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What are the Pros and Cons of Small Schools?

One thing I hear parents say a lot is that they want a small school for their child. This is completely understandable. With a smaller school, parents often feel their child will be more noticed, more supported and comforted by the familiarity of a tight-knit community. There are lots of benefits of a smaller school environment (and, depending on where you live, you might not have any other option!).


However, there are things to consider which I will explain in this blog.



Funding

Firstly, it is important to explain how schools are funded. At the most simple level, schools are funded per-pupil. There are some complexities here (for example, schools get extra funding for students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds), however, on a general level, the more students, the more money.


Of course, this is proportional. More students need more teachers, so it is reasonable they have a bigger budget.


However, as we know, there are financial efficiencies which come with scale. So, it is not a certainty, but small schools will more likely have less financial wiggle-room compared with larger schools.


Range of Staff Expertise


Linked to this, there will inevitably be fewer teachers. At the more extreme end (at primary school level) this might even be one teacher teaching a mixed age class. 


How much does this matter? It depends on your context and your needs. But just because the school is smaller it does not necessarily mean your child will get more attention. 


Another reason parents often opt for smaller schools is because they worry their child will not get the support they need. For example, if they suspect (or have a diagnosis) for a Special Educational Need (SEN). I once worked in a very small secondary school, surrounded by lots of large schools. We had a disproportionate number of students with additional needs - parents assumed that because we were small, we would be able to support their child. 


However, as a small secondary school, we simply didn’t have the range of experience as a staff body to have any depth of expertise in the wide-range of issues ‘Special Education Needs’ encompasses. The bigger schools had whole, dedicated departments of staff with a huge amount of experience in supporting students with a wide-range of extra-needs. Despite being bigger, I often suspected that these schools did a much better job at providing personalised learning than we were able to offer.


At secondary, the smaller staff body will inevitably mean less choice of subjects at GCSE level (usually selected in Y9). For example, while a larger school may be able to offer a range of foreign languages, arts and humanities subjects, smaller schools will again be limited by staff subject knowledge and capacity. 


Range of Experiences


Larger schools may also offer a greater range of extra-curricular activities compared with smaller schools. This is clearly linked to the points already made around funding and staff expertise. The additional thing to mention here is that things such as football teams or musical theatre productions require fairly large numbers of pupils to make work. There will be a limit to how much the school can offer and potentially some competition between clubs to lure students - for example, if two clubs are run on the same day (which is often the case to work around staff meetings).


Friendship Potential


Smaller schools often have a tight-knit community feel and can, in some cases, feel like a family.  In contrast, as a parent, it can feel overwhelming visiting a large school - in some cases with literally thousands of students. 


However, larger schools usually break-down into smaller units in reality - with school life centering around the year group or house. More people also usually means more variety. In larger schools it is not surprising to see students form into smaller groups based around interests - the chess players, the footballers, the quiet ones who sit in the library etc. This can give a young person more opportunities to explore their identity and be exposed to a greater variety of people.


Conclusion


This post is not about whether a big school or small school is better. Each has their pros and cons and you know your child and your context. However, I wanted to pose some questions which may challenge the assumption that, when it comes to schools, small is better.


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