Big and little schools

The UK in the era of comprehensive state education has had very different views on school size depending on the age of children.

A typical local authority provides small schools for 5-11 year olds. This means they can be close to the homes of the parents. The Head can know all the children in the school and can do some teaching. It cuts the strain on local roads, and even allows the possibility of more children walking to school.

That same typical authority may think secondary school children should attend schools with 1200-1500 children on the school roll. This means they draw on children from a very wide area. It increases the strain on local roads. Head teachers often do no teaching, as the administrative and personnel tasks are all consuming. Whilst Heads and senior teachers would claim to know all the children, in practise their knowledge must be patchy at best in some cases. Only a small fraction of the pupils can walk to school.

The main argument for large secondary schools relates to student choice of subject, especially in the sixth form. A large school can afford a wider range of specialist teachers, offering a wider range of subjects. I think we need to ask if this is sufficient reason to justify building more of these large schools. It would be possible at sixth form stage for pupils from School A to go School B for a specialist course that School A cannot offer and vice versa. It is also possible to draw on the resources of local sixth form Colleges, FE Colleges and local universities for the occasional student who wants to offer an A level outside the mainstream.(I remember having reading rights at the local university library in the sixth form and attending some public lectures). In practise core subjects like maths, english, science, history and economics remain the most popular and can be staffed in a smaller school.

An ancillary argument is that a large school is more economic, allowing concentration of the overhead costs for a larger number of pupils. This argument, however, is not thought relevant in the case of primary education. It also ignores the fact that a smaller school can employ part time staff to carry out functions that need to be full time in a larger establishment, or can share administrative back up with other similar schools.

So what are the advantages of smaller schools? The first is they are less expensive to build, less of a major commitment. The second is a wider range of smaller schools offers more choice. The third is that in practise most pupils will come from the surrounding area, so travel is easier and transport strain and cost less. The fourth is they can develop more sense of community and common achievement. They could have a whole school assembly, and teachers and the Head will have more knowledge of every pupil.

I am not suggesting that big schools are necessarily bad schools – far from it. I know some very good large schools. I do, however, think more small schools in the mix would extend choice, and would offer some solutions to some of our problems. It represents the quickest way of expanding choice and cutting transport stress when capital money is limited.


  1. Alan Wheatley
    August 28, 2010

    The case is well made.

    To have small schools and benefit from the economy of scale could not primary and secondary schools be located on the same site? They would still be separate schools but be able to share some resources.

    At sixth form, when it can be assumed pupils are there because they want to be, Next Generation Internet will better enable remote learning, so the pupil in School A will be able to "attend" the lesson in School B without physically being there.

  2. Stuart Fairney
    August 28, 2010

    It is incredibly disappointing that one of the more intelligent members of the conservative party still thinks that the state should run schools and gets into somewhat pointless speculation about school sizes, when there is very obviously no money to start building a series of smaller schools. Where is the truly radical idea to privatise the lot, do away with the education authorities and simply make education vouchers available to parents to spend at the schools the choose?

    And when free-market conservative thinkers confine themselves to speculative fiddling around the edges like this, I rather despair.

    1. davidncl
      August 30, 2010

      Agreed. Redwood needs to be viewed as the clever enemy not as a friend of the free,

  3. Mike Stallard
    August 28, 2010

    The real problem is this in the big schools which I have taught in: you can't keep order outside your own classroom. Try and stop two anonymous boys fighting in a corridor or an anonymous girl having sex by a wall, and they just tell you to clear off. No names, ran the old saying, no pack drill.
    And, fo course, this lawlessness spreads fast. Headteachers aren't interested in the classroom neither are the "Senior Staff" neither are the Pastoral Advisors…….
    Do you know what? adolescents like to be known, understood and loved just like the rest of us. Gasp!

  4. Derek Duncan
    August 28, 2010

    You altered one of my comments recently, so may I point out that the word "practise" is a verb; as a noun, it should be "practice" …

  5. Peter T
    August 28, 2010

    Back in the days when we had them my Grammar Schoool cateree]d for around 600 pupils. We knew the teachers and the teachers knew us. We did not have an excessively large range of subjects concentrating on what, at that time, were considered the academic subjects. We covered French, German, Spanish and Latin but no doubt, in a modern context, we would need to provide for Russian, Japanese and one or two other languages also. For most subjects the teachers came to us rather than the whole school moving from classroom to classroom at the end of each period. I still think that we have things to learn and introduce from that era which could improve our way of doing things.

  6. Alan Jutson
    August 28, 2010

    Can only relate to my own experience of School back in the 50's and 60's..

    Most Nursery and Junior schools were usually combined on the same site and were fed by the local area, no more than half a mile radius. Secondary Schools were larger, about 500 pupils and fed by the local area of about 1 mile radius,

    Smaller schools did engender a feeling of belonging and team spirit, especially when in competition with other Schools. Football, Rugby, Cricket, leagues were common and sports days held once a year. All Teachers knew all pupils, bullying was rare, and the opportunity to be part of a team, each School having 4 House teams in each year (more schools more opportunity) was greater, as was the opportunity of leadership (Team Captains/Prefects etc).

    Virtually all pupils walked to school, or biked if you passed your cycle test (police tester). Exclusion, skipping School did not happen, the Head made sure of that with their own brand of discipline, and Parents backed them up.

    Politicians wisdom changed all that ,with selling off of playing fields, lack of competitive sport, and a change in learning from education, to examination pass techniques being taught.

  7. English Pensioner
    August 28, 2010

    I agree with Peter T above, I went to a similar school.
    Can someone explain why a specialist teacher can't teach at more than one school? My daughters went to a smaller school, about 500 pupils, and the music teacher visited a couple of days each week, teaching elsewhere on the other days. Smaller schools could have visiting teachers in any subject where there is insufficient demand for full time specialist teacher, which must be far "greener" than the 20 or so buses transporting pupils to our local high school.
    And as for this trend to have different rooms for different subjects, the only "special rooms" that we had were the physics, chemistry and biology labs along with the gym. If a teacher of the other subjects can't teach in an ordinary classroom (without Powerpoint, etc), in my view they are not up to the job.
    Oh, and why, if one believes the ads, do children need their own lap-top for school these days?

  8. StrongholdBarricades
    August 28, 2010

    I find some merit in some of your arguements, but it does miss the whole point.

    School size does not affect outcome, neither does the state of those buildings unless the pupils are spending lesson times having to isolate themselves from the outside weather. Indeed school sizes can actually allow much better "streaming"

    It is Teachers.

    One good teacher can inspire an individual to achieve, but a bad teacher can not get a pupil to pick up a book and really begin to learn

    The left may well say that the 11+ condemned the majority (even though there was flexibility in the 12+, 13+, 14+), but when it was in place social mobility was greater and education was tailored.

    1. StrongholdBarricades
      August 28, 2010

      In today's system we now have "graduates" who are competing with people who left school at 16 for employment positions, and demanding commensurate remuneration for their degrees because they have been told "a degree earns you 400K extra over a lifetime of work"

      After 40 years of the comprehensive experiment I welcome Michael Gove's supposed separation of school and state. Maybe now our schools will provide individuals whom our companies wish to hire rather than having to rely upon immigrants for the relevant skills

  9. Ruth
    August 28, 2010

    Good points, well made. I went to a large comprehensive in the 1980s (1400 pupils), 3 miles from home as the crow flies, longer by road. No direct bus route, so those who lived like me on the edge of the catchment had to use a contracted bus service, which my parents struggled to afford. When we were old enough, we were expected to walk the 3 miles home as money was too tight to cover 2 children both ways. Interestingly when the science block burned down, pupils were bussed to another local school for those lessons. It didn't seem to be a problem.

    Your points on administration and economies of scale are also good ones. I worked for a small company which through mergers became very large. I think the argument of economy of scale is a myth. In my experience, when administrative tasks have to be carried out as a sideline to the main job, they are kept necessarily small and simple. Once an organisation gets past a certain size, administrative tasks have to be performed by dedicated staff and consequently grow in complexity, along with the numbers of staff required to perform them. The only thing you gain as a large organisation is increased buying power, you don't save anything in staff costs as administrators have a vested interest in growing their base.

  10. JimF
    August 28, 2010

    This sounds reasonable.
    The need for specialist subjects is more "there" for A levels onward, so below that smaller more local schools would seem to make sense.
    For those who wish to study niche academic subjects, or to move into a trade apprentice ship, it strikes me that post GCSE is a good time to make the move. So the choice for that 2 years could be traditional A levels at school/specialist A levels at 6 form college/move to vocational training for 2 years coupled with work experience.
    I'm still not convinced that by encouraging all to stay in a school environment until 18 we aren't hindering progress and maturity for those who want or need to get up and get out.

  11. Evie
    August 28, 2010

    The Scottish education system is so much better than the patchwork English system. A single examination board with consistent national standards and a truly comprehensive system. Why doesn't England look to Scotland for direction…

    1. Mik Estllard
      August 29, 2010

      Because we have first hand experience of what it produced.

      1. Evie
        August 30, 2010

        David Mundell?

  12. DBC Reed
    August 28, 2010

    Furhter comment.
    Something should be done to make Teacher Training College expertise more available .Such colleges should have schools on premises where new methods can be extenively field trialled.There appeared to be a paucity of evidence in the big debate about phonics.
    Also the basic curriculum should not be seen as set in stone.Chips Channon bemoans a post-war parliamentary debate about spelling reform .Countries with more regular spelling patterns have discernibly better educational outcomes,And do we need all the maths? Multiplying fractions where the product is smaller than the original terms?Algebra?

    1. DBC Reed
      August 28, 2010

      This was supposed to have been the second part of a comment that was too long to appear as one message.The first ,and slightly more important bit, has disappeared!

      1. DBC Reed
        August 29, 2010

        The disappeared bit related to the matter of choice between primary schools: choice is bound to increase travel to the better ones.And then there is little choice about what is taught as this is fixed in a State Curriculum promulgated by arch Thatcherite Keith Joseph.
        A level studies could be considerably freed up if an A level was taught on a whole-day basis .Instead of say five hours of lessons/lectures spread over five days as in the conventional timetable ,the whole thing could be done on one day ,leaving the student free to go to a completely different establishment to do other subjects .Although normally a defender of bureaucrats the timetabler in education has too much unseen power and causes chaos and not a little boredom to the student who can have one lesson at nine'oclock and either none at all for the rest of the day or another at three.( I once taught an A level subject on one half-a-day-a- week basis for one year only: all evening classes were the same.The results were pretty much the same as for" full-timers" ).One full timer also did two evening classes and ended up with 5 A's at A level in the same summer.This was at an FE College.

      2. Alan Jutson
        August 29, 2010

        DBC Reed
        Yes frustrating, been a victim myself.

    2. Evie
      August 30, 2010

      Children as experimental trial fodder?
      I recall 'extensive trialling' in the 70s and 80s – the results were appalling for those children who were in the trial which was deemed a failure…
      Not sure that's such a good idea. Not sure I'd be happy for my children to be 'experimented' upon.
      There's no 'paucity of evidence'. The best (by far) method is a combination of traditional and phonetic methods.
      I fear for the logic of your reasoning DBC…lets reduce the curriculum to the lowest common denominator…lets only teach those 'subjects' which will fill the jobs which we intend to create…lets not pretend what we will provide as a consequence is 'education'…

      1. DBC Reed
        August 31, 2010

        Please specify what was trialled in the 70's and 80's? Are you talking about ITA?
        Children are being experimented on with teaching methods dreamt up,sometimes at very short notice, by teachers themselves.( I knew one very well-respected teacher who taught English at secondary school entirely by rehearsing Shakespeare plays: a teacher at my step-son's school insisted that the kids (about 12) should learn the 13 times table and put them on the spot with questions on it while doing the register.If not trialling ,some continuous assessment by teacher training colleges or colleges of education should be undertaken : it might be that rote-learning of 13X serves some purpose.
        I assume that your comments about reducing the curriculum to its lowest common denominator of what's needed in jobs is ironic.Creating jobs is not an objective of policy not even in the Labour Party; the Coalition is keen to destroy public sector jobs.

  13. Electro-Kevin
    August 28, 2010


    If a good school emerges in an area it becomes instantly oversubscribed. 90% of parents would choose a good school if they could. So why are there so few of them available ?

    Because – as with most things in this country – a small minority is always allowed to ruin things for everyone else. This applies to litter, noise, crime and the spoiling of perfectly reasonable schools.

    Giving us 'choice' will not elevate schools. Not until politicians have the minerals and the inclination to properly support the will of the majority against that of the unruly and anti-social minority.

    Nothing has changed yet under the Tories. I am loath to stand up to the unruly not so much because I fear them, but because I fear the authorities more than they do. I expect that most teachers feel the same way as I. And that's why there are too many poor schools, not because of choice or school size.

    1. Electro-Kevin
      August 29, 2010

      So says one who was deprived on an education because of violence towards teachers and pupils in class. (I educated myself by correspondence course and through night schooling.)

      So why no response to what I have to say. Mr Redwood ?

    2. simon
      September 1, 2010

      A teacher who is terrified for their job after throwing a disruptive pupil out of a classroom is going to be easy to get a result against in court .

      Thats the police's motto , "strong on the weak , weak on the strong" .

  14. Jonathan
    August 28, 2010

    I've never understood why we can't have more teachers being shared around schools; then specialised subjects could be taught without employing a full time member of staff; this would be perfect for languages (instead of just French) and a whole range of other subjects that don't need specific equipment.

  15. Demetrius
    August 28, 2010

    As someone around as an adult in the 60's I recall all the debates too well. The problem is that when Secondary Education for all began to roll in the 1950's the leaving age was 15 with few staying on. The two things happened. One an increase in numbers going througn and second more staying on. The big decision was ducked then and we are still paying the price. It would have been to have age 13 or 14 to go in to a senior school/college with a flexible set of arrangements before for the great majority dividing at around 8 or 9. In Leicestershire they had begun to put this in place and in other areas it worked quite well. But London went for Big Schools from 11 and this has been the source of many of the problems.

    1. Mike Stallard
      August 29, 2010

      Schools are a bit like farms. Some have awkward fields, others have huge fields, yet others are mixed and so on. What all of them have in common is that they need time to become what they can be. If you keep on rearranging them, you produce chaos. A good school (Eton, Winchester) rests on its tradition. People know what is wanted of them and they can choose to deliver. If things keep on changing, then bad things remain the same and the excellent cannot grow.

  16. Nick Leaton
    August 28, 2010

    Large secondary schools can provide streaming and a wide choice of subjects.

    A small school cannot unless it specialises.

    A small school cannot stream unless it selects.

    ie. With small school sizes, you need grammars and specialist technical schools.

    With large school sizes comprehensives don't cause problems because they can offer a large selection of courses and stream.

  17. Robert George
    August 29, 2010

    What you say fundamentally is let the particular requirements of each locality shape the services required. In a densely occupied city for example a large school may well be the answer, similarly in a town of say twenty thousand people it might work.

    In my own case I went to a small coed Grammar School of 480 pupils in a small town. That was combined with a secondary modern when political diktat demanded we went comprehensive. The small schools both did well for pupils to O level, beyond that choice was limited, too limited. I am delighted that my old school is now planning a shared 6th form with another in similar small town circumstances 6 miles away. One will specialise in science and the other in languages/Arts.

    Local decisions for local problems. And no politics!

  18. john malpas
    August 29, 2010

    how does the military solve this problem? They have to train large numbers in subject both small – eg marching about – and large – eg flying planes etc.

    1. backofanenvelope
      August 29, 2010

      By selection

  19. Bumpkin
    August 29, 2010

    John, you raise the issue of transport costs for bigger schools; both to the parents, and to the local authority, resulting from increased road use. I think there is a wider issue here about centralization; we are often told that our services; hospitals, schools, police stations, courts etc. are being centralized to 'cut costs.' However, whilst this may cut the cost to the authority, these costs are just passed on to the user, the employees, and to the authority as a result of the increased road use. Are these factors ever taken into account? It seems an almighty scam to pretend savings are being made, when in fact the costs are just being passed on to the taxpayer.

    1. Alan Jutson
      August 29, 2010


      Exactly so, Centralisation reduces one budget, but increases another to someone else.

      Problem is no one seems to look at the big picture on cost, they only look at their own little bit, and bugger everyone else's budget.

      Until the situation changes we we always have wrong decisions taken, because only half of the information and calculations are ever completed.

  20. Richard
    August 29, 2010

    I dont feel that the size of a school is the most important issue in achieving a quality education locally.

    Four decades after I left school my town has exactly the same poor schools and exactly the same good schools

    The problem is that the best schools are not allowed to increase in size and the worst schools have no incentive to improve.

    Our local council says that overall there is sufficient places for all the towns pupils to have a secondary education, but of course the good schools are enormously over subscribed and no one wants their children to go to the worst schools.

    The answer is for Government to remove powers from LEA's and to allow the good schools to expand to meet demand and to directly fund them to do so.

  21. data center
    September 8, 2010

    Do you mind if I used a bit of your style.css for my own forum? I would appreciate it! Thanks!

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