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Volume 50 Number 2 2008


CONTENTS [click on author's name for abstract and full text]


School Size: deepening the debate

Sheila Dainton. Editorial. School Size: deepening the debate, pages 163‑166
Mark Newman. Big or Small: does the size of a secondary school matter?, pages 167‑176
Mary Tasker. Smaller Schools: a conflict of aims and purposes?, pages 177‑184
Geoff Barton. Envy of a Bigger One: moving beyond phoney debates on school size, pages 185‑189
Max Haimendorf & Jacob Kestner. School Structures: transforming urban complex schools into better learning communities, pages 191‑197
Diana Oxley & Julia Kassissieh. From Comprehensive High Schools to Small Learning Communities: accomplishments and challenges, pages 199‑206
David Lambert. Why Are School Subjects Important?, pages 207‑213
Colin Richards. Does Size Matter? A Primary Perspective, pages 215‑218
Alison Peacock. If You Go Down to the Woods Today …: developing a whole-school culture where it is safe to take risks, pages 219‑223
Heidi Swidenbank. Thugs, Hooligans and Snotty Noses: the implications of leading and managing an all-age school, pages 225‑233
Robin Precey. Trainspotting: leadership at a critical junction, pages 235‑242
John Mitchell. Building Schools for the Future: setting the hares running, pages 243‑251


Trevor Fisher.
The Era of Centralisation: the 1988 Education Reform Act and its consequences, pages 255‑261

Steve Sinnott, 1951‑2008. Tributes from Clyde Chitty and Richard Garner, pages 265‑267 doi:10.2304/forum.2008.50.2.265 VIEW FULL TEXT

BOOK REVIEWS doi:10.2304/forum.2008.50.2.269 VIEW FULL TEXT
Children Writing Stories (Michael Armstrong), reviewed by Jenifer Smith and Clare Kelly, pages 269‑275
Fair Enough? School Admissions: the next steps (compiled by Comprehensive Future) reviewed by Patrick Yarker, pages 275‑278


Editorial. School Size: deepening the debate



Like following life thro’ creatures you dissect
You lose it in the moment you detect
Alexander Pope, Moral Essays

It is unlikely that anyone reading this issue of FORUM will not have a view about school size. Recent press coverage might suggest that this is a new debate. However, it comes as no surprise that the issue was well aired in an edition of FORUM published over 30 years ago. In an article headlined ‘In Defence of Large Schools’, Clyde Chitty, then second deputy head of a comprehensive school in south-east London, argued that ‘our current preoccupation with the size of school issue is little more than thinly-disguised political propaganda, aimed at discrediting the comprehensive reform … If big schools can be shown to be bad, ipso facto comprehensive schools are bad’.

Like everything that matters most in education, the subject of school size arouses the deepest of passions. In making claims about the virtues of small or large schools, the temptation to draw on personal experience is as understandable as it is irresistible – and sharing our experiences, and learning from the experiences of others is at the heart of co-operative learning. Simple enough, but it needs to be said, particularly in these days of hand-me-down learning. But far too often, the debate about school size takes generalising from the particular a step too far: research is often ignored, distorted or used selectively; sweeping claims are made on the basis of scanty evidence, and rhetoric rules the day. This can be dangerous stuff, particularly when school size becomes a political football.

FORUM readers may have noticed that New Labour has adopted a ‘neutral’ policy on school size, rightly, in my view, leaving it for local authorities to determine the pattern of school provision most appropriate to their area. This is not a decision plucked from the air. Five years ago, having listened carefully to arguments promoted by the small schools lobby, the then Labour education minister Charles Clarke persuaded the Treasury to co-fund a systematic review of the literature on secondary school size. The findings, summarised in this issue by Mark Newman, make for interesting reading. However, the research team concluded that the study did not provide evidence to support national policy initiatives limiting secondary schools to a certain size. Subsequently, David Cameron and his shadow school ministers, David Willetts and, more recently, Michael Gove, have been quick to latch on to the popular appeal of ‘small’ and the political mileage to be gained from it. Drawing heavily on research from the United States, the Conservatives intend to require local authorities with ‘failing’ large schools to consider dividing those schools into smaller, autonomous units. The rationale for limiting this policy to so-called ‘failing’ schools is as perplexing as it is indefensible.

It is easy to despair of ways in which conversations about school size, conversations that deserve clear thinking and objective analysis, are reduced to headline-grabbing, oppositional arguments. ‘Small is beautiful’ is, of course, a gift for headline-writers. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine that Fritz Schumacher would be particularly happy with ways in which the title of his controversial and challenging analysis of the economic structure of the Western world in the early 1970s is being reduced to a neat sound-bite nearly 40 years on. It is, after all, a provocation based on a particular value position and supported by evidence, not a statement of absolute and unconditional truth. And as Oscar Wilde observed, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

A quick glance through recent press articles on school size confirms the current fashion for casting small schools as the good guys and large schools as the baddies. While ‘small’ is couched in the homely and beguiling language of ‘caring’, ‘supportive’, ‘sense of belonging’, ‘personalised’ and ‘community’, big is characterised as ‘overcrowded’, ‘alienating’, ‘impersonal’, ‘titan’, ‘controlling’ and based on factory models of education. Sadly, these simplistic descriptions fail to do justice to the complexities of schools of different sizes, or indeed to the very individual and idiosyncratic differences within schools of a similar size. As the late John Tomlinson pointed out in his seminal study of six small secondary schools, Small, Rural and Effective (1990), ‘these [six] schools are, in important respects, as different from one another as they are collectively from larger, urban schools’ (p. 291).

At this point I cannot but help recall a visit to a two-teacher school nestled in a tiny village in South-West Cornwall. On the face of it the school was idyllic. It was shortly after the National Curriculum was introduced and claims were being made, wrongly as it happened, that small primary schools could not cope with the demands of a subject-based curriculum. I was ushered into the tiny staffroom-cum-office by the part-time caretaker who also doubled up as the school secretary. Something on the notice board caught my eye. Signed by the head teacher and heavily underlined, it read: ‘To all school staff – Remember to wash up your mugs and put them away up after you have used them’. No ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. This struck me as a somewhat peculiar way of communicating in such a small and deceptively close community. It later transpired that the head teacher and her ‘staff’ (i.e. the other teacher) had not been on speaking terms for six years – and that the caretaker-cum-secretary spoke to neither of them.

Similarly, I cannot help wondering whether the 500-strong primary school on a North London council estate at which I once taught had a stronger sense of community, and was more genuinely representative of the community it served, than the local village school now down the road. All save a tiny handful of children on the council estate went to their ‘local’ school. Choice was not really an option, nor indeed was it seen to be important. By and large the school was happy and well ordered – some would even say progressive – and it served a vibrant and supportive community. So far as representing the community is concerned, the opposite is true of my local village school. For the (mostly well-heeled) parents in the village, the choice is between a variety of independent fee-paying pre-prep and prep schools and, for those with the transport and time, the two-form-entry Church of England school three miles away. Sadly, it is mainly those who have no choice who attend the (excellent) local village school. Putting size to one side, this vivid example, right on my doorstep, is a salutary reminder of the damaging ways in which ‘choice and diversity’ cement existing divisions based on wealth, class or a combination of the two.

As a strong supporter of the principles and practices of human-scale education, it was humbling when the editorial board of FORUM agreed that this special issue of the journal should focus on school size. The intention, however, is not to promote the case for small or large schools – and here, of course, much rests upon what we mean by ‘small’ and ‘large’ – but to think beyond the mantra of ‘small is beautiful’, to broaden and deepen the debate about why this might, or might not, be the case and to listen to, hear and learn from each other. It is, if you like, an antidote to the simplistic message that small is good and big is bad.

There are many messages to reflect upon. For me, perhaps the most important is Mary Tasker’s timely reminder about the confusion of aims and purposes that, increasingly, characterises debates on school size. Nowhere is this more evident than in the current move towards creating ‘mini-schools’ or schools-within-schools in large secondary schools. As Mary illustrates, we can see that when used as a mechanism for labelling and categorising students, this growing trend could fly in the face of the comprehensive ideal, fragmenting and atomising educational provision even further, ‘segregating’ 11 year-olds into a thinly-disguised twenty-first-century version of the tripartite system and recreating a pecking order based on invidious notions of ‘aptitude’ and ‘ability’. So, before talking glibly about the virtues of ‘small’ we need to ask deeper and more searching questions about educational aims and values.

People have been more than generous in contributing to this issue. They have done so with energy, integrity and imagination. What strikes me time and again is the commitment, courage and intellectual energy we devote to that which is important to us as human beings and as educators – things that arouse our passions and help shape our beliefs. The messages about school size are, it seems to me, ambivalent, reflecting in part my own concern to capture the benefits of both large and small and to find more intellectually defensible ways of explaining that, while smaller learning communities have the potential to improve learning, size alone is not enough. Striking postures with generalisations simply will not do.

SHEILA DAINTON worked in primary and higher education before becoming education policy adviser for what is now the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a post she held for 17 years. Following retirement, she was an advocate for the Human Scale Schools project.

Chitty, C. (1975) In Defence of Large Schools, FORUM, 18(1), 22‑24.
Schumacher, E.F. (1973) Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered. London: Abacus.
Tomlinson, J. (1990) Small, Rural and Effective: a study of six small secondary schools in a remote area of England. Coventry: Institute of Education, University of Warwick.


Big or Small: does the size of a secondary school matter?



The relationship between the size of a school and various education outcomes continues to interest parents, campaigners and politicians. This article summarises some of the arguments made in relation to the importance of school size and explores the results of a systematic review of 31 research studies on the effects of secondary school size. Overall, the review found that directions and patterns of effect vary for different outcomes. The results of the review suggested that there was little empirical evidence to justify policies aimed at changing or mandating particular school sizes. However, given the continuing interest in the issue and indications that more research is becoming available, the author suggests that continuing rigorous systematic evaluation is needed to explore the association between school size and outcomes.


Smaller Schools: a conflict of aims and purposes?



This article tracks recent developments in the debate about secondary school size. It looks at the growth of the small schools movement in the United States and at initiatives currently underway in the United Kingdom. The article explores various strategies for reconfiguring secondary schools into smaller learning communities or ‘schools within schools’ and argues that the appeal of smaller learning communities in schools springs from very different value positions which need to be clearly articulated and publicly debated.


Envy of a Bigger One: moving beyond phoney debates on school size



In this article Geoff Barton argues that the debate about large versus small schools is a largely phoney one that misses the essential point about the quality of provision. Using Michael Barber’s international comparisons, he suggests that our focus should be on creating the conditions for teachers to teach as well as they can, and proposes that a streamlined staffing structure would help to regain this focus. He says that large schools are best placed to lead this change rather than fighting rearguard campaigns in the big versus small debate.


School Structures: transforming urban complex schools into better learning communities



This article, which forms part of the policy booklet Lessons from the Front written by participants and Ambassadors of the Teach First scheme, argues that educational outcomes are often adversely affected by the size and structure of many urban complex schools. Rather than multiplying the efforts of teachers, too often the organisational model of these schools works against them, militating against the development of effective teacher-student relationships. For many teachers, the fruits of their efforts are ‘merely’ that the world does not fall down around their ears: not too many fights occur, expulsions are kept to a minimum and there are just enough GCSEs at A*-C. Clearly this is not good enough. The article considers how organisational structures in urban complex schools can work to multiply teachers’ efforts, creating learning communities that foster more positive educational outcomes.


From Comprehensive High Schools to Small Learning Communities: accomplishments and challenges



This article describes progress made in organizing US high schools into small learning communities, a practice spurred by the recognition that many of America’s large comprehensive high schools had become impersonal and alienating. Small learning community reforms show a pattern of sustained growth over the last four decades but also frequently fail to achieve instructional improvements. The challenge in making instructional improvements is to pursue sound instructional strategies which small scale uniquely positions teachers to carry out, and to make shifts in district policy and practice which currently pose barriers to adopting such strategies.


Why are School Subjects Important?



The purpose of this article is to contribute to the contemporary debate by supporting school subjects. The article explores the technicist manner in which teachers’ work is now configured and highlights ways in which competitive, output-led models and tick-list approaches have reified schools as qualification factories. Arguing for a deeper understanding of subject disciplines in the school curriculum, the author critiques contemporary approaches to the secondary curriculum planning and organisation and shows ways in which important debates about what is taught are being marginalised. The article points to the intellectual vacuum that can lie at the heart of practical curriculum making when subjects no longer take a leading part. It concludes that teachers’ capacity to think synoptically about a subject is essential for the effective teaching of integrated themes or topics and that excellent, innovative teaching of subject disciplines is vital in twenty-first century schools.


Does Size Matter? A Primary Perspective



This article discusses some of the arguments and values underlying the issue ‘Does size matter?’ Using findings from inspection evidence (his own and others’) the author explores possible answers to the question as it applies to primary education in England. He concludes that in determining whether ‘size matters’ evidence has to be considered and weighed in relation to values. He provides his own evaluation.


If You Go down to the Woods Today …: developing a whole-school culture where it is safe to take risks



Children have much to learn from the natural environment and from working in partnership with each other. This article explores the real-life challenges of encouraging creative adventurous play within the perceived confines of the primary curriculum. The author shares the story of a whole-school learning adventure and aims to remind us of the importance of values such as trust, co-agency and freedom.


Thugs, Hooligans and Snotty Noses: the implications of leading and managing an all-age school



While there has been a tradition of all-age schooling within the private sector it has not, until recently, been typical in state schools. However, there appears to be a growing trend in which all-age schools, i.e. schools that comprise multiple phases (usually primary and secondary) are becoming more popular. This article summarises the main findings of research undertaken by the author into the implications for leading and managing all-age schools and suggests ideas for future research.


Trainspotting: leadership at a critical junction



This article argues that education leaders in this country, and indeed leaders of other public services, are facing life-changing decisions. The way ahead is full of possibilities and pitfalls. The article employs the metaphor of a railway journey to explore these. In particular it considers the implications for leaders in terms of how they prepare for, and display, leadership in the current complex and seemingly contradictory policy climate.


Building Schools for the Future: setting the hares running



This article looks at the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme and its stated intention to ‘transform learning’ from the perspective of the author’s involvement as an architect/facilitator. Reflecting on his experiences, he focuses on the possibilities of the programme as a learning and change process, rather than as simply a building-focused programme. He explores some of the important themes which need to be addressed and looks at the conceptual/theoretical framework possibly most useful to make sense of the process. Finally, he looks at some of the implications for the design and facilitation of a BSF programme, and the physical and organisational design of a school to support this process.


The Era of Centralisation: the 1988 Education Reform Act and its consequences



In a FORUM article published in 2005 (Volume 47, Nos 2 & 3) Terry Wrigley argued that ‘Another school is possible’. The article prompted Trevor Fisher to respond explaining why, in his view, the centralising thrust of the 1988 Education Reform Act, the shift in power relationships, the politicisation of education over the past two decades and politicians’ rigid control over education policy and processes, make the reality of a radical alternative to the current regime increasingly difficult. The author charts developments since the 1988 Act and calls for a Royal Commission to undertake a root-and-branch investigation into the politicisation of education.


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