June 20, 2004
Small school

In education, small is beautiful. That's what these people think anyway:

Next week is officially Small Schools Week, which means that for the next seven days, education pressure groups such as Human Scale Education and the National Small Schools Forum will join forces to harangue MPs and education administrators with their "small is beautiful" mantra.

These organisations believe that, as schools have grown bigger over the years, they have become impersonal "academic sausage factories". Do they have a point? Can children really be taught more effectively in schools with fewer than 100 on the roll?

To find an answer, I went to Ashburton in Devon where, behind the facade of a Victorian merchant's house, is Sands School, a non-selective independent establishment for 11-17-year-olds. It has just 60 pupils. What are the advantages of such a small school?

"Having limited numbers means we can value all our children as individuals," says Sean Bellamy, the head teacher. "In a large school there is such uniformity. Children behave in a prescribed way and wear a uniform. Here the atmosphere is more relaxed - like that of an extended family."

Well, I can imagine some children not liking this particular school at all. An "extended family" of this particular sort might not suit everyone. But if there were a lot of small schools, children could chose a small school that they liked, and dodge the ones they didn't like. Choice would be more than a political slogan, it would be a reality.

At the Sands website, it says it has 75 pupils, rather than sixty. I don't know the explanation for this disagreement.

Last week, the oldest children at Sands were sitting GCSEs, their final exams before leaving. What did they make of their small school? "We have all absolutely loved being here," said Sophie Gibbs-Nicholls, 16, standing among a group of friends. "We have been crying our eyes out because we have to leave.

"It will be weird going to a big college next year, being taught by strangers. I'm not sure how we'll adapt to that."

Sounds like they might like a small college also. Yet, I somehow feel that the whole idea of a college is that it is big, or at least bigger than a small school. Colleges should, in this respect, resemble the world, the bigness of which we all have to face sooner or later, one way or another. But that's just me. If some people want to found a small college, and a small number of people want to attend it, why should I worry?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:39 PM
Category: The private sector