School size is a key factor in student achievement, according to a Channel 4 documentary, but Pam Woolner disagrees with its theories about school environment

The media coverage given to the Channel 4 Dispatches programme The Children Left Behind and the fact that it was made in the first place, has provoked mixed feelings. Since the government is spending billions on rebuilding and redesigning schools, I’m pleased to see people discussing issues of school design. I was disappointed, however, that the discussion has been focused on school size, which, it seems to me, is a red herring in this important debate about the form of future schools. Was there anything in this programme and its background research to change my mind? Although it was presented by a former headteacher who based his claims on a respectable study he’d previously carried out, the underlying logic was flawed. The argument for smaller schools was essentially based on an investigation of the 296 16-year-olds who left Bristol schools in 2004 without any formal qualifications, and, in particular, the 116 of these who had performed well in primary school, as evidenced by their KS2 SATs results. Given that approaching 3,300 young people left school in Bristol that year, it would seem unwise to design an education system around the needs of such a small minority, even if their stories are compelling. But, more importantly, can it be assumed that it’s the size, or indeed other aspects, of the schools that caused these children to fall through the net? Bristol’s schools do not appear to be particularly large compared to other local authorities, but the rate of unqualified school leavers is somewhat higher than the national average (9%, compared to 4% in 2004). So, cursory comparisons would tend not to suggest that big schools are not the cause of dropping out, in Bristol or anywhere else. The Dispatches study tried to draw conclusions from the experiences of certain young people. These centred on how they felt secure at primary school, then let down and overlooked in the bigger secondary school world. Clearly, however, these children were disadvantaged in many ways with lives that finally went off the rails during teenage years. Although their stories may be tragic, the subjective association of school organisation with disappointing outcomes for a few, generally unfortunate, individuals does not by itself make a case about school size. Recognising this, the programme tried to document the benefits of small schools and schools-within-schools in the USA. Again, though, these are particular cases chosen to make a point. It is necessary to question what other research has found. Fortunately, this is simplified by a fairly recent EPPI review of the available literature carried out in 2004 and still being cited as up-to-date research on this issue (for example, in the recently published DCSF report on the progress of Building Schools for the Future). This specifically and systematically reviewed the available evidence about the effect of secondary school size on various outcomes. The conclusions are mixed and, as the authors make clear, do not provide straightforward solutions to questions about the best size for a school. Generally, achievement seems to increase with school size, up to a point, from where it decreases. But the optimum size is not clear, perhaps lying somewhere between 600 and 2,000 pupils. Notably, studies tend to show that feelings of engagement and connection to the school decrease as school size increases. For example, participation rates for extracurricular activities tend to be higher in smaller schools, with individual pupils involved in more areas. This would seem to be more relevant to the children highlighted by Dispatches than the link between attainment and school size.

Research limitations
Yet, as the EPPI reviewers discuss, there are a number of reasons why the research they have reviewed should not be used to argue for particular school sizes. Most of the work in this area is American, which makes it unwise to generalise, especially as the range of school sizes is much larger than in the UK. The studies that exist suggest relationships between size and outcomes but do not provide optimal sizes for particular benefits. Also, there is still considerable uncertainty about the impact of differently sized schools on differing individuals as well as the impact planned changes in school size would have on neighbouring schools and the wider community. As the authors comment: ‘This review would seem to refute some of the more prevalent myths regarding the advantages and disadvantages of smaller and larger schools. For example, that student achievement is universally higher in smaller schools and that student behaviour is universally worse in larger schools have been shown to be inconsistent with the current evidence. The relationship appears to be much more complex than such simple arguments suggest.’

So, it would seem that there are no clear or reliable solutions to the issue of school size, with no optimal size which will counteract the myriad disadvantages experienced by children at the bottom of society’s heap. But conclusions like that don’t make such good television.

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