The Conservative policy review process has come in for derision of late. Many have dismissed it as a way for David Cameron to buy some time before announcing policies. But it is worth looking closer at what the reports have produced because some interesting ideas have emerged.
Baroness Perry and Stephen Dorrell unveiled yesterday their report on the public services, which included a substantial section on what ought to be done to improve primary and secondary education in Britain. Some of the ideas are impractical. The proposal to end the right of excluded pupils to appeal, though well intentioned, would create more problems than it solves. Injustices would occur, making legal action for parents the only recourse. It is hard to see how this would be in the interests of either the pupil or the school. The idea of closing failing inner-city schools and bussing children to successful schools in the suburbs also sounds impractical. What most parents want is a good local school. The policy goal should be to improve schools across the board, not transport children over great distances to get to those institutions that are doing well.
But there is one very interesting proposal in the report: smaller schools. It is clear that schools have been getting bigger. The number of pupils being taught in schools containing more than 1,500 pupils has doubled since 1997. This is not a problem if a good school gets bigger. Indeed, good oversubscribed schools should be encouraged to expand to meet the demand for their services. But it is a problem if a failing school gets bigger. School exclusions make up more than 9 per cent of the school population in larger schools, compared with 3.7 per cent in smaller schools. Various American cities, including New York, have taken one large failing school and broken it into several smaller schools on the same site. Each has its own head teacher. In these institutions truancy rates have dropped and performance and discipline have improved. It seems that a smaller community fosters a greater sense of belonging. It also makes parents more likely to take an interest in school life. These findings are in line with recent research which shows that while class sizes matter, school size and ethos matter even more.
Of course, smaller schools are no panacea for the education system. The quality of a school depends as much on the social background of the intake as on structures. But breaking up a school should certainly be one of the options for heads and parents to consider. If the role of opposition policy reviews is to give a wider airing to worthy ideas, this one has performed its purpose. Who knows, the idea may even achieve the ultimate accolade of being appropriated by the Government.