An outdated design

The opening of the gigantic new Academy in Nottingham yesterday for 3,500 secondary pupils, with twenty classes in each year-group, appalled me.  Maps had to be issued to every one of the bemused 11-year-olds on their first day at ‘big’ school.  Not long ago ‘big school’ to 10-year-olds was that place a short bus ride away inhabited by youngsters so big that they looked like adults and, with 600-700 pupils seemed frighteningly impersonal.  Is a bigger version of schools whose design failed last year’s children really the solution to today’s problem?

Is bigger really better?  I was reminded of the story about the limitations of conventional thinking in times of profound change, which went like this: During the Second World War the Americans were much impressed by the performance of the two enormous Cunard liners, the Queen Mary, and the Queen Elizabeth, which each transported tens of thousands of troops across the Atlantic so fast that the German U-boats were unable to catch them.  Once the war was over the American government subsidised the building of an even faster passenger ship, the SS United States, which could go faster and, in time of military need, carry even more troops than the old Cunarders.  The SS United States entered service in the mid-1950s, and at a speed of 40 knots she cut the travel time from New York to England to just under 84 hours.  Everyone was very excited; I sailed on her once, and she was a lovely ship.  But after three years this splendid ship started to lose money and within ten years was taken out of service and lay rusting for a quarter of a century.

Why the demise of this grand ship?  Simply because the De Havilland Brothers had seen the value of a new technology and built a commercial jet aircraft, The Comet.  In 1960 the British Overseas Airway Corporation had started flying passengers across the Atlantic in a mere eight hours.  There was nothing wrong with the design of the SS United States but her steam engines had been made obsolete by jet propulsion.

It is the findings of neurobiology, cognitive and social sciences into the nature of human learning, and especially adolescence, that provides the newly understood ‘technology’ which should shape the future nature of secondary education.  Children can learn at a phenomenal rate if they are emotionally secure and intellectually poised to start exploring knowledge to make sense of the world around them.  If the educational policy makers really understood this they would strengthen enormously small primary schools, and increasingly supplement the secondary school with its orderly boxes of classrooms, with endless networks of hands-on apprentice type learning situations across the community.

I wish no ill to those who will labour in Nottingham and possibly elsewhere, to defy the inevitable… but one day such enormous Academies will, like the SS United States, find themselves in the breaker’s yard as an expensive out-of-date technology irrelevant to the needs of tomorrow.

See Part Ten and Actions 1, 4, 5 and 8 of the Briefing Paper