Education: When school fees are a piece of cake: Radical initiative or middle-class self-help plan? Peter Dunn looks at a small experiment in Bath

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For some parents the small school movement is the best thing since sliced bread, but in Bath they are putting this belief into practice - by selling the products of a local bakery to help to finance their children's education.

Bath Small School, a new secondary school in the city's western suburbs with an opening roll of eight boys, is partly funded by some parents' work at a bread shop owned by Herbert's, a bakery famous in the area for its unadulterated wheat loaves. Here, serving crusty loaves and sticky cakes, parents can earn pounds 15 for a four- hour shift, which is then credited to their weekly school fee of pounds 40.

The shop, in the Weston district, is owned by David and Joyce Jones, whose son Richard, 11, has started his first term at the Small School. 'We'd neglected the Weston branch slightly because we've been so busy in the main shop,' says Mrs Jones. 'We'd often thought about franchising it out and suddenly we thought of offering it to the Small School.' If enough parents can be found to take part the present arrangement could develop into a proper franchise operation, with the shop, and perhaps an associated cafe, buying bread from the bakery at a discount and making a profit for the school on top of the parents' donated wages.

Supporters of Bath Small School, such as the pressure group Human Scale Education (whose patrons include Anita Roddick, Sir Yehudi Menuhin and Jonathon Porritt), would certainly agree that there is potential in the modest but significant shift away from what they see as the factory-farming philosophy of state schools. The movement likes to paraphrase Aneurin Bevan ('Bigness is the enemy of humanity') and sees the Bath experiment, like its dozen or so predecessors around the country, as 'villages of learning' in which parents, teachers and children work in harmony for the benefit of the wider community.

Cynics might detect a hidden agenda below the small-school 'human scale' propaganda, suspecting that what its mainly white middle- class disciples really mean is that they cannot afford public-school fees and flinch from a state system they regard as too big, too common, and the creator, moreover, of illiterate youngsters slumped in dole queues.

Bath Small School will have none of this misanthropy. Its headteacher, Rupert Lowe, explains: 'The reason I'm here is that I taught English in Italy for five years and got involved in an alternative teaching methodology called 'suggestotevia', a highly accelerated learning form which is also holistic. We believe here in the holistic education of the whole child.

'I'm much happier here than in a comprehensive because it's much more like a family atmosphere. I think this will remain even when we're several classes bigger, because the maximum class size will be 12.

'What's important is the quality of relationship between parents, adults, children and the community. We all use Christian names: parents say their children are more confident than they would be perhaps in a school where seniors are 'sir' or 'miss'.'

Mr Lowe, who teaches Italian and French, is the only full-time staff member at the school, which is based in a Victorian school building. A small lab, built by parents, is staffed by a former comprehensive-school teacher who comes in twice a week to teach science and maths. A room is used by a potter in exchange for an afternoon's lessons each week. Art and swimming, once a fortnight, are covered by a lecturer from London University who is studying small schools; games by a young man just out of university; and music by a woman doing a degree in movement and sound.

Megan Legg, a secretary married to an engineer, transferred her 11-year- old son, Jonathan, to the Small School from an 180-pupil prep school. 'You get more attention here than at a comprehensive. I wouldn't have actually chosen a comprehensive at all, to be honest: Jonathan would have gone to a private school, but the problem was probably the money for me.'

Mrs Jones, who hopes her four younger children will follow Richard to the school, says her family prefers to spend money on skiing holidays than public-school fees. She has not been impressed by some of the young state-school sweepers who help in the bakery. 'Some have obviously never used a broom in their lives. And I look at their spelling and maths and think they could have done better.

'We're bakers and we just want to feel Richard is having a good schooling and enjoying himself. We don't want the children to go to the other extreme and become over-academic. We'd like them to come and help in the business here eventually. There's a lot more to life than A-levels.'

Next April, such small schools may become eligible for government aid under new legislation aimed at giving financial help to schools started by voluntary bodies. Grant-maintained status might be difficult in areas such as Bath, because the city has places going begging in the state system, but Fiona Carnie, co-ordinator of Human Scale Education, is optimistic.

'It could be the start of something big,' she says. 'The Government has been talking in clear terms about its commitment to choice and diversity, and that's exactly what these schools provide. Children have different talents. I don't think we should be providing exactly the same kind of education for every child.'

(Photograph omitted)