Tories: Large inner-city schools should be split into smaller ones

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The Independent Online

Radical plans to create a network of smaller inner city secondary schools were unveiled by the Conservatives yesterday. The party's policy blueprint for reforming public services suggests stealing an idea already used in the US – whereby high schools with 2,000 or more pupils are split into four different schools, each with a separate identity, thus transforming their examination results.

According to the Tory blueprint, Restoring Pride In Our Public Services, adopting a "small is beautiful" approach in Britain could improve discipline and exam performance. "One study [in the US] showed that school size had more influence on student achievement than any other factor controlled by educators," the document states.

It reveals that the number of children taught in schools with more than 1,500 pupils has doubled, from 261,100 in 1996-97 to 536,500 in 2004-05. "Although there are, of course, excellent large schools, on average discipline is worse in larger schools," the report adds.

The report's researchers cite the Wingate School in Brooklyn, New York, as an example. Its exam results have improved "astronomically" since it was split into four separate entities, according to Ben Shuldiner, the principal of one of the campuses.

The smaller schools idea has already caught on in Britain, with at least one of the Government's flagship schools, Burlington Danes Academy in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, opting for the model. The Conservative blueprint concludes: "We recommend that the possibility of creating alternative learning environments, such as schools within schools, should be investigated as a means of improving discipline and raising achievement in large schools."

The move is just one of a series of Tory proposals aimed at improving the educational attainment of disadvantaged children. Another key policy idea is a suggestion that, in the event of school closures, children should be bused from the inner cities into schools in the suburbs.

"There might ... be exciting possibilities and benefits, as school rolls fall, to close a large inner-city school whose numbers were shrinking and transport the remaining children out to smaller suburban or village schools, rather than closing the small suburban or village schools and transporting the children into the city," the document says.

"The costs in both financial and carbon terms of so doing would be the same, and there might be significant educational benefit."

Dame Pauline Perry, the former chief schools inspector who co-chaired the policy review group, said: "If you have a failing school, all the problem families send their children to the one school. Therefore, your difficulties are exacerbated.

"If you closed it down and spread the children to schools in the suburbs, they would be working alongside children from homes where they were more highly motivated."

The review document also calls for a "premium" of up to £6,000 per pupil per year to be paid to schools willing to take in children from deprived neighbourhoods. The decision whether to make the payment could hinge on the individual child's postcode.

In addition to the drive to help pupils from poorer backgrounds, the blueprint calls for a shake-up of exams and, in particular, the abolition of AS-levels, which are taken at the end of the first sixth-form year. Dame Pauline pointed out that this would give students an exam-free year before taking A-levels.

The report also urges David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, to consider whether 11-year-old pupils who fail to reach the required standard in national curriculum tests in maths and English could be held back in primary school for a year to catch up. However, it stresses that this would only be "an offer" made to them, rather than a compulsory decision taken by education officials. It says that, as an alternative option, they could be sent to "catch-up classes" at summer schools before they start at secondary school. Opponents of this proposal that say keeping a child behind for a year is more likely to lead to them becoming bored and playing truant than sending them to catch-up classes in summer schools.

Steve Sinnott, the leader of the National Union of Teachers, said: "I regret the fact that the report's education proposals are predicated on the idea of a failed education system. While schools face problems, they have demonstrated very real success in the last 10 years. That should have been recognised."

The policy blueprint is being considered by Mr Cameron, who will decide which parts of it, if any, should be included in his party's manifesto for the next general election.

'Downsizing changed the lives of my pupils'

The Crown Heights district of Brooklyn, New York, has its fair share of gun crime, teenage violence and deprivation. The 2,000-pupil Wingate High School was once a vast, impersonal school from which only about 20 per cent of its students graduated.

All that changed following the decision to split the school into four separate units on the same site, each with its own identity. Ben Shuldiner, the principal of the High School for Public Service – one of the four schools created – said: "The idea is that, in each school, [teachers] now know the kids much better and have a much closer relationship with their families."

The proof of the pudding, he argues, is in the eating. "[The change] has been astronomical," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday. "Whereas we used to have a graduation rate [of about 20 per cent], it is now 97 per cent. You can create a real bond, a close bond with them."

The walls of Mr Shuldiner's school are decorated with motivational messages to remind pupils – and their teachers – they are there to perform. One that holds the key to success, he claims, says simply: "Have you helped today?"

Similar experiments with downsizing have improved attendance rates and exam results at some of the toughest schools in Chicago and Philadelphia.