I wrote this for the Building Schools Journal - the team that publish it run what has become a pivotal conference annually in Harrogate - and i enjoy the contrast between the scale of BSF with its multi billion pound budget and the simple, but oh so wise comments of the children in this 5 student school.
Peace and Iguanas: I was visiting a tiny island in the Caribbean, Little Cayman; the one school has five students. After some fun when colleague Gareth Long introduced them to Google Earth - they zoomed in to everywhere they'd ever dreamed of visiting - I mentioned to them that we might be linking their school up to other tiny schools around the world. Looking out at the lush vegetation, parrots, vivid flowers, turqoise blue sea, coral reef and surf, I asked them "what would you show others that you have here, but they probably haven't ever seen?". the eldest (8) thought for a moment, "Peace" he said, whilst the smallest added "and Iguanas". The never fail to delight, children, do they?
But small and peace are not a bad starting points. Back in the 70s and 80s when factory scale secondary schools with anonymous staff and students prepared uniform, and indeed uniformed, children for the typing pool, production line or other mindless work, scale mattered. Indeed, we rewarded headteachers financially for making their schools ever bigger. The consequent overcrowding, alienation and loss of self were just vocational preparation. But the mindless jobs have gone, to be done by robots. Now we need children who can design better robots, not act like one. Inexplicably, that old productivity model of learning lingers, but around the world the scale of learning organisations is finally returning to favouring personal, collegiate, intimate, stable, mixed age and small learning units. Schools within schools, principal learning centres, learning bases, home bases - from Iceland to Tasmania the langauge may vary but the principle is the same: children staying put for much of the day in a "home base" for about 125 leaners, with a dedicated teacher and other teachers visiting. The timetable is flexible, work has substantial project based elements, and there are some specialist spaces too (for example for sport). I call these basIC schools - they harness the Base principle to build Integrated Communities of learners - hence the name.
What is facinating about basIC schools is the quality of educational outcomes that they all evidence. Not the tiny 3% or 4% gains of the best of the old productivity based "factory" model schools, but whopping gains often into three figures of percentage improvement. And of course both really small and over-large schools can operate at a level of intimacy, effectiveness stability that is hugely engaging for all concerned: teachers. As we start to see the international linking of the basIC components to form global learning institutions we can see clearly how important diversity is. Peace and Iguanas? What will our schools offer in return?
© Prof Stephen Heppell 2007