Small Schools in the City

Small Schools in the City - a Cheaper Option!

For decades small schools have been told they cost too much, though decision-makers are deceived by claims of educational unviability. Modern test and inspection outcomes firmly refute that conventional excuse but it still seems plausible to local authorities pressed by governments to rationalise school places. Now, under a never officially-published or politically-uttered mantra, they should not have too many schools. What do education officers do in the face of that demand, revealed to the National Association for Small Schools in a DfES letter in 2006? One decided against closure programmes but instead pushed federations, often little more than shotgun marriages in some cases. However, with federation agreed the LEA not only thereby reduced its total number of schools but could then, and did, reduce the combined admission number.

Government education policy is riddled with contradictions. Ostensibly presuming against closing village schools, it pushes an excellent extended services concept, rooted in best village school practice, but which DfES and LEAs now say village schools cannot manage. Government imposes financial targets prompting the very wholesale closures it once professed to end, threatening to erase a sector delivering the high standards its entire policy targets. The blindly-sustained rigid unit cost factor paralyses debate in a way confounding broader, more relevant economic perspectives.

OFSTED and earlier research reveal small school community worth. Planning research has shown that costed against the tax-paying base major local authority services like education cost least in the smallest communities, most in the largest. The school is often the only return for village tax-payers on moneys otherwise spent largely in the towns. One LEA argued a few years ago that high unit costs were so fragmentary an element of the overall budget that savings from closing all its small schools would bring a one-off £50 payment to the rest... jam spread thin indeed! Escalating dependence on transport is financially unwise, unpredictable and at odds with environmental policy.

The Scottish Executive revealed in August that the smaller a school the more chance that pupils reach university and in Scotland small, remote communities are nothing to do with the socio-economic advantage falsely alleged to explain small-school academic success. Indeed disadvantaged pupils make progress where their counterparts in urban areas remain an expensive under-class of under-achievement. Small schools are as capable of high achievement as the rest, often more so, their alleged, never substantiated disadvantages proving professional strengths in informed hands.

The Commission for the Countryside reported in 2005 using DfES figures what others have known since testing began, namely that schools with 100 or less on roll, including very small schools, did better than the rest, a clear challenge to present Government policy, heightened by the finding from KS3, 4 and GCSE outcomes that just living in a rural ward brought better results across the age range. This is the ultimate contradiction as families in rural areas have minimal choice but the best results. Little wonder sponsors of city academies go mainly for those with measurable success. That small school performance, even discounted for socio-economic factors applying mainly in counties adjoining large metropolitan areas, remains up with the best of the rest is still remarkable given the climate of professional distaste for them, and which distaste has always encouraged political concentration on costs.

The US "Headstart" programme in the 70s and 80s invested in the quality of home-school relationships in early education. Ten years later studies showed that every dollar spent returned five to fifteen to the Treasury. The improved school climate reduced the costs of educational failure and related social tension and distress, while closer parent-teacher understanding helped pupils identify better with the goals, stay longer in the system, achieve more, get better jobs and pay higher taxes.

Small schools are the epitome of that close and healthy partnership between not just home and school but also school and community. Similar long-term financial profit will accrue. The Scottish evidence confirmed Johnstone's 30 years earlier about successful pupils at "Highers." Small, human-scale school communities whose pupils do best at 18+ well fit the 'Headstart' evidence of eventual better jobs and higher taxes, as well as reduced social costs. DfES funding formulae that leave hard-pressed communities in rural areas grossly discriminated against compared to similar schools in urban areas are apparently in future to break down income, spending, housing and crime data to individual postcodes. The system sees crime as something funding should help reduce and conventional analysis makes clear a major source of crime, and very expensive social distress, resides in family and community breakdown. Do we close such schools because they cost more? Does such funding not equate with small school higher unit costs?

Visionary College principal Leonard Marsh proposed in the 70s when rising birth-rate was the problem that we should build a school on every street corner. Instead we built the large blocks now half-empty provoking today's school places crisis disguised as before as better provision. Highland Council in Scotland plans a large new housing development near Inverness airport. Rather than conventional large schools they should build the first Len Marsh prototypes, linked by modern concepts of school co-operation and served by modern technology.

We need to dismantle the 'big is better and by the way cheaper' myth, and not just i education! We need small schools in the city with that promise of investment profit. Larger schools can succeed but as numbers rise it becomes more difficult to find and exploit the leadership vision inspiring the quality teaching OFSTED and others know underpins educational success. Up to 50% of educational outcomes reflect quality of teaching but the rest is home background. Larger numbers make it distinctly difficult to build the parent partnerships so natural in small schools and that remain the best answer to the growing concern about the very nature of childhood. Assuredly we must keep our existing small schools.

Mervyn Benford - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.