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Both students and teachers do better in smaller schools

Readers' Letters | Published:

THERE has been a long trend towards larger, more consolidated, comprehensive schools. Reasons given for those have much to do with the power of large schools to provide:

1. Optimal conditions for equal opportunity.

2. Cost advantages, and

3. Diverse and varied programme offerings.

The larger school model has evolved gradually and not as the result of any set plan, more to do with the increase in population. However, these ‘large school’ benefits have not been verified and, as research has become available for ‘larger schools versus smaller schools’, all three of these so-called advantages have been found to be questionable.

Thirty years of research has shown that smaller schools are safer, offer better teaching results and higher academic performance. For teachers, small schools are shown to have the conditions necessary for improvements in professional opportunities. Small-school teachers feel more committed and connected in their work and they report higher job satisfaction and a greater sense of responsibility for ongoing student learning. Parents feel more willing to participate in events in smaller schools. Smaller schools demonstrate greater levels of academic achievement across the board and particularly for students of lower socioeconomic status. Students are less likely to feel intimidated or cut off from the school culture. Some studies have shown students from larger high schools have a moderate benefit in achievement levels, predominantly in affluent areas.

For children, students in smaller schools fight less, feel safer, come to school more frequently and report being more attached to their school. Large schools have massive cost issues, increased drop-out rates, increased violence and bullying, a decreased sense of social safety and connectedness, lower teacher satisfaction and higher teacher turnover, lower achievement and less happiness. Self-harm and drug/knife issues, obesity and mental health problems are a general occurrence in the larger schools. Also the practical matters of getting everyone to and from the schools, passing them through metal detectors, having staggered break/lunch times, policing break/lunch times, creating spaces where children can go to eat their break/lunch are all matters that have to be considered in the creation of larger schools.

Many of the larger schools in London are resorting to a more didactic method of teaching. Children are taught in silence and are not allowed much opportunity to interact with the teachers during lessons, in order to minimise time wasted by disruptive students. The brighter students suffer in these large classes as the teachers have to commit more time to working on the less intelligent students and do not have time to ‘push’ the brighter students forward. Hence the case for keeping the Grammar School.

In 1999, after inspecting every school in England, Ofsted reported that the smaller schools achieved markedly better test results than the larger schools. There was much else that was positive for small schools. Ofsted argued, ‘the quality of teaching in small schools is generally better than in larger schools’. Inspectors concluded that their ‘positive ethos’ and ‘important place in the community’ meant there was ‘a good case’ for small schools. In short, they tick all the ‘Every Child Matters’ boxes.

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A more recent study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that, at secondary level, small and medium-sized schools (those with 100-150 pupils in each year) performed best, while very large schools performed worst. The primary study did not support the current trend towards larger schools. According to Mervyn Benford of the National Association for Small Schools, ‘the evidence has been moving towards us for the past 10 years’. Yet, despite that, small schools are still being closed or forced to federate. The argument that small schools find it hard to provide extended services is the latest criticism to be levelled at them.

The crucial factor now in the UK is that the political debate is turning from a focus on results towards greater concern about social cohesion, child welfare, mental health and poverty and the case for children’s welfare at small schools is very strong. It is easier to spot strangers at small schools: security and discipline are easier to maintain. Many larger schools have to resort to securing the campus with guards and fences to keep itinerants out.

In the United States, since 1999, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $1.8bn to creating 1,500 small high schools around the United States and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has committed $32m. to further their efforts, particularly in urban areas. Many of the large schools are being split into two or three smaller schools.

Finally, Ofsted reported, small schools have a positive ethos that fosters ‘a family atmosphere’, ‘good standards of behaviour’ and ‘close links with parents and the community’. That sounds like a recipe for solving many current problems, even in Guernsey.

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However, having made a case for smaller schools with more choices for parents, small is not enough, nor an end in itself. Common planning time, development, sharing and pairing experiences for teachers and a high-quality curriculum are all necessary to make smaller learning communities work. Proper testing, streaming and monitoring of results constantly will be needed to make sure the children are progressing satisfactorily in their preferred and specialist fields. Guernsey needs to initiate Progress 8 and Attainment 8.

We also need to address class sizes, teacher contracts and their being able to stay on the island long-term. School infrastructure problems such as inadequate and ageing science labs/computers and equipment and badly constructed classrooms and facilities all need to be addressed in order to really make a difference in the schooling for our children and a success of our education system here. If the States has £100m. to spend, these are what it should be spending it on.

As I have endeavoured to demonstrate, the education debate in Guernsey is focused in the wrong place and we should concentrate instead on improving the educational experience of the pupils rather than pursuing a grave miscalculation which has already proved to be a failure in the UK and the USA.

CHRISTINE SMEDLEY,

La Jachere de la Grange,

The Grange,

St Peter Port,

GY1 1RQ.

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