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When bigger is not better for all

Encouraging popular schools to enlarge themselves looks like being yet another initiative promoted with the usual fanfare.

But does enlarging a popular school increase the number of parents whose children receive the education their parents want?

Sometimes it does, particularly when the number of children in an area is rising; but often, when numbers in an area are static and almost always when they are going down, it does the opposite. That is why any general policy of encouraging individual schools to enlarge themselves is misguided.

Here is an example of why this is so. Assume two urban 11-16 schools fairly close to each other have stable pupil numbers. Each school is full and has an intake of 180 pupils a year, a total of 900 pupils over five years. One school becomes more popular than the other so it decides to increase its entry by 30 pupils a year. It is thereupon provided with 150 new places.

This is an expensive thing to do when there is no shortage of school places locally but, in year one, the parents of the 30 extra entrants ought to be happy. The 970 parents at the other school are likely to be less happy. The fixed costs of that school remain the same, but the school's income is reduced. Something has to go - usually staff. Four years later the enlarged school now has 1,050 pupils and 150 parents have been made happy. Over the way, 750 parents find their children have become disadvantaged. Their school will have lost staff and have less to offer its pupils.

Why is it assumed that the happiness of 150 parents who get what they want should outweigh the unhappiness of 750 other parents who, as a direct consequence, do not?

Of course, parental support for schools varies over time and the school with 750 pupils may acquire a sparkling new head, become popular and fill up again. So the effect of the policy will have been to provide expensive new buildings, with a life of at least 30 years, in the wrong place to meet what turned out to be a temporary surge in demand. Not clever.

Achieving the best possible balance between often conflicting parental preferences in an area is not easy but there are well-tried ways of reaching agreement locally on how best to do this.

Does anyone with any experience of that process believe that encouraging individual schools to enlarge themselves at will would often be anything other than an expensive way of achieving an unacceptable measure of disruption to other schools which may be doing just as well by the children in them?

Sir Peter Newsam

Ex-chief schools adjudicator and education officer of the Inner London Education Authority Crankley House, Low Crankley Easingwold, York

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