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Bigger is Better

I came across a (relatively) interesting set of educational statistics recently comparing the size, cost and performance of UK schools in 1900, 1950 and 2010 www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn04252.pdf .  These are just the sort of statistics needed to settle arguments that begin ‘When I was at school …’  One striking set of figures is that the average secondary school had 179 pupils in 1900, 342 in 1950 and 943 in 2010.  Average primary schools grew at a more modest rate from 154 pupils in 1900 to 171 in 1950 and 231 in 2010.  The largest secondary schools in the UK in 2010 had more than 2000 pupils.

The undoubtedly successful educational system in Finland has been extensively studied internationally in an attempt to learn lessons to benefit other nations.  The desirable features highlighted often include the small class sizes, the fact that Finnish children do not start school until the age of 7, the high status and autonomy of the teachers, the homogeneous nature of the pupils, the extensive additional support for pupils who fall behind and the small number of tests taken by the pupils.  I am fascinated by these ideas although I am sceptical that particular features can be plucked from one society and context and simply transplanted successfully into another.  One interesting fact that has apparently gone unnoticed, however, is that the average size of a Finnish school, for pupils aged 7 -16, in 2012 was just 190
How large should a school be?  The trend of larger schools seems likely to continue with the government’s policy of allowing ‘successful’ schools to expand.  In addition, demographic changes mean that more school places will be needed over the next few years and the temptation will be for extra classes to be added or more children to be squeezed into existing classrooms as a quicker and cheaper alternative to building new schools.  There has been little research in the UK on how the effectiveness of education depends upon the size of a school; much depends on how you define and measure effectiveness.  Using a crude financial approach it is easy to show that larger schools allow a reduction in the cost per pupil.  Many of the educational costs such as the number of teachers or the number of classrooms scale directly with the numbers of pupils but there are some fixed costs which exist irrespective of the size of the school and are spread out more thinly in a larger establishment.  As well as these economies of scale, there are other advantages to size.  The cost of building and running specialist facilities might be justified in a large school; in a smaller school the same percentage of the students using the facilities might not generate enough use to warrant the investment.  Similarly, larger schools can use specialist teachers to offer a broader range of subjects to students without the class size for less popular choices becoming too small to be financially viable.  In terms of the GCSE and A level grades gained it is difficult to disentangle the effects of school size on pupil achievement from variation in social background as many of the smaller schools in the UK are in more affluent semi-rural areas.  In the USA the evidence seems firmer with a series of studies suggesting that smaller schools produce better academic results.  (See for example https://www.edb.utexas.edu/hsns/HSNSbrief1.pdf for a Texan perspective, a state usually associated with big rather than small).
Looked at from an educational point of view I wonder whether the undoubted advantages outlined above are really the whole story.  Education is not a business, taking in raw materials, processing them and exporting a product at the lowest possible cost consistent with maintaining quality, but a process providing opportunities for students to develop skills and character and a community in which they can learn to work together and relate successfully.  There are only a certain number of places in the school orchestra, the sports team and the debating competition; in a large school a student’s chances of representing the school are therefore reduced and opportunities denied.  Of course, second orchestras and B teams and a wider range of activities can compensate for this to some extent but a smaller proportion of students will have the chance to participate at the highest level.  A sense of responsibility to the wider community and to one another permeates successful schools, promoting good behaviour, aspiration and thought for other people.  Effective pastoral care and academic monitoring are more easily accomplished in this context, preventing individuals from becoming overlooked and neglected.  This ethos is much harder to achieve in a large school where a creeping anonymity can prevail with individual teachers only being able to recognise and know a small percentage of the students.  Against this, supporters of large schools will argue that these disadvantages can be addressed by separating the school into sections, either by age-group or by using Houses to produce smaller groupings of pupils and inspire a sense of loyalty to this reduced community.  Leadership and communication within the school community as well as successful parental involvement are also easier to achieve in smaller schools where names can easily be put to faces. 
I would hesitate to pronounce on the optimum size for a school but I am pleased that Birkdale is not too large.

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