Small vs Big: What’s the right size for a school?

Research clearly indicates that school size is a secondary factor in determining the overall successful of students in a school.  The leadership provided by the principal, the cohesiveness of the teaching staff, the range of non-academic activities in the school, a supportive school culture with high expectations, and having adequate resources are all far more important than school size.

The debate over whether large or small schools are best has been raging for many decades, and is still unsettled.  There is no clear evidence either way, but few people argue for either of the extremes:a one-room school house with a dozen students or a mammoth institution with many thousands of children.

There seems to be a general agreement on only one principle: that the optimum size of a school for young child is smaller than that for older children.  The reasoning is that older students need more specialized subject content with more purpose-built spaces, and have a need for a larger number of peers with whom to interact and from whom to build a community of friends.  It is also believed that young children learning basics of socializing, skills, and independent judgement thrive better in more intimate personal environment.

(The definition of “large” and “small” are slippery and vary both over time and geography.  In some major cities such as New York, a large high school might be defined as one that supports more than 1,000 students per grade and a small school as one with 100 students per grade.  In contrast in Toronto, a large high school would be one with 300+ students per grade.  In smaller communities, the large high school threshold might be as low as 200 students/grade.  The thresholds for a “large” primary school are much lower: ranging roughly from 50 to 100 students/grade)

There are five distinct elements in the discussion of school size:

School size and child temperament

This relates to the choice of school (where there is a choice available) for a specific child: will school size make a difference to the learning and development of the child?  It is clear that some children thrive in a bustling less personal environment that provides a wide variety of social interactions; others find this oppressive and overwhelming.  It is likely that most children will adjust effectively to most schools, regardless of the school size.

In densely populated urban areas the issue of whether the goal is to have schools of a fairly uniform size, or whether there should be a number of smaller schools to support the needs of children with an anxious temperament or who find social interactions challenging.  Other than for bureaucratic convenience, there seems to be little reason to impose a one-size-for-every-school policy where the opportunity exists.
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School size and learning/social opportunities

Larger schools can provide the student a greater range of specialized courses and facilities, a greater number of clubs and teams, a larger number of peers from which to find close friends, a greater ability to avoid those who demean the student, and a larger number of adults who might serve as a mentor or guide.  This comes with an increased impersonalization of the school environment, greater competition, and increased number of rules to keep order.  Some research and anecdotes indicate that student participation in clubs and teams is greater than in large ones.  This is likely due to reduced competition for the limited number of musicians in a band, roles in a play, and players on a team more than compensates for the fewer number of clubs and teams available in larger schools.

Research indicates that the “learning economies of scale” provided by large schools is not as great as is often assumed once the school is past a (not clearly defined) minimum size.  This is almost certainly because other factors unrelated to school size have so much greater impact on student learning and well-being (such as the quality of the principal’s leadership).

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School size and costs

The cost and administration related economies of scale are most often at the core of proposals to consolidate small schools.  The cost/student for a principal and office staff decreases as school size increases, as does as the cost of building upkeep.  The per student cost of contract compliance, hiring, and central oversight also decrease.  In some cases (urban, semi-urban, and rural) there can be increased costs as students who were once able to get to school on their own now now have to be bussed.

Proposals to consolidate a number of a “small” schools commonly use education-related arguments about the superior quality of education available at a larger school.  Typically, except in some extreme cases, the research doesn’t support this.  It is likely that education-related arguments are put front-and-center to avoid the appearance that the interests of students (and communities) are being sacrificed to save money.  It is also very difficult to for those opposing school consolidations to effectively counter claims of education-related benefits, and it is why much of the research related to this issue is done by coalitions opposed to the consolidation of smaller schools.
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Value of small schools to small communities

Proposals to consolidate small schools in rural and isolated towns requires a different process than are used in urban and suburban areas.

Budgeting for schools is typically completely separate from that related to economic development, public health, and recreation.  In urban and suburban areas this disconnect has only minor consequences related to school consolidations.  People move without thought across neighbourhood and city boundaries to shop, work, and socialize.  There are a wide variety of libraries, meeting spaces, recreational facilities, and other resources nearby.

The situation is dramatically different in a rural community where the school building serves as meeting hall, entertainment venue, and recreational center, as well as the place for children to learn.  It is often also the major driver of the economy of a small town; people from the surrounding area coming to drop-off/pick-up a child or going to an event at the school will stop to shop at the local retail stores.  Closing a school in a small town can send the town into serious decline.  As jobs disappear and quality of life diminishes, people move away.  Property values decrease.  Long-established social connections are severed.

But because these economic and social costs are completely external to the funding of schools, they are often not adequately factored into the proposals to consolidate these schools.  Given that a core reason for consolidating small schools is clearly economic and not student learning, the broader community costs need to be included in the analysis.

Student success and well-being are influenced by elements outside of school walls, including the health of the community where the student lives.  It is important for any proposal to consolidate schools in small towns to seriously consider the effect of a school closing on the community, including the students of the community.

(Much of the research into the effectiveness of small schools has been done by those interested in keeping schools open in rural towns.  While this may be seen to skew the research conclusions, it does not seem to have done so.)

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School size and urban areas

In densely populated urban and suburban communities small schools increase the likelihood that children will walk or bike to school. Smaller schools means more schools, less distance between schools, and schools that are closer to the homes of more students.  As the distance between school and home increases, parents are more likely to drive children to school even when the distance isn’t enough to justify bussing.

The result is reduced exercise leading to increased obesity.  It also delays the age at which children become independent, something that research has linked to increased anxiety.  Because the child becomes tied to the parent’s schedule, play dates and participating in after-school activities become more difficult, impeding the development of a child’s social skills.  And the extra exercise before school increases the ability of a child to concentrate on learning.

Closing a community school and selling the land also reduces the limited number of playing fields, decreasing the number of opportunities for both children and adults to play sports.  At a time in which we are increasingly aware of the physical and emotional benefits of exercise, this is poor public health policy.

The pressure to consolidate smaller urban schools often comes from the high value of available land for development. “Harvesting” school property is a tempting way to keep taxes lower.  But it this ignores the dynamic nature of population changes in urban and suburban areas over decades.  An area with few students in any given year may a decade later be bursting with students as younger families replace empty-nesters, or new residential units are built. Closing small community schools and selling the land is simply poor urban planning, which should look forward several decades to ensure quality of life in a city.

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