Small Schools

Must we really have all these small schools? It depends.

Small Primary School in the Scottish Highlands for 25 students

Last week the OECD’S Centre for Effective Learning Environments ran a webinar on small schools for its members. The focus was on the knotty problem of whether they should they be closed, or be seen as an opportunity for educational transformation. Here is why it is difficult to just close them…

I write this while staying with family in the highlands of Scotland. We are in a small isolated, by Scottish standards, hamlet about 40 miles (64 km) west of Inverness.

The nearest school to us, a primary school for 25 students, is 3miles away. Unless you can drive the 15 miles to the nearest small town with its primary school, this is where your child goes to school.

Although the school is on the edge of a small village, many of the children live up to five miles away. The population here is dispersed throughout the hills.

The story is different if your child is at secondary school. A bus collects students for a journey of about 12 miles. This morning the bus never made it over one of the higher hills a couple of miles away. Last night’s snowfall had made an already slippery road worse, and the bus got stuck.

Talk to any of the locals around here, and you quickly realise that the local school is valued for its social role as much, if not more than its educative one. Not only is it a place for learning but it is also a place for meeting and a place that is a focal point of the community.

Closure is not an option. Small children being stranded on an icy hill in mid-winter is not an alternative that any parent will contemplate.

For education authorities, the cost of operating such small schools, not only the cost of maintaining the buildings but also the difficulty of finding teachers, poses the greatest problem. The temptation is to amalgamate several to create a larger, more economic entity. After all, it is a myth that small schools are educationally beneficial, so amalgamation makes sense on many levels.

The role of small schools and whether they can or indeed should be closed will be specific to the context and geography of a country. It is difficult to see a solution that can be universally applied. What might work in Scotland, will not necessarily work in say New South Wales.

What though of the opportunity for educational transformation? Is it really possible to rethink the ‘problem’? That demands some deep changes in thinking. While educationalists talk about imaginative use of technologies and other ways of enabling learning, society is not always ready to make the same leap.

The notion of ‘going to school’ is embedded into the psyche of society such that it has become synonymous with education. In some countries parents find themselves penalised by the state, if their child does not go to school. Or they are labelled by society as weird, if they decide to educate their kids at home themselves.

One issue then, that has to be tackled, is how to change the perception of a society that might be at best distrustful of anything, particularly unproven, that challenges an accepted norm. But try we must.

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