In praise of small schools

by Jacqueline Haydn / 26 February, 2005
Small numbers make for flexible learning, where children value themselves, their community and the land.

When I was just seven, a lunch monitor sent Marilyn and me to the dark, dank cloakroom over a misdeed. The longer we crouched among the coats, the more likely that Shiny Pants with-strap-bulging would deal to us. I said to chubby Marilyn it was best to run. Over vast playing fields, out the back way, eyes goggly-wild with fear. My parents got up from their softboiled eggs. Pitilessly, they said, "Go back and tell the teacher you are sorry."

And she was sorry, she said, she had to give us the strap, six of the best. Kind, inspiring Miss Pine.

Was this the kickstart of my insurrectional attitude? Or was it that my myopia went unnoticed? Or that my educational needs weren't met?

The strapping would not have happened in a small school. Good as Miss Pine was, she was teaching more than 40 children. Good as Edendale was (its headmaster was a Baptist of exceptional ability), it was too big. It couldn't be flexible even if it wanted to.

Influential educationalist A S Neill and his wife opened the famous/infamous Summerhill (roll 40ish) in 1921 with one aim, to make the school fit the child. Neill believed that an absence of fear was the finest thing a child could have. It is true that a cowering person is not receptive.

Children are very small and very tender. Distinct and unfolding. Why are mothers sad to farewell their five-year-olds? They are only semi-conscious of how decisive and dangerous the act is. No preschool can accustom a child to hundreds of lewd beings jostling, penned.

Your children are not your children ...

You may give them your love but not your thoughts ...

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit ...

I am at odds with Neill here when he uses Kahlil Gibran for bolster. Nourishing, cherishing our children means we do house their souls, give them our thoughts. Ideally, with what Aristotle called practical wisdom, integrating mind, heart and hand. To bring children's inclinations, feelings and passions into harmony with reason. To head them toward virtues like honesty, -justice, courage, self-mastery.

Nothing is more important to personal and collective happiness than the dispositions and habits of good character that we acquire from early infancy. They can only be maintained at a school small enough to respect and value each pupil.

What marked Noam Chomsky, who became pre-eminent in linguistics, cognitive psychology, politics and philosophy, was the personalisation and free exploration at his loved small school. High school, where he was graded for the first time, was a dark period. He loved football, but recalled asking himself there, "Why am I cheering ... I don't know any of these people. I don't care about them. I hate high school. Why am I cheering for the school team?"

To be effective morally and intellectually, a school has to be a community. In a school with more than 300 pupils, say, that is lost.

In the Americanised world, small schools are vanishing. Big Brother is intoning: "Big schools good. Small schools bad." The reverse is true - as scholarly research indicates, and as I have found empirically.

In the early 1980s, community was dying at Freemans Bay, yet its school was not so big - roll 220 - that new entrants were unheeded. Our eldest, we were told, though good, capable, mixing well, didn't "give off"and needed assessment at -Marianoto Clinic. He passed; the mystery for the school over. But why send him to a state psychologist?

His needs as a very contained person were not picked because he was lost among 50 children at disparate levels and ages in a vast, "open-plan" room. It took six years to discover other unmet needs when our children had their only loved school year - among 20 pupils at Clifton Terrace Model Country School. The teacher there quickly assessed for himself that they were in the top three percent intelligence percentile, and schooled them accordingly.

We had believed that the local school was best. And doubts weren't directed at size. Since a headmaster said to my mother, "the aim of the school is to produce conformists", difficult children, rebels, truants, defectives and geniuses had prompted different methodologies.

But the all-in-together and cloyingly PC mode was another way to standardise, to diminish originality and dissent. That's what my 1955-67 schooling had done. Its nadir was Auckland Girls' Grammar, roll 1100, when I was expelled for not standing on my desk in a punishment.

Large numbers in a liberal atmosphere meant loss of teaching dignity. No teacher could be a stimulator to coax each pupil's latent enthusiasm and potential. Because our kids seemed okay, we were unaware that their brain activity, unaddressed, bereft of stimulus, had slowed so much. They had us to blame for a poor education, which left them little other than a group of friends as beached and bemused as they.

Decades on, I drop off their seven-year-old brother in a sheep paddock, to eagerly join his school of 14 souls tucked below in the bush.

The teacher at Lone Kauri Community School is Bev Thompson. By a quirk of fate, Bev had been his siblings' infant mistress. She took the fluke further and proved her dedication when she showed me a tattered form that she had kept 22 years, "Questions about Myself". Beside "What I Don't Like", an infantile hand (my eldest's) had scratched, "doing this".

Bev says that she appreciates each child a lot better with a class of ideal size. So does Viv Mulgrew, her assistant, who is engaged for an extra-special-needs child.

They agree that "18 to 20 in a class is right".

"Huge amounts of waiting, being unattended goes on at big schools," Viv says. "Kids live hectic lives. Even out here. There is need for security. Attention. Time. Simple things."

Suddenly Bev gives a cry to kids going outside, "Close the door. You weren't born in a tent!" Then, looking at me, "A boy once answered, 'I was.' He had been born in a teepee."

Gleefully: "I love teaching in communities. Parents are so 100 percent involved. You feel you're all friends. Grandparents popping in."

"'They' think we're enjoying ourselves too much," says Viv.

"All to do with money," Bev says. "'They' waste millions. It's hard to understand. We've got to promote ourselves as a treasure. No one's told us we can't be he taonga he pounamu. Mind you, it's not just the language - it's the wairua, the spirit."

Viv elaborates: "It's valuing themselves, their community and the land. Making them aware of all around. You can't do that when there are too many to relate to."

The school gathers on the floor. "Angelo's late. The horses got out and are trampling the garden," Bev says, as part of the news exchange. She then sets the children to read - one big to a little. They are absorbed for the hour that their teachers talk.

Viv: "In a big school, people are branded - soul destroying. Here we can discuss things - as loving and forgiving as good family. Small numbers make for totally flexible learning. We'll shelve plans because they've found an ants' nest."

Bev: "We have access to all resources. In a big school they're the domain of a selected few."

"And if the school enters an exhibition," says Viv, "everyone does. If we play netball, -everyone has to. They go to intermediate and can't understand why they're not included. They expect to be listened to. They don't sit in the back and do -avoidance."

Bev: "They achieve in every field. I think it's because they're confident."

"Yes," says Viv. "But 'they' say they need big or won't be able to cope. Which is all wrong."

Bev concludes: "Well, you couldn't have had a shyer girl than Charlotte. She talked in a whisper. She went on to be lead of our play, and head girl at high school. Now she's at Otago [University]."

The Russian word "mir" means village and the world. This is where one's life should begin - a place that enables dawning awareness and knowledge of the vastness of the land and the world, within a small, comprehensible, secure, busy, community. A school as refuge and inspiration.

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