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Supersized schools: is bigger always better?

Whilst teachers and parents across the country have been up in arms debating the government’s controversial free schools initiative, it could be said that the real source of the problem has been forgotten – supersized schools.

School sizes have been steadily increasing every year, due to rising birth rates and migration, creating a bulge in pupil numbers. Last year, over 8.3 million pupils enrolled in schools across the UK, adding stress to the government’s questionable plans for the education system.[1]

It is estimated that by 2020 there will be an extra 800,000 pupils in primary schools alone, increasing the importance of, and need for, these so-called ‘titan’ schools.[2]

In order to tackle the growing numbers, schools throughout the country have been ‘supersized’ by increasing the number of pupils they take in each year. A wave of colossal secondary schools is currently being planned to cope with the increasing demand.

According to the Times Educational Supplement, at least 17 councils will have these 2,000-plus pupil schools.

It is estimated that over the next four years more than 80,000 extra secondary places will be needed. These figures have placed a spotlight on the snowballing problem, as plans for ‘titan’ schools have become the go to remedy for the issue. [3]

The information, supplied under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that once pupil numbers hit peak levels over the next few years, the majority of schools will have at least 12 forms of entry or more. (Richard Vaughan, para. 2)

Defending the rise in supersized schools over the use of free schools, a Conservative spokesperson said: “There are areas of the country where sites are limited and so it sometimes makes more sense for existing schools to grow to deliver our vision of a good school place for every child.”[4]

With school sizes increasing across the UK, we need to ask ourselves; is bigger really better?

A major worry is supersized primary schools and the effect that this may have on a child’s personal development. Arguably, the first few years at school are the most vital, as this is when a child’s social and interpersonal skills develop the most. Therefore, as school sizes continue to grow, so does our concern for stressed and overstretched teachers who may not be able to give children the amount of one-to-one support that is needed.

Research conducted by the popular parental forum, Netmums, shows that one in five parents believe that schools are cramming too many children into classes. Primary schools throughout the country have been criticised for “bursting at the seams”, with some having more than 1,000 pupils attending lessons, which have been dubbed “cattle classes”.[5]

However, the biggest primary school in the country, Gascoigne Primary, in London, provides evidence contrary to this anti-supersized schools theory, receiving an overall good rating in their latest Ofsted inspection.

The long-term effect that supersized schools will have on the next generation can only be guessed at, for now.

So, where do free schools come into the argument?

Free schools are the equally controversial solution to the ever-increasing number of pupils. Previously less favoured, it can be argued that free schools offer a more practical long-term solution.

Talking about the current surge in the amount of pupils,a Conservative spokesman said: “The free schools policy allows good and outstanding schools to open new schools, avoiding the problem of popular schools having to become larger.” (Liz Lightfoot, para. 12)

This type of school has caused uproar amongst the public, due to its lack of need for qualified teachers. These state-funded schools have the power to determine their own curriculum, set the length of school days and set the pay and conditions for staff.

Teachers around the country have united against free schools, along with the support of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and it is clear why.

Not only do these schools not require any sort of qualification to teach, it is argued that they undermine democratic local accountability of schools to their communities, as well as fuel social segregation.[6]

A contributory factor is the use of sponsors and external partnerships assisting with funding, as well as free schools being able to determine their own admissions arrangements. It has been argued that free schools are simply a way of “exacerbating a two-tier education system that can favour middle-class students over their poorer counterparts”.[7]

Whilst freedom within the education system is a positive step, it sounds like this may do more harm than good.

The most recent example of the insanity surrounding free schools is the news that Geri Halliwell is in talks with the DfE about opening her own arts and business school. That’s right – a former Spice Girl may be in charge of hundreds of children’s education.

Yes, Ms Halliwell has experience of the arts and entertainment industry, which could be valuable to lots of youngsters. However, is it a wise move for a celebrity, with no grounding in the education system, to be responsible for making decisions that affect the futures of so many children?

If the plans go ahead, the school will open in London in 2018, offering pupils a chance to add a bit of ‘spice’ to school life.

As far as solutions go for addressing the problem of increasing pupil numbers, the drawing board is pretty empty. With a lack of viable options, the only moves available are the equally dislikeable ‘titan’ and free schools.

As controversy over supersized and free schools rises, so does the ever-growing number of pupils. Regardless of the type of school, the most important thing is that all children have the opportunity, and right, to education. However, only time will tell as to whether the standard of teaching will be affected by the underqualified and the overcrowding.

Unfortunately, by then, the damage may already be done.

[1] Richardson, H (2015) ‘New wave of super-size secondary schools planned’, para. 9, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34486006> [Accessed: 2 November 2015]

[2] Abrams, F (2012) ‘The growth of the Titan schools’, para. 7, <http://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/apr/23/titan-schools-primary-largest-school-population> [Accessed: 2 November 2015]

[3] Vaughan, R, Wiggins, K (2015) ‘The titans advance: wave of super-size schools planned’, para. 6, Times Educational Supplement. <https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/titans-advance-wave-%E2%80%98super-size%E2%80%99-schools-planned> [Accessed: 2 November 2015]

[4] Lightfoot, L (2015) ‘Supersize schools: how big is too big?’, para. 12, The Guardian. <http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/oct/27/supersize-schools-too-big-add-places-pupils> [Accessed: 2 November 2015]

[5] Netmums News Team (2014) ’Supersize schools’, para. 1, <http://www.netmums.com/coffeehouse/general-coffeehouse-chat-514/news-current-affairs-topical-discussion-12/1163209-supersize-primary-schools-all.html> [Accessed: 2 November 2015]

[6] NUT (2015) ‘Free schools: Edu Facts’, para. 4, National Union of Teachers <https://www.teachers.org.uk/freeschools> [Accessed: 2 November 2015]

[7] Guardian (2015) ‘Spice up your grades at Geri Hallliwell’s free school’, para. 15 <http://www.theguardian.com/culture/shortcuts/2015/oct/26/geri-halliwell-free-school-london-spice-girl> [Accessed: 2 November 2015]

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