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Does size matter?

Many studies have found that students who attend small schools outperform those in large schools on most measure of academic success. There are claims that they are also less likely to dropout and more likely to go on to tertiary. And research points to a greater feeling of connectedness in smaller schools.

The weekend paper tells me that there are 28 schools in New Zealand that have fewer than 10 students. Now that’s really small and I guess that the discussion that hinged on the government’s reported planned move to include consideration of schools of 4,500 students by the 2040s will not consider that group as being threatened by these suggestions.

There is bound to be some hysteria surrounding the proposal to build mega-schools and that will not  be very sensible. The issue is not the size of a school, but rather the quality of the school’s programmes, the levels of student success, the choices and options promoted by the programmes, the variety of sports, music, arts, languages, and so on. Of course, it is quite feasible for a small school to have a specialist programme in some of the above and indeed that is seen in other countries. But New Zealand has developed something of an obsession with being “good” at everything when it comes to assessing the quality of a school in terms of the standard general curriculum.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider some of these issues. Most New Zealand secondary schools do not have strong approaches in preparing students for life beyond schooling. This is compensated in some schools through collaboration with the 26 providers of trades academies programmes the Secondary / Tertiary Programmes to around over 7,000 students. This level of adding to the “size” of the options and choices for students does not require adding to the footprint of the school. This is a win-win for students who access a wider choice of pathways without adding to the “size” of the school.

Many other countries overseas have a greater degree of specialism in their operation and students have the opportunity to attend these specialist schools which cater for interests such as, all the technical areas, the arts and so on. If “small” means greater focus on specialist areas then let’s have some small schools. If “big” results in access to specialist equipment and facilities then a big school or two might fulfil gaps in the offerings.

But this would require educators to accept that the general school curriculum does not suit all students. It is a triumph of hope over experience that the view that standard programming will suit the young of New Zealand over the 13 years they attend our schools.

The statistics of retention, attendance, progression and success should be enough to trigger action to diversify the curriculum, the settings in which those diversified programmes are offered, and the spread of expertise and skill among those who teach. If the creation of “big schools” is designed to deal with a demographic issue, an opportunity would be lost. It would simply be the “intermediate intervention” all over again. 

But first some things would have to change.

First might be a serious investigation of the notion and worth of education sectors which seem to me to have outlived their usefulness. Apart from the difficulties of the transitions they create, readiness through academic preparation for moving on is in no way reflected other than in lock-step movement of groups of students who might or might not have met the requisite level to do so. Students should be able to proceed at a pace that engages them. Some students spend too long working slowly through material that should be completed faster. Others respond to a more measured pace. The great promise in the late 1980s  that time served would be dead evaporated early on – it is as alive as ever.

If the government is serious about creating big schools it should forget about 2043 or whatever its predicted year for introduction is and set about designing an education system that engages all students, rethinks the pathways through education and training, and starts to serve the nation by ensuring that students pursue a pathway that will see them in secure education that provides a family-sustaining income. This is urgent and New Zealand deserves no less.

Published inEducation

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