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Size is the Issue

Whilst the government is still struggling to reduce primary class sizes to 30 or below the news from the other side of the Atlantic is that many American states are reducing their infant classes to 20 or in some cases as low as 15. Whilst local politicians and educators across the United States are convinced by the growing body of research which indicates the success of smaller classes, politicians in the UK continue to claim that 30 is small.

Less known about is American research into the effectiveness of smaller schools. This research, which has been collated by the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago, ( has found that smaller schools are more effective than larger ones on virtually every measure of student attitudes and achievement, that teachers like them, their curricula don't suffer and they don't even cost more. In response to this research the Education Board in New York City, in one example, has initiated a radical reform programme in which a number of large, failing schools are being closed and each is being replaced by a campus of small, autonomous units.

This research challenges the arguments for large schools - namely the benefits of economies of scale and the ability to offer a wide range of subjects. But does it really come as any great surprise? As adults we know that we function better in smaller scale environments and indeed many workplaces are being reorganised so that employees work in small groups or teams for precisely this reason. So why do we insist on incarcerating our young in enormous, impersonal and inflexible institutions when the evidence is mounting to show that other forms of social organisation are more effective?

If education is about helping young people to develop as responsible and rounded human beings who can lead fulfilling lives and make a positive contribution to society, smaller structures can help to achieve this. They enable teachers to know students as individuals and respond to the specific needs of each. They enable students to feel part of a community with a sense of ownership of their learning environment. And they make it much more possible for parents to be active partners in the education of their children. There are a whole host of benefits of which these are but a few.

Since its establishment in 1986 Human Scale Education has been committed to the belief that smaller structures and an emphasis on interpersonal relationships are fundamental to good learning and good teaching.
Furthermore it recognises that as children are all different a diversity of educational provision is required. The increasingly centralised control of the last twenty years militates against what schools need most: the autonomy to respond to the needs of their students and to their local circumstances.
Human Scale Education has spent the last fifteen years supporting groups of parents and teachers who share these views in setting up new small schools or learning centres and by working to encourage large schools to find ways of restructuring into smaller, more human scale environments for learning.

As part of this second area of interest it launched a project in secondary schools in 1996 entitled Human Scale Values in Secondary Education. Grants were offered to schools for innovative projects which involved working with students in small scale settings to make education a more personal experience for all those involved.

There have been a wide range of applications for grants in two separated phases. In the latest phase of the project Human Scale Education has supported projects in secondary schools to:
  1. increase democracy by supporting the introduction of a student council with its own budget
  2. introduce an alternative curriculum at Key Stage 4 for children on the edge of school life and at risk from exclusion
  3. improve staff/pupil relationships for pupils transferring to secondary school by reducing the number of pupils taught by each teacher through the introduction of a more integrated curriculum
  4. encourage the implementation of environmental policies and practices through an environmental fair involving local primary schools and members of the community
Many of the applications for grants were received from schools wishing to implement projects to improve teacher pupil relationships and enhance the self esteem and confidence of their pupils. The academic emphasis of an overloaded National Curriculum has resulted in the erosion of the personal and social curriculum in schools and the extent of the need expressed in the applications indicated the difficulties many schools are experiencing in coping with "turned off" youngsters.

What all of these projects had in common was that they were designed by the school to suit their own students and their own particular circumstances.
Human Scale Education believes that this is the most effective way to bring about positive and lasting change. All four schools acknowledged the importance of smallness in the process of moving towards more radical structural change. They found that small group work not only led to improved relationships between teachers and students but also produced more positive attitudes towards learning.

In the United States the significance of the small or the human scale in education is increasingly acknowledged in research and in policy. There is growing recognition amongst educationalists here in the UK that the current school model has outlived its usefulness and does not meet the needs of children in contemporary society.

The Human Scale Education Secondary Schools Project is moving into its third phase with plans to work with individual schools to create human scale comprehensive schools. We are working to help transform large schools into human scale learning communities in which children can be known, valued and taught as individuals.

For further information contact Human Scale Education on 01275 332516, For a copy of the Project Report send a cheque for £ 5 to Human Scale Education at 96 Carlingcott, Bath BA2 8AW, UK. Copyright of this article belongs to the author.

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