Reorganising schools, especially closing schools, can be one of the most emotive subjects in local government, simply because it affects the most precious thing we as a society have - our children. Locally this is currently a hot topic on the Isle of Wight with a widespread Primary and middle school closure programme proposed by the Conservative run local authority. Recently in Southampton this too has caused widespread protests at the plans to change the Secondary Schools with four closing and their two replacements to be run by a national London based organisation instead of a locally based Southampton partnership.
To examine the issue of school reorganisation it is best to look at the answer to a number of questions. The questions are:-
- Why are school reorganisations necessary?
- Why is school reorganisation currently a hot topic across the country?
- How are unused spaces determined?
- Why are local Primary Schools important?
- What should be done to keep local Primary Schools?
- What should be done to improve secondary school results?
Why are school reorganisations necessary?
Well there are a number of reasons, some sensible and some not. The most obvious reason is a change in the local demographic and the schools have to respond to this. For example a new housing estate is built and there is an increased need for schooling provision as young families and couples move into the new houses. As time progresses a maturing housing estate a deceasing number of local children may well require the reverse and schooling provision to be decreased as a result. Besides general population movements linked to the type of housing the other main factor which causes a natural change to the need for local school provision is the age demographic in the population. For schools the change in the birth rate is particularly key.
The birth rate changes are linked to more than the number of women of childbearing age, which is the governments main indicator, other factors can and have included :-
- The end of a major conflict i.e. baby boom after Second World War
- Major industrial disputes - i.e. the three day week in the seventies
- Generally good economic conditions - i.e. the last 6 or 7 years have seen a 12½% increase in the birth rate, which is now at a 26 year high.
- Repeating peaks - i.e. the large baby boom after the Second World War has caused subsequent mini-booms since.
- Fashion - i.e. there are trends in family sizes; the definition of the 'standard' family that every young couple should inspire to. This is largely a modern issue as the availability of contraception has enabled better control of family size, but it is a real one.
The problem for local authorities lies in the small amount of time they have to react to sudden changes in the birth rate, particular when it is considered that the provision of nursery care places could start only a few months after birth.
The final driver for school reorganisation can be central or local government with ideologically driven policy on how schools should be run. The current Labour government believes that about 30 pupils per class is ok and so supplies local authorities with money on that basis, through the Revenue Support Grant. Therefore schools and class sizes have to be arranged to fit in with the funding available.
However this is a false ideology, which the current the Labour government enforces by saying if class sizes drop 25% below their standard size of 30 pupils, action must be taken. They believe a class size of 22 pupils is poor use of public funds and therefore will take over any local education authority that refuses to take action. The truth is that in actual fact a class of 22 pupils benefits the pupils' education and fits with national Liberal Democrat policy.
The current problems on the Isle of Wight started by these Labour government rules having been exaggerated by a local Conservative administration which believes larger schools can produce as good as results as smaller ones and see greater cost benefits in larger schools. This ignores the current evidence on the Isle of Wight which places the Island's small Primary Schools among the top 10% of Primary Schools in the country.
For more information on this see :-
Why is school reorganisation currently a hot topic across the country?
It is currently a hot topic across the country because the decreasing numbers of pupils combined with the Government class size policy mean that councils across the country are being forced to re-organise schools. However, it is only a lull before the storm, as recent stories on midwives' workload highlight the future. Since 2001, the number of live births in England has increased by almost 71,000 (12.5%), and is now at a 26-year high. In 2006, 635,679 live births were recorded.
Therefore in planning any school reorganisation it is necessary to always look at future demand combined with current use. In the 2005 Southampton review of Primary School places in the Townhill area, under the then Liberal Democrat administration, the public consultation involved detailed information about future school numbers. I was very interested in this review for a number of reasons, in particluar because this 2005 review involved both the Infants School I am a Governor at and the Junior School my children attend. Sadly for the people on the Isle of Wight at present this detailed information is missing from the current consultation document and this makes the decision making process even harder.
For more information on why 'surplus places' may be a short term issue see:-
How are unused spaces determined?
The answer to this question would appear to be relatively straight forward i.e. if the standard class size is 30 pupils and the class has 25 pupils in it then it must be 5 pupils short and therefore has 5 unused spaces. However under the over-centralised nonsense that is our education system the unused spaces are actually determined by dividing the standard amount of area each pupil is allocated (in square metres) into the class room area of the school.
This strange system produces some real issues for example :-
- during a Southampton school review in 2005 it was revealed at a public meeting that if the every class at Moorlands Infants School had its maximum of 30 children per class, the school would still be 25% empty, because Moorlands is blessed with larger than average classrooms.
- in the same 2005 review in was also revealed at a public meeting that Townhill Junior School is deemed to be overcrowded by the government, because a very large joint teaching area complete with chairs and table for about 30 children at each end of the room does NOT count as a classroom, but is counted as a corridor.
These facts would be funny except this is the basis that the government uses to determine whether a school should be reduced in size or even closed. It also means that school classrooms are being adjusted to met the government norm at great expense to the education authority with little or no gain to educate the children.
For more information see :-
- David's news - Harefield schools review
- David's news - Improved schools for Southampton
- David's news - The folly of school competition
- David's news - School saved
Why are local Primary Schools important?
Schools play a greater role in our society than as a mere place to educate our children. This is particularly true of local Primary Schools in villages which children walk to, not just because walking to school is the first big step in life that children take, but also they help to :-
- build a sense of community by acting as a focus for many village activities
- attract young families and couples which is essential to maintain a healthy mix of ages in the community and for small villages to keep them as active communities
In short they act as the glue that binds the village together and keeps it a vibrant community without which the village becomes just a pretty place to live and commute to work.
For more information on small school see :-
What should be done to keep local Primary Schools?
The long term future of keeping Primary Schools local depends on three things:-
- firstly enough children to make a school viable;
- secondly enough money in the school funding schemes to support smaller Primary Schools;
- finally the political will to understand the value of a good start in life that a good local Primary School can bring, as well as its wider social significance.
The first two point are obvious all the political will in the world will not help if either the children or the money are not there, but if they are it's political will to find a way to keep Primary Schools as local as possible that is the real difference.
One such way is to have school clusters. This is mainly used in rural areas and is a simple way of keeping the school classrooms in the local community whilst spreading the overhead and administrative costs across a number of schools in the area.
For example, in the current reorganisation planned for my for old schools in the Cowes area of the Isle of Wight there is willingness to change the system, but little will to keep schools local to the community they serve:-
- currently in the Cowes area there are six pre-secondary schools; 4 Primary Schools (for pupils aged 4-9) and two middle schools (for pupils aged 9-13)
- all three reorganisation options propose six forms of pupils to feed into the local secondary school and all three propose to shut two Primary Schools.
- one of the options shuts the remaining two Primary Schools and then makes the two middle schools Primary Schools (for pupils aged 4-11) in both cases increasing the maximum size of schools from 360 pupils to 630 pupils.
- another option turns one middle school into Primary School (for pupils aged 4-9) and makes the remaining middle school into a six form entry junior high school for pupils aged 9-14 i.e. 5 years of six 30 pupil classes per year or 900 pupils maximum instead of the current maximum 360 pupils.
- the final option takes the middle school that was to be a 900 pupil school in the previous option and turns it into a 210 pupil Primary School (for pupils aged 4-11) while the other middle school increases its pupil intake from 360 pupils to 630 pupils to become a Primary School (for pupils aged 4-11). The remaining Primary Schools are also changed into 210 pupil schools for kids aged 4-11.
- none of the options meet the ruling Conservative group election pledge to not shut any Primary Schools and not change the current three tier schooling system on the Island.
The problem is the lack of political will to find a way to both meet the financial issues and keep schools local to the community they serve - not to mention actually meet their own election promises. This lack of will is all the more amazing because with a little thought and imagination it is possible to both have local schools and meet budget constraints, for example :-
- one further option could see Northwood, Gurnard, Love Lane Primary's as one form entry Primary Schools and Cowes Primary as a 3 form entry school, all for pupils aged 4-9. The two middle schools would remain as 3 form entry middle schools for 9-13 year olds.
- another further option could see all the pre-secondary schools in the Cowes area i.e. Northwood, Gurnard, Love Lane, Cowes, Somerton and Solent becoming one form entry 210 pupil Primary Schools for pupils aged 4-11. Although logically as Love Lane and Somerton schools are next door to each other it would be best to either have one 2 form entry Primary on the site or one 2 form entry Infants School and one 2 form entry Junior School.
In both of these options, more efficient management could be achieved by use the use school clusters. Currently on the Island these are used to promote best practice between early years schools, elsewhere in the country school clusters do much more. In the above example the following could happen :-
- the management of the Cowes area Primary Schools could be arranged such that there is a cluster headteacher with a small admin staff including a school bursar to handle the administration side of the Primary Schools and a deputy headteacher in each school to organise the day to day teaching activities.
- the Governance of the cluster would also be handled by a single governing body with representatives from each school.
This would increase cooperation and promote further the spread of best practice. It would also ensure that the Headteacher would be able to take a greater role in the management processes of the local education authority.
Clustering of Primary Schools in this manner would be of most benefit for small schools in less populated areas of the country, which is why it is used to a great extent in places like the highlands and islands of Scotland. Nearer to home this approach could also be used in the western part of the Isle of Wight.
However the bottom line in all this remains the political will to find a better solution and the Government's view of a standard class size. The current Labour government (and any Conservative one) sees 30 pupils as an acceptable class size, whereas a Liberal Democrat government would see 20 to 25 pupils as an acceptable figure. So a Labour government sees excess surplus places and waste of teaching resources at pupil numbers of 22 per class, whereas a Liberal Democrat government would see full classes at that same level. And let's not forget the private sector produces good educational results based on an average 15 pupils per class!!
For more information on school clusters see :-
- The Highland Council - Cluster Primary School Model Arrangement
- Norfolk County Council - Cluster Group Chairs
- Isle of Wight - Early Years Practitioner Cluster Groups
What should be done to improve secondary school results?
There are many people suggesting ways to improve the performance of our secondary school system, however there are only really three things that matter:-
- Teachers - First and foremost we need teachers that have the quality to inspire pupils, the teaching skill levels required and the subject knowledge base needed. To achieve this there needs to be a continuing process of teacher training and development at a greater level than is currently achieved. Some teachers make great use of the school holiday periods to achieve this, but this is not the case with all teachers. There should be a more structured method of training and development to fully maximise the potential of all teachers.
- Examination system - needs to offer an education root to employment for all children, not just the academically talented pupils. The current one fails to integrate successfully academic and vocational courses. The only real answer to this is to replace the current examination system with one similar to the 'Tomlinson Report' system, which fully integrates academic and vocational courses into a single secondary school diploma. Current government plans are for a diploma course alongside the current 'A' level and GCSE courses. This will not help pupils as there is a great deal of chance that the new qualification will be seen as a second class qualification and so will not inspire pupils to achieve high diploma grades.
- Class size - smaller classes will simply enable the teacher to spend more time teaching each pupil. This will help all the students in the class no matter what their ability level is.
These three steps are things that will really help children learn. Too much time and energy has been focused on school systems, school ownership and school buildings without focusing on the things that really make a difference to a child's education. School systems, ownership and buildings are important subjects, but they are not of critical importance to a child in school, whereas the teacher at the front of class, exams they sit and classmates in the room are of great importance.
For more information on the state of secondary schools and what can be done to improve them see :-
- David's Blog - A serious day for health and education
- David's Blog - Number of failing Schools up 5%
- BBC In-depth report - 14-19 learning
- BBC Downloads - The Tomlinson Report
School reorganisations are a normal and necessary part of the education system in order to ensure that satisfactory schooling is provided for each location. However, each reorganisation must be done with the benefit of the children and community at the forefront of any plans. A plan such as the one currently proposed for the Isle of Wight which proposes to shut about half the Islands Primary Schools does not do that and so fails the most important test of any reorganisation plan.