Primary Schools – Does Size Matter?

There were two important education-related news stories in the press last Saturday, alongside the news about Michael Gove’s grilling at the NAHT conference (following the vote of no confidence in him) and Sir Ken Robinson’s scathing article in the Guardian about the secretary of state’s unfitness for purpose.

On the front page of the Guardian there was a report on the growing number of huge Primary schools that have more pupils on roll than many secondary schools, and on the inside pages of the same newspaper a separate and unrelated article on a recent speech by Diane Abbott MP about what she believes is a crisis of ‘masculinity’ in Britain.

Questions for teachers, parents, politicians and others on these topics include

* do we want our youngest children to spend their days in such massive schools?
* what kind of education is on offer in these schools?
* is it appropriate for the needs of those children?
* why have so many Primary schools grown to such an extent?
* should we be concerned about this trend?

And on the Diane Abbott speech:

* what, if anything, has caused the identity crisis amongst the male population?
* what could or should we do about it, if anything?


large school

Very large Primary schools need not be detrimental to the education of the children who attend those schools. It’s possible, in principle if not in practice, for a large school to provide the right premises, atmosphere, ethos, curriculum and pedagogy that meets all the development needs of our youngest children. Conversely, in principle if not practice, a very small school can be unwelcoming, regimented, dull, disorganised, impersonal, unstimulating and alienating. As ever, these questions need to be addressed by school governors and managers who should be determined to make the children’s experience of school as joyful and creative as possible, as personalised as possible, and as little like a factory school as possible.

Whatever the size of the school, if the children move on from that school feeling that learning is enjoyable, fulfilling, empowering and essential to their wellbeing, having learned how to learn, and having learned how to be an independent learner, then the school will have done its job.

large school 2

1,000 pupils and rising – primary schools go supersize

Number of primary schools with more than 1,000 pupils has risen by 60% in past three years

by Jessica Shepherd

The number of supersize primary schools – some of which have more than 1,000 pupils – has soared by 60% in three years, triggering a fierce debate among educationists about whether tens of thousands of young children are getting the attention they need.

Department for Education statistics show that the number of schools with 700 or more pupils amounts to 130 today compared with 80 three years ago. Barclay primary school in Leyton, east London, already one of the largest with 1,200 pupils, is expanding to 1,600 from September 2014.

large school 5Swelling schools are a product of England’s rising birth rate, currently increasing faster than at any time since the 1950s, and a rise in the number of young immigrant families entering the country.

Three years ago no primary had more than 1,000 pupils, and having six classes in a year, which now happens, was unheard of. Local authorities, which by law have to find children a school place, are forcing primary heads to take on hundreds of extra pupils and erect mobile classrooms in playgrounds, music rooms and libraries in some cases.

The super-sized primaries are clustered in the most deprived parts of the country, in particular east London and inner-city Birmingham, where poor young families can find cheap housing. The average size of a primary school has crept up from 181 pupils in 1985 to 250 today.

large school 6Back in the 1980’s it was the norm for small one-form entry Primary schools to serve very local areas, and with the birth rate being low this meant the less popular Primaries might have 7 classes (not including nurseries) with 20 – 25 pupils per class, giving them a roll of 140 – 175, even though the school’s capacity, with a limit of 30 per class, could be 210.

In those conditions it was tempting for local authorities to close down their smallest schools in order to sell off their valuable land and buildings in the name of short-term income generation. You can now take a tour of east London, for example, and see many fine Victorian school buildings that have been converted to luxury apartments. Many would, and do, argue that those buildings are no longer suitable environments for meeting the needs of 21st Century pupils and teachers. Unfortunately, too many of the buildings and the schools that replaced them are not suitable either. It’s even more unfortunate that all too often what goes on within those buildings isn’t appropriate to the needs of young children, and we don’t blame the teachers for this. We’ll say no more at this point about the need for redesigning education in the UK and elsewhere, since we’ve blogged about it in so many of our previous posts. For those considering the issue of large schools, however, this remains the real heart of the matter.

As for Diane Abbott’s ‘crisis of masculinity’ – we’ll come to that tomorrow.


Philosophy Professor Daniel Dennett was on the Today programme this morning – promoting his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. It’s so frustrating to have yet another interview gloss over the main concerns and focus on the minor ones. Not least the fact that ‘intuition’ isn’t a ‘thinking process’ or a ‘tool for thinking’ – it’s a completely different kind of intelligence.

The Future of Education – in Finland and Elsewhere (3Di Associates)

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Please leave a comment - and tell others about 3Di!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s