Letters: We need more small schools

You recently ran a positive article about small schools ("A school where less is more", EDUCATION & CAREERS, 17 July). US evidence reported to the National Education Trust, and confirmed in Australia, shows that as schools get larger, the gap between rich and poor widens.

The previous Scottish Executive reported that children in its smallest schools had a 25 per cent higher chance of reaching higher education, while impoverished children in such schools actually made progress. The case for small schools is virtually incontrovertible. The conventional argument for closure is cost.

However, current closures, along with rationalisations threatening significant longer-term stealth closures, follow shallow calculations citing unit cost comparisons. But long-term and early investment in helping parents and teachers work together brings significant returns. We need more small schools, not fewer, and we need them in our towns and cities as well.

The urban village school is needed when children are young and forming enduring impressions. School size is a more significant factor in national educational performance than most other factors. Yet the Government seems to be pursuing bigger and bigger institutions and many councils in England and Wales move ever faster to wipe out the schools that are giving them their better results.

Mervyn Benford, Information Officer, National Association for Small Schools

Let's be practical

Andrew Oswald addressed the question of rating university research for the allocation of funding ("The Treasury is wrong about RAE reform", E&C, 31 July). I am concerned about the use of so-called citation analysis. This takes no account of the practical value of published work. Research work which is taken up by industry and finds valuable application may well never be published – and hence may never receive any related citations. Citation analysis is hence rather a narcissistic activity. It will tend to reward the purely academic activities over those that have application value. Is that what we want? I think not. Another problem is that if funding falls it will be difficult for a university to recover. Reduced funding will reduce the incentive to do speculative research and critical people may leave. Where the chance of financial support is low the effort of writing proposals for funding is a significant drain on the time and motivation of research staff. If universities come to be valued, and funded, just by their staff's publications, then teaching becomes secondary.

John Chubb, Cheltenham

Needs vary

I was disappointed to read the article about state schools failing to advise sixth-formers properly ("The cost of making the wrong choice", E&C, 24 July), which fell into the trap of assuming that the state sector just trots out biased guidance to university applicants – a ridiculous generalisation. The second generalisation concerned the description of types of university – should we assume that only Russell Group institutions are elite? After all, my alma mater, Durham, is considered a top institution but it isn't a member of the Russell Group.

The third generalisation was about prospects. Are we seriously to believe that the single defining factor when applying for work is the university attended? What about the subject, the degree classification, the opportunities the course has provided to gain work experience and the contacts that can result from it? Surely life experience and personality also play a part?

As a qualified careers and higher education adviser with more than 30 years' experience in a state sixth-form college in the North-east, I would argue that choosing a university is a far more sophisticated process than suggested in your article. Our 700-plus Ucas applicants are constantly reminded that the best university is the one that best suits their needs. Surely advice based solely on the reputation of the institution is in danger of ignoring the needs of the applicant?

Many of our students who have graduated from vocational sandwich courses at non-Russell Group (or elite or top) universities are now earning exceptional salaries and enjoying fulfilling careers. Where do they fit in to your analysis?

Stella Barnes, Darlington

It is not clear what led Mike Goldstein to his assertion that it is evident that "research-obsessed" universities "do not provide what many people from less traditional backgrounds want" (Letters, E&C, 31 July). The idea that established universities are better at research but post-1992 universities are better at teaching has been scotched by teaching-quality audit results for more than a decade. Good, bad, and mediocre teaching is as likely to be found in research-intensive, as in teaching, universities. Modular curricula, with students constructing their courses from an array of options, are as likely to be found in the one as in the other institution, with one important difference. At the Russell Group university at which I was most recently employed, modules were informed by the research of tutors, with many in the final year of study focusing on research. By contrast universities that consume new knowledge rather than generating it, such as the one in which I previously worked, provide a curriculum that is always slightly dated, owing to the delay in disseminating research findings to the wider academic community. Where subject content is important to subsequent occupation it is not immediately obvious how students from less traditional backgrounds, or any others for that matter, gain maximum benefit from a degree based on knowledge that is already atrophying.

As far as image and style are concerned, Goldstein's generalisation appears to have no more substance than his assertion about curriculum. The issue of The Independent that carried his letter also contained an article about how higher education institutions anticipate the needs of care leavers, for example. In the cited case, St Martin's College Lancaster was stigmatised for its lack of support, whereas Edge Hill University was commended. Almost half of universities, including the epitome of research obsessiveness, Oxford University, were said to have received a quality mark from the Frank Buttle Trust, which supports young people in care. The Trust's website lists more than a dozen established universities, among them at least three current members of the Russell Group.

Had Goldstein questioned the assumption that it is a "good thing" for school leavers to aim for university, rather than combining study and employment, he might have been on to something. The extent to which a degree from any of the hundreds of providers, with its inevitable debt, provides a sound investment, merits serious analysis.

Dr John Fletcher, Moreton-in-Marsh

Send letters to: The Editor, Education, 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS (with a daytime phone number); fax to: 020-7005 2143; email to: education@independent.co.uk; letters may be edited for length and clarity

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