Bigger isn't always best

Small schools survive in the private sector by giving pupils the attention and support they need - and teachers like them too, writes Amy McLellan
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Small is beautiful - and it is also increasingly private. As small state schools come under increasing pressure to merge with their neighbours or close entirely, parents seeking a close-knit community in which to entrust their offspring are turning to the independent sector where pupil bodies of less then 400 continue to hold their own.

Small is beautiful - and it is also increasingly private. As small state schools come under increasing pressure to merge with their neighbours or close entirely, parents seeking a close-knit community in which to entrust their offspring are turning to the independent sector where pupil bodies of less then 400 continue to hold their own.

Hipperholme Grammar School near Halifax in West Yorkshire was one victim of the state sector's "big is better" mantra in the mid-1980s.

"We were going to be closed down by our local authority because we were uneconomical in their eyes so we became independent," says the head Chris Robinson. "The economics do work although, as they say in Yorkshire, we do have to be careful. Pupil numbers are quite critical: we set our budget each year on 285 to 290 pupils and when we get 300 we put the surplus into sports equipment, buildings or bursaries."

The maths seem to work. "While we can't do everything a big school does, we do proportionately more," says Robinson. "Most schools around here have 1,000 children so they're three times the size of us, but they're not doing three times what we do."

Nick Dorey, head of Bethany School, a co-ed boarding and day school in Goudhurst, Kent, with 350 pupils across the secondary age range, says careful financial husbandry is critical.

"We don't have huge endowments to fall back on and there's no land to sell or stocks and shares, so we have to live off our income," says Dorey. "That means we have to be a very lean-run machine. We have to be efficient or we would not survive."

The fine-tuned ratio between pupil numbers and income has prompted Bethany to increase its numbers over the past decade.

"When I came here in 1990 we had 280 pupils and today we have 350," says Dorey. "We saw that if we wanted to develop the school and meet what we knew would be substantially increased teaching salaries then we would need to make sure we were bigger in order to cushion ourselves. However, the increase happened without us doing anything. It seemed to happen just through the popularity of the school."

Fees at the smaller schools don't reflect the diseconomies of scale they face. Day fees work out at between £2,000 and £3,800 a term with the fees for boarders from £5,000 to £6,000 a term. These sit well within the fee ranges suggested by the Independent Schools Council Information Service, which offers a fee range of £2,300 to £4,100 per term for a boy's day school and £4,000 to £6,500 a term for boarders.

Philip Cottam, head of Halliford School in Shepperton, Greater London, a boy's day school with girls admitted in the sixth form, says his school of 360 does well despite competition in the local area from two large day schools.

"Parents find our size very comforting," says Cottam. "Parents are used to the small and cosy atmosphere of their child's primary or prep school and our school provides a continuity of that atmosphere."

The high staff/pupil ratios in small schools - it's one teacher to every ten pupils at Halliford - reassures those parents whose children lack confidence or struggle socially or academically.

"It's very difficult for a child to fall though the cracks of the organisation," says Cottam. "Whether it's a social or academic issue, we are able to offer a lot more informal support and assistance."

Robinson agrees. "Children grow into big fish here because we are a small pond and that's wonderful for their development."

In these small ponds, pupils are expected to sign up to sports teams, drama productions, clubs and societies, regardless of aptitude. At Bethany, every Friday afternoon is "club time" when children participate in different activities, the range of which belies the school's size: pupils can pick from archery and art through to shooting, squash and tennis.

"In a small school, the children get to do more," stresses Dorey. "They've got a better chance of being a prefect, being on the sports team or in the school play."

Robinson of Hipperholme Grammar agrees. "Because we're small every pupil gets the chance to participate far more in lessons and in the extracurricular activities. It enriches their education enormously."

It's the same at tiny Kingham Hill School in the Cotswolds, a co-ed boarding establishment with just 255 pupils.

"On a typical sports afternoon, about half the pupils will be involved in representing the school in competition," says head Martin Morris. "And over the course of a term, more than three-quarters of the pupils will have represented the school. It's good for their confidence and self-esteem."

With just 230 pupils from ages 11 to 18, the classroom sizes at Kingham Hill are a state school teacher's dream: just 14-15 per class. By the time pupils reach the sixth form, the numbers per class range from three to ten depending on the subject. "It's more akin to college with private tutorials and seminars rather than classroom teaching," says Morris. "It equips them well for university, which virtually all of them go on to."

In common with a number of small schools, Kingham Hill has a relatively high population of children with learning difficulties. It employs seven full-time specialist teachers dedicated to bringing on pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia.

"Parents whose children have learning difficulties tend to come to us because they know there will be more individual academic and pastoral care for their children," explains Morris. Bethany School has an internationally recognised dyslexia support unit. "It's positive to have children with these issues in the school because it creates an atmosphere of understanding and supportiveness which everyone benefits from," says Dorey.

The heads shrug off accusations that small schools are the refuge of the less academically gifted.

"We expect everyone who comes here will get five A grades at GCSE and go onto take A-levels," stresses Cottam at Halliford. "It's unusual for our sixth formers not to go on to university and we can get them into Oxford and Cambridge. But while we do get some very good results, we are not an academic hothouse. We get those results by nurturing them."

Nurture doesn't come at the expense of discipline, however. When you know every child in the school by name, it's much easier to maintain control, says Robinson.

"When everybody knows everybody else, it's much harder to get away with things," says Robinson, who is an accessible figure for both pupils and parents. "I still teach 10 lessons a week myself, which a head of a larger school could not contemplate," he adds. These small schools believe they can offer pupils and parents something lacking in today's education system, regardless of whether it's state or fee-paying.

"Most schools are too big - it's not a case of whether they're private, comprehensive or grammar," says Dorey. "Children get lost. But in a small school like ours they are known as an individual and not just another name on the sheet."

It's a message that is starting to register in Whitehall. Earlier this year, speaking at one of Labour's Big Conversation events, education secretary Charles Clarke gave his backing to small schools, adding that there was a case for building up smaller "schools within schools" at secondary level to help children make the often difficult transition from primary to secondary school.

The campaign for small or "human-sized" schools is already well-established in the US, where mega schools of 2,000-plus pupils have been associated with spiralling levels of indiscipline, bullying and crime. A report from the US National Centre for Education Statistics' Survey of School Crime and Safety concluded that "the prevalence of discipline problems was positively related to school size". Sometimes, it seems, small really is beautiful.