The Victorian Labor Government has announced that it will merge four secondary schools in Shepparton and Mooroopna into a new “super school” of about 3,000 students. The merger is being strongly resisted by of the Stop Shepparton’s Super School Facebook group. A community meeting earlier this month called for an independent review of the decision. Many parents are concerned because the merger will restrict public school options in the area.
The Minister for Education, James Merlino, claims that the merger will boost student results and provide a broader curriculum. The proposal’s website says that it “will transform student outcomes”. Yet, two years after the plan was first mooted the Minister has failed to provide any evidence for his claim. When faced with a direct request for this evidence at the recent community meeting in Shepparton, the government representative couldn’t provide it. It reveals breathtaking arrogance and contempt of parents and students at the four schools who are having the lives upended by the transition arrangements.
There is good reason for this failure – there is little evidence to support the Minister’s claim!
Many studies have been conducted on the relationship between secondary school size and student outcomes over the last 30 years. The general consensus is that secondary schools should enrol between 400 and 1,000 students to provide the most effective learning opportunities. Certainly, it should be much less than the 3,000 proposed for the Shepparton super-school. Two of the schools in Shepparton are within the indicated range and a third has 1,123 students. The fourth school is in the small town of Mooroopna and has just over 300 students. It is the only secondary school in the town.
An academic review of nearly 50 studies of secondary school size and student achievement found that secondary schools serving a largely diverse and/or disadvantaged students should be limited in size to about 600 students or fewer. Each school in Shepparton/Mooroopna serves such populations. About two-thirds of the students in three of the schools and just under 50% in the fourth are from low income families. The proportion of Indigenous students in all schools is high in comparison with the State average, one school has nearly 50% of its students from a language background other than English, another has 30% of its students in this category and a third 16%.
All this suggests that the existing schools should be retained instead of being combined into a super-school of 3,000 students. This conclusion is supported by more detailed results from research studies.
The studies have variously considered the impact of school size on student achievement, results of disadvantaged students, attendance and retention rates, student engagement at school, curriculum options, extra-curricular participation, self-esteem and social behaviour.
The evidence on school size and student achievement in test scores is mixed. Some studies found that test scores increased with size, others that scores increased up to a certain size and then declined and yet others showed that student achievement declined as school size increased. Studies finding positive results between school size and test scores generally failed to take account of higher drop-out rates typically associated with large schools.
Almost without exception, studies show that small school size is unambiguously good for students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds and communities with relatively high levels of disadvantage. Small schools tend to mitigate the effect of low income and poverty on student achievement. Students from low SES backgrounds achieve higher average results and higher retention and graduation rates in smaller schools.
Most studies show that student attendance and retention rates to Year 12 are significantly better in smaller than large secondary schools. Many studies also indicate significantly stronger student engagement and self-esteem in smaller schools and greater extra-curricular participation compared with large schools. Smaller schools tend to have higher quality social interactions and students feel more connected to the school. In small schools, teachers and students have a closer relationship, and teachers are more able to respond to the individual needs of students.
Poor behaviour seems to be less of a problem in smaller schools. In small schools, teachers typically know students more closely and can identify possible discipline problems, which can be more easily and quickly addressed before they reach a crisis stage. US research has found reduced incidence of misbehaviour in smaller schools, fewer fights and incidents of serious violence, and lower rates of bullying and crime.
A common claim is that larger schools provide students with a broader range of subjects to choose from, including specialised courses, and that this improves student outcomes. However, as an OECD review of the literature on school size has noted, a small school that focuses on a few core and high quality courses can also achieve high student outcomes, and much of the material covered in specialised courses in large schools can also be taught at regular courses in small schools. The research indicates that there is no reliable relationship between school size and curriculum quality, and that the strength of this relationship decreases as schools become larger.
The idea that creating separate units within the super-school overcomes the problems associated with very large schools is outmoded. Similar experiments with schools-within-schools in the United States 20-30 years ago proved to be spectacular failures. A major study found no improvement in student results in such schools and that they led to increased stratification of students by race, academic ability, and socio-economic status. One evaluation found that newly created stand-alone small high schools had more beneficial social and academic climates than existing schools that were converted to schools-within-schools.
The Victorian Government’s claimed benefits of the Shepparton super-school should be subjected to an independent review as proposed by the Shepparton/Mooroopna community. The Minister’s refusal to set up a review is indicative of the Government’s arrogant dismissal of the needs of families and students in the region.
This article is based on the findings of the following studies on school size and school outcomes:
Abalde, Macareena Ares (2014), School Size Policies: A Literature Review, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 106, OECD Publishing, Paris, November.
Abdulkadiroğlu, Atila; Hu, Weiwei & Pathak, Parag A. (2013), Small High Schools and Student Achievement: Lottery-Based Evidence from New York City, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, October.
Hanover Research (2015), Impacts of School and Class Size on Student Outcomes, January.
Humlum, Maria Knoth & Smith, Nina (2015), The Impact of School Size and School Consolidations on Quality and Equity in Education, EENEE Analytical Report No. 24, European Expert Network on Economics of Education, July.
Lee, Valerie E. & Ready, Douglas D. (2007), Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform, Teachers College Press, New York.
Leithwood, Kenneth & Jantzi, Doris (2009), A Review of Empirical Evidence About School Size Effects: A Policy Perspective, Review of Educational Research 79(1): 464-490.