Wednesday 27 August 2014

The perils of factory primary schools

I have some sympathy for the Department of Education.  They have only known for years and years that the population was rising and the birthrate shooting up, and could hardly have had time to plan for it.

And when children have to be found places - and the population hotspots have serious problems already - what can you do but add a new classroom on the remaining green space?  I understand that, but I have rather more sympathy for the local education authorities who have the responsibility for finding places but none of the resources with which to provide them.

It is one of the strange contradictions of the Gove years at the DfE.

Then again, there is a fatal preference even at local level for the quick fix.  Yet then again, maybe they are given little choice.

Unfortunately, the policy will have serious effects - plunging small children in to mega primary schools of over a thousand pupils can often be an alienating experience.  It needn't be, of course, but the greater the size, the better the management and the more inspirational the teachers will need to be.

One of the continuing themes of public service wrong turnings is the way that the professions are often still wedded to size.  It means higher salaries, more status, for a few of them - so the Whitehall tradition of economies of scale is not challenged as it should be.

In fact, what research there has been suggests that hospitals are more expensive, schools and police forces are less effective, the bigger they are.

Of course, this sounds a bit glib. I've altered my view about very small schools in the light of my children's experience.  You can imagine companies, factories, schools, hospitals or doctor’s surgeries that are just too small, or rely too much on one individual. What we have to do here is to strike a balance so that institutions stay human-scale.

That is certainly confirmed by most research into small schools over the past generation, which has challenged the idea that schools are better when they are bigger. It is a wonderful example of the way that 'evidence-based policy' tends paradoxically to confirm rather than challenge prejudices.

They seem to have started the Big Schools push 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.

The first challenge to it came from Roger Barker, describing himself as an environmental psychologist, 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.
Most of research has been carried out in the United States, rather than the UK, but it consistently shows that small schools (300-800 pupils at secondary level) have better results, better behaviour, less truancy and vandalism and better relationships than bigger schools. They show better achievement by pupils from ethnic minorities and from very poor families. 

But why should smaller schools work better? There is some consensus among researchers about this. The answer is that small schools make human relationships possible. Teachers can know pupils and vice versa. 

“Those of us who were researchers saw the damage caused by facelessness and namelessness,” said the Brown University educationalist Ted Sizer, who ran a five-year investigation into factory schooling in the 1970s. “You cannot teach a child well unless you know that child well.”

More about scale in my book The Human Element.  The point isn't that there are no such things as economies of scale, it is that these are very rapidly overtaken by diseconomies of scale.  There is still a tendency for Whitehall to look at the first and ignore the second.

And, as a report by the BBC suggests, there are still some members of the teaching profession who still think that big schools provide choice when - in practice - they tend to negate choice as they become more inflexible.

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