Does size matter?

By Jaco Kruger

Paging through The SAHETIAN (SAHETI’s school magazine), I couldn’t help but notice George. George in the 1st XV rugby team photo, proud to wear the blue and white stripes. A few pages on, George is in his white cricket shirt, crest on the chest. I found George in the third row of the athletics photo as well as top left in the swimming team. George was also in the chess club and the part of the public speaking and debating teams. George was, with all due respect, not a child prodigy and, as I found with further investigation, was not alone in representing our school in several sporting and cultural arenas at the highest level. George and others like him are beneficiaries of a small school.

SAHETI High School can be classified as a small school with, on average, 300 pupils in total in the high school. Universally the number of less than 400 pupils is used to classify a school as a small school; more than 400 a medium school; schools with more than 800 pupils a large school, and those with less than 250 a smaller small school. In different countries and circumstances those numbers and references vary, but these descriptions are most commonly used.2 Research interest in the influence of school size on performance of pupils was largely the result of the 20th century tendency to construct larger schools as a costsaving endeavour, and an attempt to centralise education.3 In South Africa, large schools mainly exist due to increased demand.

Three main bodies of academic work exist that explore school size and performance:
1. Herbert Walberg and colleagues
2. Varie Lee and colleagues
3. Craig Howley and colleagues.

The major findings suggest the following: Students in small schools learn well and often better: 4 A study of 103 research documents conclude that that academic performance of small schools is often better, if not at least equal, to large schools.5 Violence and behaviour problems diminish: All major offences, such as truancy and vandalism or aggressive behaviour, decrease in smaller schools.

Extracurricular participation increases: In smaller schools, students join teams and other activities at a higher rate. They are less likely to be influenced by theirown perceived abilities and join based on a sense of belonging, a higher chance of inclusion and sense of purpose.6 The performance of any school is justly not based on a single element. School achievement and school success incorporates a multitude of aspects and determinants, of which school size is only one of them. However, school size does assist in creating certain positive changes: Strong personal bonds: It is especially uring the teen years that a student needs  a greater sense of belonging and engagement.

There is value in a teacher knowing the name, personal circumstance and history of each student. This is easier in a small school environment. Parent and community involvement: Small schools, especially new small schools, depend largely on the involvement of the parents and the community to create an educational environment. This dependency allows parents and teachers to become allies in the education of the students. Simplicity and focus: In the small school environment, it is easier to communicate the school’s overall vision and mission as well as to inculcate the chosen ethos of the school.

Improved teacher working conditions and job satisfaction: Although it is definitely not true for all, teachers surveyed inlarge schools often experience teaching as depersonalised and controlled by rulebased governance and not by an interactive, open and ‘two-way’ decision-making process. Small school teachers express more satisfaction due to involvement and an atmosphere ‘where everyone counts’.

Schools often strive to increase numbers, and those numbers become a measurement of success. It is understandable that numbers create revenue, and revenue an be utilised to increase the offering, facilities and enhance to quality of teaching. Large schools that implement the SWAS (Schools within a school) approach have been able to counter the possible negative effects of a large school nvironment. By using a well-established  and well-managed house system, for example, large schools can create  a similar atmosphere to small schools with a similar sense of belonging, shared purpose nd common vision.

The small school is not without its own set of challenges, and small schools must take appropriate action or set plans in place to address these matters:

  • Cost (availability of resources): Due to the smaller pool of income, fees (fundraising) can become disproportionate to the possible offering.
  • Success: School success, especially in South Africa, is often equated with sporting and other extramural achievements. Small schools do have difficulty in fielding multiple teams, as well as attracting sufficient quality players/participants to achieve consistently at the highest level. This is also true for the cultural sphere of the school, where limited numbers often hamper specialisation.
  • Over-extension of staff and students: Although this can be as much of a challenge in a large school, small schools are often prey to trying to offer as many activities (sporting, cultural and fields of study) as large schools – which ultimately, if not managed well, can lead to the staff and students being overly extended and thus the activities, including academics, suffer.

The small school versus big school debate is as muddled with diverse research, finding, opinions and experiences as the single-sex schools versus coed schools debate. What is important, however, is to acknowledge the innate advantages of the small school environment, even if it exists within a large school. And, as the case with single-sex and co-ed schools, it might just be a case of ‘if the shoe fits’.

Jaco Kruger is Director of Student Affairs at SAHETI.


1 Name used for illustration purpose only.
2 Blum, R.W. (2002) The Untapped Power of Schools to Improve the Health of Teens. Minnesota: Centre for Adolescent Health and Development, University of Minnesota.
3 Lawton, S. (1999) School Size, Cost and Quality. School of Business Affairs, November 1999.
4 WestED (2001) School Size, Considerations for Safety and Learning. Policy brief, October 2001.
5 Cotton, K. (1996) School Size, School Climate and Student Performance. Portland. Educational Labratory.
6 Ibid.


Category: Winter 2011

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