I think Katherine Birbalsingh is definitely on to something here. Lots of small schools are very good precisely because they are small. The crucial factor in my personal experience is whether you know the names of all the kids in the school.
I will give an example, one of many I could give. Last term I was walking from my department to the photocopying room on the other side of the school. I had about fifteen minutes before I had to register my class. To get there, I had to walk across the large atrium outside the canteen where all the kids congregated before the bell went. As I walked across it, I saw a pupil I didn't know kicking a full can of coke across the floor. I asked him to stop: he carried on kicking on it and it exploded, with the coke going everywhere. I didn't know his name, and it's only when you've been in this situation that you can understand what a handicap it is not to know a kid's name. He ran off shouting down the corridor. I called for him to come back, but at that point you are on a hiding to nothing. I knew teachers who would do a Sweeney and charge off down the corridor yelling and screaming at the kid to pull them back. Whether or not you’re in favour of corporal punishment – I am not – this teacher would look like a tit. Kids would gather round giggling. The naughty kid would look like a rebellious hero.
My tactic in these situations was to call after the kid calmly that I would find out who he was and ring his parents. It didn’t make me look particularly good, but once a kid has completely ignored your instruction in front of about 100 kids, there isn’t a lot you can do to look good. Had I known the kid’s name, then 99 times out of 100 the kid would turn round and slope back towards me. There would be times a kid would be running off, and another teacher who did know his name would come on the scene and call his name. Bingo: the kid starts to listen.
The conclusion I take from this is that we need schools where everyone knows everyone’s names. The conclusion a lot of schools take from these sorts of situation is that they need more CCTV. And it’s true, generally I could track down who he was through the school’s CCTV. As a liberal I am not in favour of CCTV in schools. But in a school where you don’t know every kid’s name – indeed, in a school so big that three or four teachers could be walking down the corridor and still have a good chance of bumping into a kid they didn’t know – it became absolutely invaluable.
This is a classic example of diseconomies of scale – expanding schools is meant to bring economies of scale. Actually, to maintain even a semblance of the bonds you have in a smaller school, you need expensive things like a CCTV system, and you need head of year co-ordinators who spend very little time teaching and a lot of time dealing with naughty kids, and you need teachers to spend an awful lot of time tracking down CCTV tapes, ringing round and chasing round the school to find miscreants. Clearly, if this is what happens every time you rebuke a kid you don’t know for misbehaving, you’re not going to rebuke kids you don’t know for misbehaving a lot. This is exactly what happened. The bar for what I would rebuke for was raised. If I saw a kid I did know, I would pull them up for having their tie done up wrong or talking too loudly in the corridors. If I saw a kid I didn’t know – which in a school of 2000 is most kids – I would turn a blind eye to all but the most outrageous misdemeanours. That doesn’t make me proud. But I know I’m not alone there.
The one area where I would disagree with Birbalsingh is where she says that small schools are right-wing thinking. I don’t think they are, actually: I don’t think there is anything ideological about this idea at all. I think the reason why bigger schools have become the norm is that it appears more efficient, which appeals to beancounters on both sides of the political divide. In actual fact, as I’ve shown, the economies of scale are completely cancelled out by the diseconomies.
There is more and more evidence that small schools are the way forward. A Bristol head teacher, James Wetz, has done an interesting study on the impact of large schools on troubled pupils. He compares secondary schools to primary schools, which are generally much smaller and with much more of a community feel, and interviews pupils who did well at primary but dropped out at secondary. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains some of the science behind this. Apparently the most effective size of a human community is 150. Throughout history, communities as diverse as Stone Age settlements and Roman armies have been organized on this basis. But whilst small schools will be cheaper in the long run, I fear that the short-term benefits of big schools will always prove seductive to politicians.