Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 16:47 UK

Finding the best size for school

By Kate Merriam
BBC News social affairs analyst

Brislington corridor
Brislington Enterprise College has five "learning communities"

Picture a space station, where self-contained ships plug into a bigger vehicle. The station contains facilities the ships could not hold themselves.

This is the idea behind "schools within schools". Several schools on the same site, sharing facilities but each run as a separate unit.

In its report of the first "schools within schools" projects, a UK charity concludes that these schools report fewer exclusions, a drop in bullying and fights, greater parental involvement, increased staff satisfaction and better relationships between students.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation found pupils reported feeling more supported and secure.

As with health and social care, personalisation is key.
Andrew Barnett
UK director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

By this analysis, they sound like a good idea - but what makes this different from straightforward smaller class sizes?

Brislington Enterprise College in Bristol has just completed a total re-build of its main school buildings, using money from the government's Building Schools for the Future project.

The school received funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and other education charities in order to follow the "schools within schools" layout.

The 1,800-pupil school is now remodelled into five separate "learning communities" of 300 children each. There are also two communities of 20 pupils, for students with physical disabilities and learning difficulties.

Each pupil is assigned to a tutor group of about 10 pupils.

Dance, sports, art, music, dining and IT facilities are shared between all of the 1,800 pupils.

The Gulbenkian research quotes teachers that say they are able to get to know pupils better and have more opportunities for one-to-one conversations. They also report that contact with parents is easier and more frequent.

Big schools

Just over half (54.9%) of all secondary schools in England now have more than 900 pupils. There are 202 secondary schools with more than 1,600 pupils.

There are only four secondary schools in England with 100 or fewer pupils.

Brislington Enterprise College (Photo: Skanska Construction)
Brislington Enterprise College has five "learning communities"

One of the UK's largest schools, the Nottingham Academy, opened on 7 September 2009. There are 2,200 pupils aged three to 19.

Research carried out for the Local Government Association has shown that the optimum size for a secondary school is about 900 pupils.

Several local authorities follow this advice on school sizes. For example, Hampshire County Council says: "It is unlikely to be appropriate to consider solutions which lead to the provision of a new school which does not have the potential to cater for at least 900 students."

Common criticisms of small schools include the possibility that they give children less opportunity for diverse learning and a narrower range of subjects to study.

Earlier this month a study by the Association of Colleges (AoC) found that smaller sixth forms were likely to have poorer exam results. The AoC said this was due to a lack of specialist teaching.

According to the AoC, sixth form colleges with 50 or fewer pupils average 561 points per candidate, which is the equivalent of two C-grade passes and an E. Meanwhile, those schools with more than 250 pupils scored 802 points on average, which is nearly three A grades per pupil.

Small schools

Small schools are also more expensive. State schools receive a per-pupil payment for their budget and schools with too few pupils to get by on this funding are given an additional small schools allowance.

According to Sheffield's local authority, small schools are at greater risk of falling pupil numbers, which can quickly cause budget problems and risk the future of the school as a whole.

But the "schools within schools" movement says that education is about more than exam results and value for money.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation believes that diverse, cost-effective schools do not have to mean that school is impersonal for children, and that creating mini-schools within a larger school building can help to find a balance that "puts relationships at their heart".

Andrew Barnett, director of the foundation's UK branch, expresses it in a manner intended to chime with wider government policy.

"As with health and social care, personalisation is key," he says.

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