Dispatches: The Children Left Behind

In last the Dispatches programme of 11 February, former headteacher James Wetz made a case for the proposistion that secondary schools are too larfe and that this is the reason why they are failing many children.

He points out that many children fail to acieve the academic success indicated by their Key Stage two SATs (taken at the end of primary school). He puts this down to the fact that secondary schools are much larger and much less nurturing than primary schools.

The size difference is only one issue, however. There are a number of confounding variables. Two spring immediately to mind:-

1. The primary school SATs results may not be honest. I have covered this  in “An Incentive to Cheat Part 2”. Although only a few primary schools have been stripped of their SATs results, anecdotal evidence (ok, staffroom chat) suggests that the problem may be much more widespread. I have heard of pupils leaving primary with 4s at Key Stage 2 despite having serious difficulties reading and writing.

2. Pupils hit puberty at secondary schools. Raging hormones and a developing interest in sex are not conducive to concentrating on academic studies.

Having  said that, Wetz does make some interesting points and looks at a couple of cases in the USA where large secondary schools have been split into smaller, though linked, units.

In primary schools, children are usually taught by the same teacher in the same room for most subjects. Wetz points out that this allows a stable learning environment to be created and compares this with vastly larger secondary schools where pupils might be taught by over a dozen dfferent teachers in rooms scattered around a much bigger site.

It may be reasonable to expect one teacher to cover all subjects at primary level but at secondary, where more subjects are covered at greater depth, this is just not possible.

As for the size issue, the American examples he picks do suggest that smaller schools are better for children. One, Boston Arts Academy, with 423 pupils on roll, had a 93% attendance record and 96% of pupils went on to post- High School education. He also mentions how such schools are integrated into the community.

Personally, I’m all for community schools but there is the issue of parental choice which often results in schools being attended by children who live nowhere near it.

One point which struck me forcefully about Boston Arts was that it has one member of staff for every ten pupils.. With such a ratio, the schools we already have could achieve much more. But such staffing levels would cost billions nationally. With the Iraq War and the Northern Wreck bail-out to be paid for, I rather doubt the necessary funds will be forthcoming.


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2 Responses to “Dispatches: The Children Left Behind”

  1. pyjamasinbananas Says:

    That documentary made me laugh. With almost no actual evidence he wandered around trying to claim that every ill in the education system is due to schools being too large and how it’d all be much better if we just sent them back to primary school.

    There were some glaring disparities as well, such as when he moaned how secondary school kids had lots of teachers instead of just one (oh yeah, good plan, let’s start having teachers with fuck all knowledge of a subject teach it) and rubbished the government’s plan to have personal tutors providing personal relationships – then when he went to the us he sang the praises of the personal tutors.

    He also contrasts children in secondary schools who have ‘up to’ 14 different teachers a week (can’t remember the exact figure) and then contrasts this unfavourably with a school which has 8 different teachers a week.

    Pure evidence free polemic.

  2. kelvinthroop Says:

    Indeed. I would have liked to have seen some evidence about results in large schools v small schools across the board. By just picking two schools there is the possibility of cherry-picking data. I’m sure it would be possible to find two large schools somewhere in the USA which have good results.

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