Are giant secondary schools the answer?

by Terry Wrigley

China 2464 Guardian

The news that a shortage of school places has led to giant secondary schools provides further evidence of the chaos resulting from the Government’s failure to plan. No one can feign surprise at the growing population, but after years of blocking local authority planning in order to favour academy chains and free schools, panic has set in and schools with between 12 and 16 form groups per year are being introduced in over 17 areas (BBC News). This means up to 480 pupils per year – 3000 or more pupils in an 11-18 school.

The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the schools minister Nick Gibb is illustrated by his comment: “If you look at Shanghai, their schools are very large and they produce some very high standards of education.” Do we really want schooling on an industrial scale?

This is a bizarre invocation of “evidence”. It is well established that Shanghai’s PISA results arise from a combination of factors:

  1. The city has a high concentration of well educated professional parents.
  2. Half the children have to leave the city’s schools before age 15 because their parents (generally those who do the menial work) are classed as migrants without citizenship rights – so consequently PISA only tests the more privileged.
  3. The one-child policy means that each single child enjoys the concentrated attention of both parents and four grandparents.
  4. Parents are spending a fortune on private tuition in this highly competitive system.

The fact that some large schools in Shanghai achieve well doesn’t mean that the same will happen here.

Even if it could be demonstrated that massive schools can reach high attainment levels, that would not justify the policy. Surely we should be asking what kind of environment best provides for young people’s personal and social development.

Very large schools in the USA have become increasingly unpopular, with a substantial movement towards very small schools or schools within schools, as well as home-schooling.

In high-achieving Finland (2007 data), only 10% of secondary schools have more than 500 pupils, and half had less than 300. Rather than increase secondary school size, many areas are switching to all-through schools for 7-16 year olds.

The organisation of secondary education is already problematic, even in moderately sized schools. 11 year olds often struggle to cope with 12 or more different subject specialists each week, as well as learning support and pastoral staff. Many more vulnerable students simply do not cope with this complexity. They simply get lost in such an anonymous environment. Many teachers suffer undue stress and dissatisfaction teaching so many different students that they can hardly even remember the names. There is reliable research to demonstrate an attainment drop after secondary transfer.

There are alternatives. In Norway the normal pattern is for 60-100 pupils in a year group to be taught and cared for by a team of 5 or 6 teachers. Because teachers are usually qualified in more than one subject, this is enough to cover the curriculum. The result is a greater sense of community, and pupils feel their teachers know them well.

A variety of patterns operated in the first year of secondary school in many parts of England, as well as in middle schools, until suppressed by Ofsted’s demand for a specialist in every subject. For example, a Year 7 class might be taught by their form tutor for around 10 hours each week, depending on his or her knowledge and experience.

Now it seems, all thought about young people’s wellbeing is irrelevant; schooling on an industrial scale, mass-producing high attainment as cheaply as possible, is all that matters.

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