – whose own 4-18 school, Gosfield near Braintree, Essex – has just 230 pupils, said children were simply happier in smaller schools and this led to effective learning.
The headteacher, whose school charges between £,1835 a term for reception and £4,840 for sixth form, told TES: “The larger the setting, it’s harder to feel that each individual child is getting what is best for him or her…
“Children are in family settings, that’s what they’ve grown up in to the point that they go to school…and then to plunge them into a huge setting, I really don’t understand it.”
She said building confidence and resilience and the ability to take risks was only achievable if the child felt “safe, comfortable and known”.
At her own small school pupils from different year groups tended to mix freely, she said. This allowed pupils, developing and maturing at different rates, to seek out suitable friends, she added.
Speaking to TES earlier this month, schools minister Nick Gibb stressed that some of Shanghai’s schools – which tend to be large – produced some very high standards of education.