Once again, small schools hold secrets of success

The National Curriculum was thought to be too much for village teachers. But their pupils are still out-performing city cousins. Maureen O'Connor investigates
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The Independent Online
Small does appear to be beautiful when it comes to education. The latest evidence suggests that smaller schools do indeed get better results and not just because they are in affluent rural areas or offer urban bolt-holes for the well-informed middle class. Yet small schools still remain vulnerable to closure, even though the Government is now committed to village schools unless there are overwhelming reasons why they must close.

The future of small schools in the towns and cities is much more bleak. Parents in Lambeth are currently in dispute over a reorganisation plan that will see schools becoming significantly larger, with one proposed primary catering for 630 five-to-11-year-olds. The local authority claims that it is targeting some schools with empty places and others with a poor quality of education.

Bradford will implement a reorganisation in September designed to close its middle schools and reduce the overall number of primary schools, concentrating children in larger units. And even rural Norfolk is considering a similar reorganisation which, parents say, will mean far more children having to travel away from their own villages to school, although this scheme may find itself in difficulties with the Government's new policy for rural areas.

The motive for reorganisation, protesters complain, is largely financial, and indeed the Audit Commission has argued that primary schools that have fewer than 210 pupils are not viable - although the Department for Education and Employment's figures for January this year show that 43 per cent of primary schools in England are in fact smaller than that.

In the primary league-tables, small schools come out rather well. The very smallest - those with 10 or fewer 11-year-olds taking the national curriculum tests - do not have their results published because of the risk of identifying individual children. But Ofsted does publish aggregated results for the 11 per cent of schools that fall into this category. This shows that in 1996 and 1997, a significantly higher proportion of children at small schools achieved Level 4 in English, maths and science than at the majority of larger schools.

These are not insignificant results, and they are confirmed by a study of grades by Professor Colin Richards, reported in the Education Journal.

He found a "small but clear" differential in favour of smaller schools, and "an interesting hint that as schools become even smaller, their results improve further".

So what is going on? Ofsted will not attempt an explanation until later this year when it is planning to publish an analysis of its data. In the meantime, explanations varying from triumphant to cautious are offered by those who fiercely support the 2,745 primary schools - 15 per cent of the total in England - with fewer than 100 pupils.

Mervyn Benford, spokesman for the National Association for Small Schools (NASS), is delighted by any evidence that small schools do well educationally and welcomes the slow-down in closures which has followed the Government's concern for rural communities. But he is cautious in trying to define just why they are so successful.

The Audit Commission view that schools with only a handful of children joining each year are undesirable is now discredited, he thinks.

Far from being unable to cope with the National Curriculum, there is evidence from Ofsted that - paradoxically - the very largest and the very smallest schools offer the best specialist teaching. But he concedes that it is too early to tell whether the National Literacy Strategy will prove as difficult for small schools to cope with as their critics predict. But, given that their results are so good now, he does not see why it should prove insuperable.

Explanations for the success of small schools are contentious. Social class may be a factor, and it is undoubtedly true that in some urban and suburban areas small schools - and in particular small Church of England schools - attract more than their share of middle-class children. But small Roman Catholic schools, which tend to be more urban and working- class, also do well. Tiny rural schools which by their very nature cater for all classes and abilities do well, too.

Very small classes may help, although this is not a point the NASS pushes, because the Government discounts class size as a factor that makes a difference to performance, as it does with social class when that is used as a reason for poor performance. Small class size may, in any case, be counter-balanced by mixed-age, mixed-ability teaching, which is regarded as a disadvantage by those pushing the new, whole-class teaching approaches.

Which leaves the possibility that smaller school communities offer a positive advantage for very young children, and on this Mervyn Benford will commit himself.

"I think small schools offer a positive ethos, a secure, safe environment for small children which is close to home, and in many cases they offer community links which reinforce what the teachers are doing."

Gervase Phinn visited dozens of small schools as an adviser for North Yorkshire County Council and is quite clear in his mind about why smaller schools achieve well.

"There has to be an effect when you have 10 fewer children in a class," he says. "And then there is the strong community support many small schools command." This is also the explanation that many church schools offer for their successes.

This, he says, can take many forms, from the middle-class parents in commuter villages who pack parents' evenings, to the farmer who drops his children at the rural school by tractor and drops off a piglet for the children to look at, or half a dozen fresh eggs for the teacher.

"It's a question of ethos," he says. "I was going into a tiny school one day and saw a little four-year-old girl fall over in the playground and two big junior boys rush to pick her up and take her to a teacher. That isn't about social class. It's about a caring environment."

But not all small schools produce outstanding results and, if they do not, they are highly vulnerable to parental panic. In a large school, a year with a poor class teacher may perhaps be regarded as tolerable. Three or four years with a poor teacher in a very small school may not be.

A bad Ofsted report can kill off a small school very quickly, as Norfolk discovered when local parents effectively abandoned Potter Heigham First School last year.

The National Association for Small Schools does not gloss over the fact that there are risks for children in small schools as well as potential benefits. Staff isolation can be a problem, as can management and curriculum coverage at a time of innovation and change. Some local education authorities, from Devon to Oxfordshire, are experimenting with federal links between small schools, sometimes with a single headteacher.

And in Gloucestershire the adjacent villages of Long Hope and Hopes Hill have recently been persuaded quite amicably to bring together two small schools two miles apart in new buildings that will include community sports facilities and a hall for joint school and village use.

Other reviews in Gloucestershire are much more fiercely contested, but Geoff Black, head of educational planning, justifies them on the grounds of the risks presented to schools by greater mobility, even in rural areas.

"If you get poor results in a rural school some parents will start to drive their children elsewhere. The worst scenario is that you get pockets of poverty where parents without transport are left with an unsatisfactory school."

In other words, whatever the Government says about community, it may in the end only be quality that ensures the survival of small schools.