Letters: We need small schools in our towns and cities

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Why small works

The Isle of Wight story ("Fight on Wight over closures", EDUCATION & CAREERS, 13 March) reflects a countrywide crisis. Small schools represent one of the most effective models of education we have created, a perfect antidote to what is termed "toxic childhood". Though large schools can perform well academically, small schools remain among the best-performing in tests and inspections.

It is either wilful deceit or shameful ignorance for local authorities to undermine parental confidence by making flawed claims such as those heard on the Isle of Wight.

The debate invariably boils down to finance. Unit costs are seen as too high and are said to drain resources from the rest of the system. But small-school costs in even the most rural areas are fragmentary proportions of overall budgets. No studies showing alleged savings from closure ever materialise, whereas there are studies that show transport costs overtaking the cost of keeping the original schools open. And £1,500 per pupil per year per five-mile journey is a lot for an LEA to commit.

Scottish research shows that the buses taking children to schools elsewhere cost more than heating, lighting, cleaning and repairing the buildings to be closed. The Scottish Executive reported in 2006 that children in its smallest primary schools had a 25 per cent better chance of entering higher education than the rest, and that children in such schools from impoverished backgrounds made progress. Their counterparts in big urban schools across the UK remain a sorry cadre of underachievement.

We need small schools in our towns and cities urgently, but must not destroy the successful rural models.

Mervyn Benford, information officer, National Association for Small Schools

Diplomas don't add up

I cannot agree with Nick Gooderson (Letters, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 20 March) that students studying for Level 3 diplomas will generally have the mathematics that they need for degree courses.

It is true that all Level 3 diplomas, the basis for entry to higher education, will require students to have achieved a pass in functional mathematics at Level 2. But this will not be a very challenging requirement as it is also required for a pass in all Level 2 diplomas, which are the equivalent of a clutch of A*-C GCSE grades and will be generally taken at age 16. Functional mathematics at Level 2 will also be required for an A*-C grade in mathematics at GCSE from 2012 onwards.

As it is unlikely that ministers would want to see much reduction in the proportion of 55 per cent of students who are awarded A*-C grades in mathematics GCSE, or would want widespread failure in Level 2 diplomas due to poor performance in functional mathematics, it follows that functional mathematics Level 2 will have to be designed so that 60-70 per cent of 16 year-olds can demonstrate mastery in the assessment.

This level is clearly not enough for most higher education courses. Further-more, there is no incentive for Level 3 diploma students to continue to study mathematics as almost all of them will have already achieved the functional mathematics level 2 qualification they need for a pass in their Level 3 diploma before they start. So far, only the engineering diploma contains a further compulsory mathematics unit which at 60 guided learning hours (the equivalent of two weeks' total study) cannot remotely compare with A-level maths. Although it will of course be possible for students to opt to study more mathematics units, even A-level, as part of their additional and supplementary learning, I wonder how many will choose to do so?

We know that many courses in many universities would like to demand higher mathematical qualifications for entry. Where they can, many universities recruit from overseas rather than England as almost without exception all students in other countries have to continue with serious mathematical study until they are 18. In setting Level 3 Diploma requirements in mathematics so low, even in technical subjects, we are condoning allowing standards in England to fall even lower than at present.

Margaret Brown, Professor of Mathematics Education, Kings' College London

Private issues

Your article on the growth of the private sector in higher education ("From Malaysia to Mayfair", EDUCATION & CAREERS, March 20) raises some important questions for universities.

The first is how universities should respond to the competitive scenario presented by private providers. Another is how the perceptions and expectations of prospective international students will be affected by this trend, with private organisations opening up a world of options for the increasingly discriminating "consumer". Both of these questions were explored by speakers and delegates at the conference to which you refer, organised by i-graduate and the International Unit in collaboration with Universities UK and UTKI.

In deciding how to respond to these challenges, education providers recognise the need to stay focused on the perceptions, motivations and expectations of students. Our research has shown that these change year-on-year, and even within each year. And the opinions of current and former students carry greater authority than marketing.

Those institutions, whether public or private, who respond to their students will succeed in this new environment.

Will Archer, director, i-graduate

How could you, mum?

On reading last week's Diary of a Primary School Mum ("Posh, snooty and perfect for our youngest", 20 March), I felt a surge of irritation so strong I nearly threw the paper across the room. It perfectly encapsulates the middle-class angst over education, which is exacerbated by the relentlessly negative coverage given to state schools.

She should try to put this out of her mind and consider: over 90 per cent of children attend state schools; the vast majority of these children (and their parents) are consistently shown to be happy with the education they receive.

Does the writer really believe there are no "vibrant and intelligent" girls in state schools? Can she really imagine that no one in a state school ever picks up a woodwind instrument? Did she experience no qualms at the thought of a child of four having to "sit" for entrance to a school?

I'm sure the private school is lovely, but then so is the primary school attended by her twins, with the added benefit that the children there represent a cross-section of society. She should put aside the money she will save and spend it on books, stimulating holidays, whatever, and send her daughter to the local primary. The chances are that she will do just fine.

Alison Doig, Burwash Weald, East Sussex

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