Leading article: Bigger schools are not necessarily better

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Slowly and stealthily, the size of our secondary schools is increasing. There are now 258 schools in England with more than 1,500 pupils compared with 115 a decade ago. At the same time the number of smaller schools is dropping. Those with fewer than a thousand pupils have fallen from 2,141 in 1995 to 1,562 this year.

This is not the result of any deliberate government policy. As the Department for Education and Skills points out, it does not stipulate optimum sizes for secondary schools. But it is a cause for concern, for research suggests bigger is not necessarily better in schools. There is a pattern of regression among many youngsters during the first year of secondary schooling, as they struggle to adjust to their new environments. Being confronted by so many older pupils is unlikely to help them settle down.

By way of mitigation, education officials point out that the number of teachers in secondary schools has leaped in the past decade from 190,000 to about 216,000, reducing the ratio of pupils to teacher. They argue that it is important to look at the average number of pupils in classes rather than simply school sizes. This is a good point, though it still does not deal with the impact that a playground full of more than 2,000 pupils can have on a new 11-year-old who is beginning secondary schooling this September.

The reason for the rise in average pupil numbers per secondary school is unclear. One cause would seem to be a rise in the age group (now falling off again). Another is the amalgamation of schools, as ministers tackle under-performance by closing the worst schools and allow the most popular to expand, so that parents stand a better chance of getting their children into the school of their choice.

It is easy to see why ministers have plumped for this policy. But it may be counter-effective. Head teachers have already expressed fears that such expansions lead to schools losing the very ethos that made them popular in the first place. Interestingly, a number of the most successful schools have set their face against such expansion.

Human Scale Education, the pressure group that produced the latest figures and is dedicated to small-scale schooling, has asked Alan Johnson, the education minister, to order research into the impact of school size on standards. The minister should accede to that request. The Government has often stated that it supports a more personalised learning system in schools. It is not satisfactory that changes should take place in secondary schools that have the opposite effect and with no direction from the top as to whether they are advisable or not.