Cut down to size: Why big comprehensives can put some pupils off learning

Teacher Steve McCormack reports on a reform that will create smaller, friendlier units
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The size of Britain's secondary schools is stoking political debate. The Tories lambast the Government for creating ever more giant schools of 2,000 or more pupils, saying these breed low achievement and poor behaviour. Ministers dispute the evidence, arguing that increasing school size can improve achievement. So does size matter more than how a school is run?

When I first started teaching in secondary schools a few years ago, I was struck by the sheer mass of pupils I was in some way responsible for. Seven different maths classes streamed in and out of my room, with varying frequency, every week. In my mark book, there were just short of 170 names of students; all mastering, or struggling with, maths at different speeds. At report-writing time, I was supposed to profess intimate knowledge of where each one of these individuals was on their learning journey. On top of that, I had pastoral responsibility for the 30 children in my tutor group. To claim anything approaching a personal knowledge of more than a handful of these 200 teenagers would have been a pretence.

This feeling became more pronounced when I walked the corridors, or did my duties in the playground or lunch queue. Here, among the 1,700 young souls in the building, I'd regularly see faces completely foreign to me. "Who are you?" would often be the unspoken message in the eyes of those children I had to scold for rowdiness or swearing in these situations. I had to concede privately that they had a point, as in all probability our paths wouldn't cross again for several weeks, if at all.

For the pupils, the experience was just as impersonal. Coming from a final primary school year, where they'd spent most of their classroom time with one teacher, most were handed a timetable when they started at my secondary school with about 15 different teachers' names on it. It's no wonder their heads spun, and no wonder that large numbers of the lazy, the weak and the insecure began slipping through the net, their education at best stalling, and at worst going off the rails.

A similar state of affairs confronted John Matthews when he took over the headship of Brislington Enterprise College, an urban comprehensive on the outskirts of Bristol, five years ago.

"When I arrived, it was clear that the size of the school [1,650 pupils] was a huge negative issue for parents, students, parents and members of staff. Parents were questioning whether their children were safe, and were asking us if we really knew them," he explains.

That realisation marked a turning point in Brislington's development. It led Matthews, and his senior colleagues, down a path of questioning their school's organisation and researching other models, particularly those originating in America that divided big schools into smaller, more manageable sections. Two years ago, Brislington began introducing changes of its own, but the real transformation will come in September, when the school moves into a £30m building, nearing completion on an adjoining site, which has been designed to enable the school to implement a radical internal reorganisation.

There will be seven, largely self contained "learning communities", each with around 200 students and occupying a purpose-built wing of the new school. Two will cater for 11 to 13-year-olds, three for 13 to 16-year-olds, one for the sixth form and one for children with physical disabilities. The key benefit is the way this structure will stabilise and strengthen pupil-teacher relationships.

"For the majority of the time, these communities will stay together," says deputy head Janine Foale. "Each pupil will see at most six teachers and each teacher will deal with no more than 90 pupils." Out will go tutor groups, to be replaced by mixed age "learning circles" with around 10 students, each led by a member of staff, something that requires the participation of almost every adult in the building.

Although Brislington is one of only a handful of schools undergoing such radical surgery, it is doing so to the sound of sympathetic voices from across the education landscape.

The most forceful endorsement came at the end of last year in a report entitled Lessons from the Front, compiled by 1,000 teachers from Teach First, which places high-flying new graduates in inner-city schools. It argued strongly for what it called the characteristics of smallness to be introduced into all secondary schools. With first-hand experiences mirroring mine, these teachers were scathingly critical of the depersonalising tendencies of the traditional secondary structure.

"Small learning communities," the report concluded, "would ensure that every pupil was known as an individual, making it harder for pupils to fall under the radar."

Although the report bemoaned the trend for the average size of secondary schools in England to increase – half now consist of between 1,000 and 2,500 pupils – it concluded that the absolute size of a school is less important than what happens inside.

This is a point echoed by the charity, Human Scale Education, which, with the Gulbenkian Foundation, gives financial help to 40 schools in the UK in making internal changes, all of which in some way try to strengthen the bonds between pupils and teachers.

However, to make this work, a nettle has to be grasped, namely the entrenched supremacy in secondary schools of teachers specialising in their subjects. If a child is to continue to be exposed to the full breadth of the curriculum, while seeing only half a dozen teachers, then some or all of those teachers are going to have to stray well outside their subject specialism.

Jane Thomas, project manager for Human Scale Education, welcomes this, arguing that the rigid subject specialism model is not always helpful in today's schools. "In the modern world, no one is asked to sit down and just work in a history, geography or English box," she says. "People are asked to work across issues, and to be self-motivating.

"When teachers spend more time with pupils in cross-curricular, themed lessons, they get to understand so much more about how the children learn. This pedagogical point is an important one."

This is exactly the road being travelled at Brislington, where existing curriculum changes, preparing the way for the move into the new school, have widened many teachers' responsibilities. All form tutors in the first two schools years, seven and eight, for example, already have to teach cross-curricular project work to their form for large chunks of the week.

Greg Seal, 35, once just a biology teacher, now finds himself taking his class through business studies and geography and on joint projects together with the design and technology department.

"It was very difficult to start with, and I had to read around lots of new subjects, but now I enjoy it, and I've got to know the pupils in my tutor group much better," he says. "And I think they know more what's expected of them and how they can learn."

And his pupils also seem to recognise the benefits of developing a deeper classroom relationship with a smaller number of teachers.

"They comfort you when you feel like you can't do something," says Laura Price, 13, "but they can also spot when you know something, but can't be bothered."

"I find they know you more and know when to push you," agrees Danielle O'Hare, 12.

These comments support the evidence, particularly from the US, that reorganisations of this nature do improve pupil behaviour and motivation.

However the jury is still out on whether they can also improve exam results. And it is this factor, which will only emerge over time, which is likely to govern the degree to which small-scale education becomes adopted widely.

'The days of comfort-zone teaching within your specialist subject are over'

When Sarah Blainey, 29, joined Brislington five years ago as a newly qualified history teacher, her working life fitted the traditional model. Her timetable consisted almost exclusively of history lessons, given to classes spanning the whole school. For the past two years she has become more of a generalist, teaching a smaller number of students across a wider curriculum. A quarter of her time is spent on project lessons with the 12- and 13-year-olds in her tutor group.

"I now teach almost everything," she explains. "There's a little English, some numeracy and a lot of geography. The project work is more about guiding the kids in their learning, and I've developed a more holistic view of each pupil, how they respond to deadlines and about their wider life skills."

She's also noticed that pupils benefit from developing a closer relationship with her. "They're much happier, and settle down more quickly in lessons. That helps them take risks, which is what you need to do to learn."

"At the start it was harder work. But it has been enjoyable. Anyway, the job can't be viewed any more as just staying within your subject. The days of comfort-zone teaching are past." SMcC