Wednesday 10 December 2014

Primaries better than secondaries because they are smaller

If I was asked, which of course I never am, I would have said that the UK's state primary schools are the jewel in the crown of our public services.

They are a Rolls Royce example of what services could be, if they were flexible enough, and were as prepared to tailor their services around the needs of individuals in the same way.  They are civilised, humane, imaginative, and they are overwhelmingly effective.

I feel I've seen a lot of them in the last few months and they are also extremely different.  They are ambitious about the right things.  There some Gradgrindian hints one occasionally runs across, but generally speaking they shine with creativity.

I was thinking about that as a result of the latest Ofsted report which compares the primary schools with the less successful secondary schools.  Why the difference?

Well, it is a tough making the shift from primary to secondary.  There is ample evidence in research which shows what a traumatic moment it can be, and it often knocks children back academically.  It is kind of obvious that part of that trauma is the shift from small and personal to big and impersonal.

It may be that this mismatch in standards is partly to do that larger organisations are simply more difficult to manage than smaller ones.  They are difficult to run with the same level of human flexibility.  Perhaps it is the peculiarly British disease of giant institutions which lies behind the problem.  Too many secondary schools are too big.

Of course, this sounds a bit glib. You can imagine companies, factories, schools, hospitals or doctor’s surgeries that are just too small, and rely too much on one individual. We all know communities that are too small, inward-looking or actually in-bred. I certainly do. 

But the basic proposition is implied by most research into small schools over the past generation, which has challenged the idea that schools are better when they are bigger. Despite this, for the past generation or so, most policy-makers have believed that big schools are better. 

 They seem to have started thinking this in the USA after the successful Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft. They persuaded themselves that somehow only huge schools could produce enough scientists to compete with the USSR. It is one of the peculiar ways that Soviet thinking filtered into the West.

Since then, the process has been driven partly by the idea that more subjects can be offered in big schools - though it is not difficult to think of alternative ways to do the same thing.  And partly by pure ambition for larger salaries by the senior staff - the public sector equivalent of the remuneration committees.

The first challenge to school giantism came from Roger Barker, who set up a statistical research centre in a small town in Kansas after the Second World War and researched the local schools to within an inch of their lives. It was his 1964 book Big School, Small School, with his colleague Paul Gump, which revealed that – despite what you might expect – there were more activities outside the classroom in the smaller schools than there were in the bigger schools. 

There were more pupils involved in them in the smaller schools, between three and twenty times more in fact. He also found children were more tolerant of each other in small schools.

I've had reason to doubt more recently the cult of small schools.  There are problems when they are too small too.  But, if Sir Michael Wilshaw wants to find a major reason for the gulf between primary and secondary education, he might usefully look at the cult of giantism.

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