Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Supersize Schools need not be a Bad Thing

I was asked to comment on this Netmums/LGA survey for BBC Breakfast yesterday. 'As a parent and a former teacher,' they said, 'do you think larger schools and bigger classes are a bad thing?'

I probably surprised them by saying 'no'. (That's probably why my views didn't make the 'cut' and I wasn't invited over to Media City to share them, which would have been fun, but no matter.) Because, with both hats, (teacher, parent) the expected answer must surely be 'yes'. Small is beautiful. Isn't that the appeal of private schools?

Well, perhaps. Small can be extremely beautiful. But big can be good, too. Large schools enjoy huge economies of scale that enable them to stand head-and-shoulders above their rivals in terms of equipment and resources. Believe me, I know.

But isn't all that sacrificed by the lack of personal care? By the frightening and impersonal scale of a large school and the fact that its staff can't possibly get to know the children individually.

Maybe. But not necessarily. My son goes to what is (and always has been) an uncharacteristically large primary school, certainly for this relatively rural area. There are in excess of six hundred pupils. Yet not only does the Headteacher seem to know each one of them by name, he seems to remember their names years later. (My eldest daughter left the school six years ago and she's not alone in being flattered and surprised by this wonderfully personal feat of memory!)

A large school needn't be a bad thing. A big class needn't be a hindrance to your child's progress. It all depends, quite obviously, on the teacher, on the school and - especially - on its leadership.

Which means, of course, that the opposite is true. Small can be anything but beautiful, and tiny schools with duff staff and poor leadership can struggle for years in spite of everything Ofsted likes to think.

Basically, a bad school is a bad school, whatever it's size. And the advantages that larger schools have access to ought not to be ignored. There are dangers, sure. But good leadership and management can reduce if not eliminate them while at the same time taking advantage of a host of benefits denied - by dint of size - to the smaller school.

My son's primary school is, quite simply, one of the best equipped schools I've ever seen either in the state or in the private sector. Not all of its success is down to its size, of course. Appointing a fully-qualified builder as caretaker some years ago was a masterstroke that must have saved thousands of pounds in building costs as well as allowing construction projects that would never get beyond the in-tray of the LEA to be completed to the highest standard and in quick time.

Unfortunately, good leaders - of the kind who can bring success to such large schools - are a rare breed.

Perhaps the question ought not to be 'are big schools bad?' but 'how can we make sure big is beautiful?'
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