Giant secondary schools make pupils feel like 'cogs in machine'

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Secondary schools are getting bigger and bigger, fuelling concerns that they are becoming too impersonal to get the best out of their pupils.

Figures show a dramatic growth in the size of secondary schools during the past decade. Since 1995, the number of secondary schools with fewer than 1,000 pupils has dropped by nearly 600, to 1,562, while the number taking in more than 1,500 has risen by 124 per cent, from 115 to 258.

The move has prompted Human Scale Education (HSE), a pressure group which promotes more personal education, to urge ministers to set up an investigation into whether large schools are effective in delivering improved standards.

In a letter to Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, Mary Tasker, the HSE's chairwoman, said she wanted to express "serious concern" over the trend.

Reasons given for the rise are twofold: there are now fewer secondary schools than a decade ago as a result of amalgamations and failing secondary schools being closed; the Government is promoting the expansion of successful secondary schools so they turn fewer children away.

Ms Tasker said: "The Government's enthusiasm for encouraging successful secondary schools to expand flies in the face of what many parents say they want for their children."

Sheila Dainton, a supporter of HSE, said: "We must put the brakes on and ask if bigger schools are a move in the right direction or an accident waiting to happen. We urgently need to ask if big is best or whether small might be better still."

In a recent survey of parents in Bristol, most said they wanted small secondary schools with small classes where pupils were known by their teachers.

However, John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school heads, said small secondary schools might not be able to deliver such a broad curriculum, as they could not afford to hire enough teachers. "There are good and bad big schools - and there are good and bad small schools," he said.

HSE aims to persuade large secondary schools to adopt a more personalised approach to learning, and plans a pilot programme with around 50 schools. Those that have already signed up for the scheme include Wilsthorpe Business and Enterprise College in Derbyshire, a secondary school with just over 1,000 pupils, which is setting aside a designated area of the school specifically for teaching 11- and 12-year-olds in their first year of secondary schooling.

Westlands School in Sittingbourne, Kent, is dividing its 1,600 pupils into three separate mini-schools, each with a separate principal and vice-principal.

Each school within a school has a different name - Norman, Tudor and Stuart - and has around 500 pupils. The only difference in school uniform is that each of the three has a different tie. Ms Tasker said: "No one wants young people to spend their secondary school years as a cog in a machine. Young people's enthusiasm for secondary school can rapidly fade when they are faced with large impersonal buildings, often huge by comparison with the primary school, and inflexible timetables requiring them to move classrooms every hour."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said it did not stipulate an optimum size for secondary schools.

Senior civil servants argue, however, that it is important to look at class sizes rather than school sizes.

"Raising standards is our number one priority and we have invested unprecedented amounts in secondary schools, which have lowered the number of pupils per class and raised the number of teachers and teaching assistants," the spokesman added.

"To back this up, we are giving schools almost £1bn to personalise learning to ensure all children have an education that inspires them and helps them to do the best in every subject."