Thursday, December 16, 2010

The importance of school size

The media coverage given to the Channel 4 Dispatches programme The Children Left Behind and the fact that it was made in the first place, has provoked mixed feelings. Since the government is spending billions on rebuilding and redesigning schools, I’m pleased to see people discussing issues of school design. I was disappointed, however, that the discussion has been focused on school size, which, it seems to me, is a red herring in this important debate about the form of future schools.

Was there anything in this programme and its background research to change my mind? Although it was presented by a former headteacher who based his claims on a respectable study he’d previously carried out, the underlying logic was flawed. The argument for smaller schools was essentially based on an investigation of the 296 16-year-olds who left Bristol schools in 2004 without any formal qualifications, and, in particular, the 116 of these who had performed well in primary school, as evidenced by their KS2 SATs results. Given that approaching 3,300 young people left school in Bristol that year, it would seem unwise to design an education system around the needs of such a small minority, even if their stories are compelling. But, more importantly, can it be assumed that it’s the size, or indeed other aspects, of the schools that caused these children to fall through the net? Bristol’s schools do not appear to be particularly large compared to other local authorities, but the rate of unqualified school leavers is somewhat higher than the national average (9%, compared to 4% in 2004). So, cursory comparisons would tend not to suggest that big schools are not the cause of dropping out, in Bristol or anywhere else.

The Dispatches study tried to draw conclusions from the experiences of certain young people. These centred on how they felt secure at primary school, then let down and overlooked in the bigger secondary school world. Clearly, however, these children were disadvantaged in many ways with lives that finally went off the rails during teenage years. Although their stories may be tragic, the subjective association of school organisation with disappointing outcomes for a few, generally unfortunate, individuals does not by itself make a case about school size. Recognising this, the programme tried to document the benefits of small schools and schools-within-schools in the USA. Again, though, these are particular cases chosen to make a point. It is necessary to question what other research has found.

importance of school