Urban Small Schools: A new model?
by Claire McEneaney
Today I attended an event at the RSA entitled ‘Urban Small Schools: Putting relationships at the heart of school design and organisation’. James Wetz, a former headteacher, has recently published a report which aims to show how marginalised young people, especially those from vulnerable and deprived backgrounds, fail to manage the complex setting of large inner city schools. He uses a theoretical framework (derived from attachment theory) and models that emphasise human scale education to propose a new approach.
Wetz’s argument is essentially that pupils from deprived backgrounds find large secondary schools overwhelming and difficult because, due to their size, they don’t feel recognised, valued or safe. He argues that smaller secondary schools would allow for this personal connection, enabling these pupils to stay engaged in mainstream education and to go on to succeed. During the seminar he threw out lots of statistics about how many pupils leave school before age 14 (20,000 a year) and how many leave with few or no GCSE qualifications at all. He also told us about how many of these young people end up serving custodial sentences, becoming long-term unemployed etc. It was a rather gloomy picture in all honesty! The respondents (Educational Psychologist – Dr Heather Geddes and Director of the New Schools Network – Rachel Wolf) were very positive to Wetz’s suggestions.
One of the questions during the discussion asked what the implications were for teacher training. It was answered that the focus of teacher training should not just be educational content, but also making teachers aware of how to handle behavioural difficulties, attachment theory etc. I couldn’t help but think this was surely a bit of a no brainer. Accountability is also clearly an issue – measurements of ‘success’ are fairly blunt instruments that are easy to measure (GCSE grades etc). What is less easy to measure, but just as important, is the happiness and welfare of students and a teacher’s connection with their students.
Another question raised, but not answered, was the role of technology. Increasingly, we are moving to online interaction (Facebook, Twitter etc) and perhaps the valuable notion of people skills is being lost somewhat in our young people. Does this lack of face-to-face interaction leave them unable to form attachments and increasingly isolated ? Technology is often lauded as the future for education, but perhaps we need to exercise some small amount of caution. I’m not sure on this one but I thought it raised an interesting debate.
I also wonder whether through these schools we would produce a generation of young people who have had their hand held the entire way through their education. Part of the secondary school experience (to me at least) was learning valuable social skills, resilience and independence. Sure, secondary schools can be very tough places but with the right attitude to pastoral care, this doesn’t have to be the case.
I think Wetz’s suggestion is a good one – choice in the system can only lead to better personalisation for students – but will it really have the revolutionary effects he thinks?