Several weeks ago, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw wrote in the New York Times that rural America should get rid of the slack in its schools and government. Tough times called for everyone to squeeze some bucks and, according to Brokaw, a sure-bet way to save money in rural America is to consolidate. Small schools should be combined and governments ought to merge. After all, Brokow wrote, couldn’t the Dakotas “get a bigger bang for their higher education buck if they consolidated their smaller institutions” into a larger system?
Probably not. The Yonder posted links to study after study finding that consolidated schools and governments rarely provide the savings proponents promise. “Simply put, the ability of consolidated government to produce the benefits promised by its proponents has not been established,” said one professor who had studied the issue. See the story here.
What we didn’t know was that research around the world was finding the same thing — that small and rural was often better and cheaper than big and consolidated.
After the Brokaw story appeared, we heard from the National Association for Small Schools, a British organization that has been around since 1978. According to its charter, “NASS promotes the work of smaller schools, those with 100 or fewer pupils. NASS believes that smallness of scale has worth.”
Mervyn Benford, an officer with NASS sent a note to the Yonder and attached some of his organization’s recent research. It was amazing to us how the latest findings in Britain and France match up with the studies of small schools here. (Just visit with The Rural School and Community Trust to find the latest on small and rural schools in America.)
The NASS takes a cultural view of the worth of small schools. The organization argues that the roles of the family and community are essential in making schools effective. Parents are “their children’s most effective educators,” Benford writes in a recent NASS report, and local “communities are significant since they are the context within which children identify with what they learn, applying it and testing it in relevant action. We MUST return education to its roots in families and communities.”
Small schools — remember, small to NASS is fewer than 100 students — “do that rather effectively,” according to Benford. Then he runs through the evidence from Europe (that sounds remarkably like the evidence from the States):
• The Scottish government reported in 2006 that children in its smallest schools had a 25% higher chance of going to college. And it found small schools helped reduce the education gap between rich and poor students. The most successful Welsh district is Ceredigion, according to Benford, which has the most small schools — and has been resisting calls from government agencies to consolidate its small schools.
• Britain’s Office for Standards in Education in 1999 found better teaching at small schools.
• The cost of transporting students to bigger schools often outweighs the cost savings found in closing smaller schools. Both the French and the Scottish governments have found this to be the case.
• “Moreover,” Benford writes, “research published in 2007 showed that the old Victorian/Edwardian school buildings found in rural areas have carbon footprints” nearly as efficient as new schools.
• Citing increased migration from urban areas to rural communities in Britain, Benford writes that “Our rural places will be needed again. Wider economic perspectives are essential. For example the school is often the only return for village taxpayers on moneys largely providing services in towns. Planning studies have shown service delivery costs less in smaller communities.”
• Buildings aren’t the essential ingredients to education, Benford writes. “We can be sure the two resources our children will still need whatever emerges are good parents and good teachers, the proper target for investment.”
You can find more information at the NASS website.
There is an ongoing debate over the value of small schools. The Gates Foundation invested heavily in reducing the size of high schools, with mixed results. “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” Bill Gates wrote earlier this year. Certainly, it takes something more than size to make a successful school.
Benford and NASS aren’t disagreeing. They are saying that, in Britain, a small local school supports what does matter in education — a vibrant community and interested parents. Closing small facilities and busing kids across the county to a large consolidated school doesn’t give parents more time with their children. And school closings hollow out communities.
True in Wales, England, Scotland, France and the U.S.