Richard Downes: Large schools aren't such a bad thing

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The Independent Online

The size of schools has become a hot issue in recent weeks. The Conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon, and press comment appears to support the notion that big schools are bad for pupil behaviour and exam performance. The critics argue that few "titan schools" make it into the top 500 secondary schools in the league tables, and that discipline, behaviour and expulsion rates are worse than in smaller schools. I am chair of governors of a titan school – an adjective now sadly likely to become a pejorative description of failure within the education system – and I don't recognise my school at all in this analysis.

The school in question is a standard comprehensive and is in the top 500 – and has been for many years. Its Ofsted report classified it as "good with outstanding features". We are heavily oversubscribed. Our exclusion rate is low. Am I missing something here?

Only about 12-15 per cent of schools get into the top 500, and many are selective. It is a fact that only three or four of these are titans. None of those would be selective, I guess. Statistics provided by the Conservative Party imply that there are 23 titans. So a 13 per cent success rate does not seem so bad. Further, it would appear that much of the evidence used by the Tory education spokesman, Michael Gove, was actually collected in the US. Interesting no doubt, but exactly how relevant?

Perhaps we need a little more field research, and perhaps we need to understand modern school systems and structures. There seems to be much emphasis upon pastoral care depending on the head teacher knowing every pupil personally – and that this can only happen in a smaller school. Of course the pupils need to feel known and cared for, but this is a role undertaken by a year head who, even in the largest of schools will have only 400-550 pupils within their care. They will stay with that year group through the two or three years of their key stage. In my school, an assistant head is responsible for each key stage, its year groups and year heads and teams, so even at that level the responsibility is for no more than 1,300 pupils.

Pupils identify strongly with year heads – through them, pastoral care is provided. These senior teachers and managers are a focus for pupils, and vice versa. The head has a more strategic role, but maintains an impressively high profile with pupils. Though a little more distant than the traditional role, that distance adds an element of respect.

Now I offer only one school as an example, and I cannot claim that all is perfection every day (which school can?). We are situated in the fairly affluent, semi-rural South-east, but there are pockets of deprivation, large social-housing clusters, in-care children and a significant traveller community, so all the usual challenges are there and are met successfully. Our exclusions are low; our five A*to C GCSE pass rate is comfortably over 70 per cent; and our sixth-form success is impressive.

Perhaps part of the problem is that many of the Conservative Party were privately educated, often in boarding or semi-boarding establishments. I was myself. Here the head did have a high-profile role with pastoral care, and was often traditionally referred to by familial nicknames – "The Old Man", "Father", and so on. But his or her role was prescribed by tradition and custom, and the specific needs of that environment. It is not the only way.

Linking size to success or failure is an extremely crude measure. In fact, given the many factors that do influence success, I would suggest that it is rather insignificant. The most important feature in striving for educational success is the quality of teaching and the teaching staff's aspirations for their pupils.

We are lucky – our teaching staff are of a high quality and their aspirations equally so. Not all schools are so fortunate. We must not allow anyone involved in education to sidestep this fact or obscure it with other minor worries. The greatest step forward will be to increase teaching quality. Nothing should distract from that sacred cause. Parents have much more serious issues to worry about than size.

The old adage rings true: it's not how big it is that matters, it's how you use it.

The writer is the chair of governors of Steyning Grammar School, a comprehensive with more than 2,200 pupils