Supersize schools: how big is too big … 2,000? Or 4,000?

Writing in the Guardian, Liz Lightfoot says that with a new wave of huge schools planned there are fears the most vulnerable students could suffer.

…Supersize schools may provide a quick solution and economies of scale, bringing a wider curriculum and stronger out-of-school clubs and activities. But how do pupils find them, and what do parents think about massive schools? And will the pupils who most need support feel lost?

That’s the concern raised by Lifeline Projects, a charity providing mentoring and support for pupils who are struggling or at risk. While it accepts size alone does not create a problem, it fears more vulnerable pupils could slip through the net.

“We encounter numerous cases where children’s problems have not been identified,” says Nathan Singleton, Lifeline’s director of young people’s services. He cites the recent case of 15-year-old Sean, who was missing school in his GCSE year. It took 10 weeks before the teenager felt able to confide in his mentor that he was the main carer for his mother, who was dying of kidney failure, and for his sick brother. His father was an alcoholic. “Sean had not shared this with anyone at school because he wanted to spend time with his mother before she died,” Singleton says. Lifeline and the school were able to arrange support, including catch-up classes.”

…research on optimum school size has proved inconclusive. In the US, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed more than £1bn to create 1,500 small high schools. But later research sponsored by the foundation in 2005 found small was not enough. It concluded: “The Gates Foundation has realised that curriculum and instruction may be as important as school size.”

Small schools in the UK won the support of the wellbeing charity the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which sponsored a human scale project of “schools within schools”. It helped remodel the 1,800 Brislington Enterprise college in Bristol into five separate learning communities of 300. But the school struggled to improve and by 2013 had slid into “inadequate”, and in February this year was converted to an Oasis academy…

The advantages of big schools far outweigh the disadvantages, says Anthony Alexander, principal of Exmouth community college (current enrolment 2,500 and rising). “I can think of only one disadvantage and that is that the principal cannot know every student individually. I make sure I get around the school, though, and I do know a lot of students by name. They certainly know who I am.”

Alexander says making a big school succeed “comes down to the commitment of the school to support its vulnerable pupils, the ethos and culture of the school and the way it is organised”. He says size is immaterial…

More at: Supersize schools: how big is too big … 2,000? Or 4,000?


Is size a bit like structure when it comes to schools – largely irrelevant to whether they are good or not – or are there real dangers for at least some students with super-sized schools?

Please share your thoughts, experiences or concerns in the comments or via Twitter…


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Categories: Policy and Secondary.


  1. Snorrarcisco

    SchoolsImprove mega schools dont work, proven fact all over europe. Unless we once more want to ignore decent research….

  2. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove Having worked in small schools (under 1000) & large (over 2000) the impersonal nature of large is undesirable in my opinion

  3. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove The larger the school the more an individual (student & staff) becomes a stat; I’d suggest most don’t want to be just a stat

  4. MissWillisMaths

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove the second something happens and you don’t recognise a pupil, or one of the pupils with them, you lose a grip

  5. andylutwyche

    MissWillisMaths SchoolsImprove Totally agree; my favourite student quote to HT at large school was “You’re the HT? I don’t believe you”

  6. MissWillisMaths

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove sounds about right! And ‘type’ of school doesn’t matter. If pupils aren’t known they will suffer in some way

  7. MissWillisMaths

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove sounds about right! And ‘type’ of school doesn’t matter. If pupils aren’t known they will suffer in some way

  8. Dai_James1942

    andylutwyche SchoolsImprove My experience 80 to 1660, with same conclusion. School needs to have 20% of staff who’ve taught every pupil.

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