Monday, 4 June 2007

They say small is beautiful...

I read an article in the TES over the weekend about Jon Whitcombe, Headteacher of The Westlands School in Sittingbourne. Jon had been to San Francisco to look at the small schools movement in the United States. He has broken his school into three small learning communities plus the sixth form. Westlands is one of 28 secondary schools involved in a Human Scale Education Project with the Gulbenkian Foundation aimed at creating small learning communities and a more human experience for their students.

This article, 'Thinking big, acting small', about the project was written by Human Scale Schools Advocate Sheila Dainton and Simon Richey, Education Director of the ulbenkian Foundation... "Nearly ten per cent of secondary schools in England have over 1,500 students. A handful have over 2,000 and at least one has over 2,500. The Government is encouraging popular schools to expand. Does big necessarily mean best or might smaller be better still?
No-one wants to be a cog in a machine. Time and again parents and teachers call for
smaller classes and smaller schools where students matter as human beings. Time and
again we hear from young people about how easy it is to feel lost and confused as they
struggle to find their feet in large secondary schools. And time and again we hear of
growing concerns about disaffection and truancy, bad behaviour and burgeoning street
crime. There could hardly be a better moment to ask if even bigger schools are a step in
the right direction or an accident waiting to happen.

Secondary school size is the nettle that has yet to be grasped. This is why the Gulbenkian
Foundation is funding a seminal new project to support up to 50 large secondary schools
develop human scale principles and practices. Over the next three years the Human Scale
Schools project aims to build a critical mass of secondary schools that can stand up as
effective examples of how its principles work. This ambitious project aims to combine the best of both worlds: large schools offeringchoice and diversity coupled with human scale structures which enable young people feel valued, respected and cared for, and where they can learn well.
Many schools are seeking innovative ways of ‘growing small’. As one headteacher wrote
in her application for a grant: ‘We want to make each student known and cherished so
that we can enhance their learning potential by giving them that all-important selfconfidence
and high self-esteem.’

Imagine what a human scale secondary school might look like. There are no one-size fits-
all answers, but the project’s flagship secondary school, Bishops Park College in
Essex, is helping to pave the way. Based in the coastal town of Clacton, staff and students
work together in three semi-autonomous schools – Lighthouses, Towers and Windmills.
Headteacher Mike Davies believes that developments at Bishops Park represent the
renewal of a true vision of education. “We need a coherent alternative to seeing schools
as high-performing factories with high-stakes accountability,” he said.
Looking to the future these are just some of the things we might see a human scale
school: A structure of three or four ‘mini-schools’: small learning communities each with
a cross-disciplinary team of teachers responsible for the learning and well-being
of a mixed-age group of learners. Students work with six or seven teachers a
week, not upwards of 16 as is often the case in secondary schools. And rather
than seeing several hundred students each week, teachers work with 80 or 90
young people. A thematic, cross curricular approach which also retains the integrity of
discipline-based knowledge and skills and makes connections between and across
them. Dialogue and inquiry feature strongly in learning and attention is given to
both the practical and the intellectual.

Assessment is integral to learning. It is based on dialogue, negotiation and critical
reflection, and includes students presenting portfolios of their work to their peers.
The timetable is flexible and responsive enough to promote different types of
teaching and learning, including masterclasses, whole class teaching, small group
work and individual learning. Teachers have time to plan and evaluate
collaboratively, and to reflect on their work. Students’ views are taken seriously and acted upon. There is a vibrant schoolcouncil where debates go beyond school dinners and the state of the toilets todiscuss teaching and learning and the curriculum and assessment. Students have a
sense of authorship over what goes on in their school. They appreciate that the school experience is genuinely provisional and open to change. Caring is seen as a part of teaching and learning, not as a separate role. There isno sharp distinction between ‘pastoral’ and ‘academic’ roles. There is a strong sense of community and partnership, both within the school and
beyond. The school is working collaboratively and responsively with parents,
families and the wider community. Last but not least, and mindful that ‘staying safe’ is one of the five outcomes at the heart of the Every Child Matters agenda, students feel safe and secure in a human scale school.

But we do most of this already you might say. What’s so different about human scale
education? We believe that the education of young people flourishes when it is built on
good human relationships. This has important consequences for the scale of
organisations and the number of people involved in learning and teaching. To quote the
American small schools pioneer Ted Sizer: ‘One cannot teach a student well if one does
not know that student well.’ Small per se is not enough – it is not an end in itself. But it
is an important first step in establishing the conditions necessary to create active,
collaborative communities where young people and their learning are taken seriously."

You can find out more at Schools seeking further information about the project, and those wishing to apply for agrant, should write to: Simon Richey, Assistant Director (Education) Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 98 Portland Place, London W1B 1ET.

No comments: