Schools in England are getting bigger. Department for Education data shows that between 1997 and 2005 the number of schools in England with 1,000 to 1,500 students rose by 35%. Secondary schools with between 1,500 and 2,000 students rose by 124%. In contrast, the number of small secondary schools in England, with fewer than 500 students, fell by 43%.
The conventional arguments used to defend this increase in scale are misleading.
The primary argument is that large schools benefit from economies of scale. However, economies of scale in schools are rarely realised. The concept of diseconomies of scale has long been recognised in other sectors. It describes how many of the consequences of getting larger such as high communication and coordination costs, anonymity and extraneous auxiliary processes can undermine savings made elsewhere, such as in procurement. In schools a principle diseconomy cost is the need for large numbers of non-teaching support and admin
Even more important than cost is the tendency, as diseconomies begin to emerge, for large organisations to find that their size obstructs the delivery of the outcomes they are created to achieve. An argument for large schools based purely on cost fails to consider cost-effectiveness or value for money, i.e. it fails to consider whether schools are actually delivering for students and parents. This is why the second key argument in favour of large schools, that they are necessary in order to provide a broad curriculum, is particularly misleading. A broad curriculum is worthless if students are not succeeding in it, or are unable to access it. This is too often the case.
Large schools tend to adopt rigid, vertical, departmental structures. These structures do not enable or encourage a teacher in one subject to explicitly reinforce the skills a student has learnt in the others. They obstruct the development and implementation of effective remedial interventions and cross-curricular learning strategies. Students are often obliged to effectively start from scratch in each subject they study – with the result that at worst they do not progress, or at best it is difficult for them to gain a sense of overall academic progress or of how the components of their learning interrelate and reinforce one another. The argument for breadth is undermined because in fact many students are unable to develop the mastery of core skills and competencies that would allow them to access a broad curriculum. Whilst it is true that large schools do not have to adopt vertical departmental structures, scale and vertical structure have in practice become synonymous. Where large schools have created different, horizontal structures this is often referred to as creating schools-within-schools or small learning communities. These alternative structures attempt to replicate the benefits of small schools within larger ones. This is complex and there are few examples of success.
There are other arguments in favour of small schools.
Large schools suffer, to varying degrees but consistently, from an absence of accountability. In large schools there is little time for meaningful cross-departmental analysis of students’ progress. In a 2007 survey only 17% of Teach First teachers agreed with the statement “I know who my students’ other teachers are”. Whilst each teacher is responsible for a student’s learning in his or her particular subject area, no teacher is responsible for the student’s overall education. Form tutors and year teams, whose ‘horizontal’ responsibilities for students’ education could counterbalance this, because of the number of students they need to deal with, spend in practice far less time with their designated cohorts than with the students they teach in their subject departments.
Lack of accountability is compounded when teachers constantly interact with students they don’t know. For example as they move between classrooms or take cover lessons, when they are on lunch duty or supporting other members of staff. The way that staff and students are able to move around the school and the manner in which students and staff interact are vital components of a positive educational environment. Large schools, by definition, tend towards depersonalised interactions.
The critical factor is the number of individuals in a community who interact exclusively with one another. In large schools teachers’ time and energy are spread too thinly between too many students. When a small team of teachers are accountable for a small number of students it is possible to ensure that every student is known as an individual, making it harder for students to ‘fall below the radar’. It makes it easier to ensure data for all students, both academic grades and other data such as attendance, is always understood and analysed in context, and it makes response and intervention more rapid and more effective.
It is for these reasons that the Free School I hope to found with a group of mostly Teach First Ambassadors, The Reach Academy: Feltham, has been designed to be, and to remain, a small school with dedicated teams of teachers responsible and accountable for every aspect of students’ development.