How big should a secondary school be?

Emma Bishton's picture
The proposers of the 11-16 free high school in Stoke by Nayland are currently waiting to hear if they have got through to pre-opening stage. One of the key characteristics of their proposal is that the school will be small, and that this is inherently good.
To quote from the website of the Stoke by Nayland High School Academy Trust:
“Size - The school will be a manageable size – following the principle that the student that is known best, learns best. The project is for a school of 600 pupils.”

School size is of particular interest in this area partly because much of Suffolk is rural and partly as we are going through a reorganisation from 3-tier to 2-tier, which necessarily means the Upper schools (and the primary schools for that matter) need to expand to take on two additional year groups. Suffolk County Council has made clear that this reorganisation will result in many high schools being of optimum size - for them 1,200. However, many supporters of a new school in SbN have made the point that they feel Great Cornard Upper School (the school most set to lose pupils to a new school in SbN) would be ‘too large’ at the proposed size of 1,200.

Much of the discussion about the proposed school, and our (COMPASS-Suffolk) opposition to it concerns whether small is indeed good. Disregarding for the moment how pupils’ progress is tracked through school (which it seems to me is key to how well a student is known), I am curious as whether there is in fact a relationship between school size and performance.

I am neither an academic nor a teacher, so only have my personal perspective, but it seems to me there are two issues here: firstly whether there is a relationship between size of school and performance, and secondly how to provide effective schooling which creates best value from public funds.

|A cursory Google suggests that this is a complex area; a quick look at results just within Suffolk shows that variation in size does not correlate with variation in GCSE results. For example, in 2010, in one of the largest schools in Suffolk, Kesgrave - which had a pupil roll then of 1,719, 60% of pupils achieved 5 A*-C grades including maths and English. In one of the smallest, Newmarket College, which then had a pupil roll of 563, only 29% pupils achieved this (N.B. this was a significant drop from the year before). These are just two examples from the Suffolk performance table produced by the DfE, but I could have chosen plenty of other examples which show that being small does not necessarily tally with better outcomes, anymore than being large does.

What is true, I think, is that we as parents react differently to the size of schools and often feel that a larger school will be somehow less personal, fearing that our children will be lost. And it certainly may be the case that some children feel more comfortable in a smaller school. But it does not follow that just because large numbers look more impersonal to us, that our children will either feel this for themselves or that they will do worse at school. (Putting academic issues aside for a moment, in a larger school they are more likely to have a good range of sporting, musical and other activities to draw on than in a smaller school so may be better able to find their own mark.)

Turning now to what a school can offer, it is clear that economies of scale mean that larger schools can offer a wider curriculum and more extra curricular activities. Smaller schools can only do this if they compromise on other areas or if they charge fees.

Private schools are often seen as desirable specifically because they can offer a more individual approach – though they are not always small schools. It seems to me that Free Schools draw on the element of choice which is fundamental to private education, and on the same sense that schooling can be more individual in focus, but with one crucial flaw: these schools receive (once properly established) no more funding for their teaching than any other state school.

Smaller state schools are relatively expensive as they duplicate core costs. In rural areas such as parts of Suffolk it is inevitable that some schools will be relatively small, as it would be ineffective and bad for communities if children were transported significant distances simply so all schools could be the same size. But – as indicated above – it does not follow that because they are small they are intrinsically better.

Local Education Authorities (at least currently) have the job of planning educational provision in a way that should provide best opportunity to the children in the area whilst a sustaining communities and providing effective value for money. In 2008 Suffolk County Council wrote an educational strategy called Transforming Learning with Communities. Included in this are the principles of the Schools Organisational Review (SOR). Amongst other relevant points, these clearly state that post-SOR:

"The preferred size for secondary schools will be in the range of 6-10 year groups, with an optimum size of 1200, excluding sixth form
School sixth forms be no less than 200 in number (I include this point here as it is germane - a school with relatively small year groups will not sustain a sixth form of this size)."

I am certainly no apologist for Suffolk County Council. However, I do believe that in determining these principles the council has assessed what educational provision needs to be made in Suffolk, and has sought to balance this with what can be provided with the resources available. They are not proposing ‘giant’ schools. But in relation to the planned high school at Stoke by Nayland, it is clear that the proposers do not plan a school big enough for six forms at entry - four is possible if they reach the maximum size suggested. (Indeed Stour Valley Community College has fewer and has opened with around 180 pupils across three year groups).

In summary, I do not believe that size (whether large or small) is in itself a determining factor in school success, but I do believe it is unreasonable to duplicate costs across the system in order to provide a range of small schools when there is no evidence that they will, simply due to their size, provide a better education than other schools. And crucially, I believe that larger schools of the size proposed by Suffolk County Council offer a wider range of opportunities that I think most children will benefit from. I remain curious though, about the perceived association between small schools and good outcomes, and would be interested to hear what others think about this issue.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 10/10/2011 - 20:15

One of the most notable disadvantages of small schools is that they can often only afford to offer a fairly limited curriculum, especially post 16, unless they collaborate with other local schools, something that will undoubtedly become more desirable as post 16 funding is squeezed.
Whether all these free schools will want to collaborate with other local schools is another matter, although they may have no choice.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 11/10/2011 - 08:38

There was an article in the Telegraph recently that said that the best schools had a VI form attached because they attracted the best teachers so that they could teach to their full potential.

Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 11/10/2011 - 10:40

In a small school the curriculum is limited. To make schooling cost effective you need class sizes of 20 to 30 students. When you get to subject options in year 10 there is a limit to how many classes of 20-30 students you can run in a small school. Same concept in the sixth form.
Another area where a small school inhibits the curriculum is in the scope for setting children. Imagine you were teaching Maths and had one class, all of the children would have to be in that one class. If you had 3 classes you could set the children to allow the more able mathematicians to go faster and the weaker ones to have extra help.
In my opinion, in an 11-18 Comprehensive, 1200 students is viable. When you fall below 1000 you have to start compromising your curriculum offer. If you have a selective school you can make it work with a smaller student total.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 11/10/2011 - 12:09

How sad you are losing your middle schools. A middle schools system with students transferring at 13 into large high schools with wide ranging provision are difficult to beat, especially if the pastoral system is well run at the high school with vertically integrated tutor groups so students have a stable base is such a large environment.

Smaller (<6 stream entry) secondaries offer a community atmosphere where you have staff who know all the students. It's a big loss when the school becomes so big that you don't know who the students are. Syllabus restrictions are limited if the school works effectively with a local college for vocational provision. I worked in a small secondary which offered five curricular routes for 14-16 - an fully academic route, and academic vocational route, a vocation college route (for students who would not get 5 good GCSEs), a outdoor ed route and a special needs route. The main compromise was for the students who were on the outdoor ed route who were setted together for maths which was not ideal. But the number of significant compromises was very small.

Here in Cumbria we have some outstanding small schools with 2-4 stream entry due to the geography of the county. The school in Alston is that size and is 11-18.

I think your insights into the importance of schools size are good. Very large schools which are exceptionally well run can be wonderful places. This book tells the story of one such school and is an easy and inspirational read:

School Duggery's picture
Fri, 14/10/2011 - 10:06

I am relieved to hear that Stoke-by-Nayland's free school proposal has failed - for now at least. However, as one dies another emerges. We have a very similar situation here in the Thurston area, with a new proposal from a few parents to open a free school on the site of either Ixworth or Blackbourne middle schools. This unnecessary school will again be small. The alternative option for reorganisation here is a school on the Beyton site run as part of Thurston Community College. The Beyton site will not need £5m of investment and the 700 place school will have all the advantages of a bigger school, because of it is part of Thurston, with the small environment that parents might want.

Emma Bishton's picture
Fri, 14/10/2011 - 16:16

Hello Rachel. This post was written over the weekend, and then on Monday we learnt that the SbNHS proposal had been rejected. All the members of COMPASS (our campaign group formed in opposition to the proposal) were extremely relieved to learn of this decision! In July we had handed to DfE a submission which included a petition signed by 1100+ members of the community opposing the proposed school. (If you would like any more information about our campaign in case it is useful for you in the Thurston area please do get in touch.)

The proposers of SbNHS state that they will re-apply next year, so we'll have to be ready to continue opposing a proposed school which we feel would damage our existing schools and disrupt the whole re-organisation process.

Esther Fidler's picture
Fri, 14/10/2011 - 23:04

Thurston adding Beyton is not alternative to the free school Rachel. It needs to be made quite clear that Thurston will work with Beyton under the SOR review and provision will be made for all of the children in the catchment. The proposed free school will be additional to this provision - a duplication in fact. When you consider that long term, the LEA's projection on pupil numbers is that they will drop (this is reflected in the PAN data on the SOR review document) then we will be funding empty places. What a waste of money.

School Duggery's picture
Sat, 15/10/2011 - 07:25

Yes, Esther, it is true that the two proposals can coexist, but not indefinitely. Only one site is needed, and in the end one will close. In the meanwhile, it will make planning for the transition much more difficult as there will be uncertainty over the number of additional places for which Thurston should plan. As you say, the free school isn't needed, we have enough capacity.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.