GOING TO THE BIG SCHOOL? Choices in secondary education.


The transition from a small primary school into secondary education is an issue for many parents. There are serious choices to be made for children at this age. We know that many children feel nervous about going into a large, more impersonal school where they do not feel known by teachers. In a typical secondary school a teacher might see over 250 children in a week and cannot get to know all of them really well. In addition the national data show that schools are getting larger year by year.

This issue of size is serious. The research shows that overall children are happier in smaller schools; that relationships between staff and students are better and that bullying may be less common. These are averages so they do not necessarily translate to any individual school. However research in the USA has come up with the following factors that make the best educational settings:

  1. Every adult needs to know every child
  2. Every child needs to know every adult
  3. Every child needs to know every other child

All this is impossible in large schools. And the implications are serious. For instance while bullying does occur in primary schools it can be much more serious at the secondary level. Recent suicides by teenagers due to bullying have highlighted this continuing problem. The results of serious bullying do not just manifest themselves at school. Studies have shown that such traumatic events in childhood can lead to problems in adulthood. Children who experience bad bullying are three times more likely to suffer psychotic events in adulthood than the general population. So avoiding bullying is not a trivial issue.

The first choice for a parent should really be, is it school or an alternative at age 11? The law states that a child should be in education and that this can be at school ‘or otherwise’ (to quote the exact term in law). There are still many parents who do not realise that they have this choice. Education is compulsory; school is not. And it is interesting that the law does not say that school is preferable – both options have equal standing.

What is sometimes assumed is that ‘otherwise’ than at school means home education – and this mode has become more popular. However in law there is no definition of home education. Indeed the term is something of a misnomer as children not in school may attend classes and undertake all sorts of learning opportunities that are not physically locate in the home. These might include time in a library, visits to museums – and for those over 14 attendance for day release at a college of further education.

In parts of the country ‘flexi-schooling’ is common whereby a child can attend school part time. This is perfectly legal though local authorities in this area tend not to accept this mode. Indeed there are still local authority officers who try to influence parents to believe that so called full-time schooling is the only legitimate mode that should be used. And this is untrue. In law there is no definition of full time education or of full time schooling. Indeed some schools are using this fact to increase the length of the school day or to make changes in the school year.

In our college (which is not a school) we prefer an approach that does not mean keeping to school-like hours. Students (aged 9-16) attend from 09.00 to 1pm Monday to Friday. We form part of the ‘otherwise’ mode, not just because of this but because our students, like many that are deemed to be home educated, are able to choose for themselves what and how they learn – there is no imposed curriculum and no imposed teaching. The difference from home education is that students and staff work together as a democratic learning community.

What we have chosen to do is to work to the best available research evidence on how best to assist young people to learn. For instance every child is different – any parent knows this. Yet classrooms and imposed curricula assume a high level of similarity among children.

We also know that employers bemoan the lack of self-reliance, team working ability and creativity in many young people coming out of school. So it makes sense to address these issues head on. We do this through the way we work. For instance students learn to write their own timetables and manage their own learning. They have to do this in part through working collaboratively with others to negotiate for the use of resources. They become really creative at doing this. And they learn how to learn for themselves – equipping them with the ability to move careers with changing times.

We are just one of a growing number of educational practices that offer something that is different from school and which gives parents more choices. Large secondary schools work for some children; home education works for others. What we do is to add another choice via our small community-based Self Managed Learning College.

By Dr Ian Cunningham, chair of board of governors at Self Managed Learning College.