Schools within Schools

14 sep 2009


The past decade has seen a dramatic growth in the size of secondary schools. There are now 25 schools with more than 2,000 pupils in England and a further 263 with more than 1,500 – twice as many as a decade ago. Large schools are cost effective and can offer wide curricula. But with education still failing many children at many levels, is big really best for secondary school students?

In Schools within Schools, award-winning education writer Wendy Wallace follows the progress of a group of English secondaries as they introduce innovative ‘human scale’ approaches to tackle the alienation and underachievement too often associated with large and impersonal schools.

Inspired by the principles of human scale education – a vision of schooling based on the premise that teachers cannot teach children successfully whom they do not know well – and with funding from the Human Scale Schools* project, these pioneering schools are introducing a range of measures that aim to put relationships at their heart.

At Brislington Enterprise College in south Bristol, for example, a new building constructed on human scale lines encompasses five ‘mini-schools’ of no more than 300 individuals and each student belongs to a ‘learning family’ of around ten students who meet daily with a learning guide. John Matthews, head teacher at Brislington, said: “We’ve decided to use the human scale education model in order to raise the bar, close the gap. We want to provide the highest level of care for each individual. But equally that has to be about enabling students to achieve at the highest possible academic standards.”

At Lister Community School in east London they tackle the difficult primary to secondary transition by ensuring that each new student has no more than a handful of teachers who teach them largely in one ‘base’ room. Martin Buck, head teacher at Lister, said: “We want strong relationships with fewer adults, who get to know young people in the round and have the ability to praise, reward, go through crises – and still come out with a learning agenda, because we’re not social services.”

The results are impressive: better relationships between students and teachers, improved attendance, fewer exclusions and incidents of bullying and increased parental involvement, not to mention children who feel more supported and secure.

But in a political climate that appears to value improvements in exam results above all else, will these attempts to find a new way forward succeed? Wallace’s visits to the schools and frank interviews with the teachers, students and parents involved reveal the daily difficulties and triumphs of bringing significant change to school life.

Andrew Barnett, director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch, said: “If we are to avoid condemning a generation of young people to social and educational dislocation, we need to move beyond narrow questions of governance towards something more fundamental and important: how should schools be configured, what should they look and feel like, how should they work? The government’s Building Schools for the Future programme also provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address some of these issues.”

The schools featured in the book are among 39 large secondary schools across England funded to develop along human scale lines by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in partnership with the charity Human Scale Education, as part of the Human Scale Schools project.

“Before I came, I was a bit nervous about being in big school…you feel you might get bullied. We got to know everyone within about two or three weeks because we were in our base room so much. It was good for everyone.”
12-year-old student at Lister Community School, east London

“With [the] smaller communities…everyone’s in it together and they grow together. There’s not that intimidation, where you’re just swallowed up.”
Parent of 11-year-old student at Brislington Enterprise College, Bristol

“Small is better. Teaching is 75 to 80 per cent about relationships. If you know people, you can influence them. When do kids get in trouble? When it’s [teachers] they don’t know.”
Teacher at Brislington Enterprise College, Bristol


  1. The *Human Scale Schools project (2006-9) aimed to support state secondary schools across the UK to develop human scale principles and practices, including the restructuring of large schools into mini-schools. It was established in 2006 by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in partnership with the educational charity Human Scale Education, and was also supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. For further information, please visit
  2. Wendy Wallace is an experienced education writer and has contributed to numerous national newspapers and magazines. As a feature writer for the Times Educational Supplement she wrote extensively on leadership, social affairs in education, and education policy and practice. In 2001, she was Education Journalist of the Year. Her book on life in an inner city primary school, Oranges and Lemons, was published by Routledge in 2005 and her book on abandoned children in Sudan – Daughter of Dust – by Simon & Schuster, in 2009.
  3. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s purpose in the UK and Ireland is to help enrich and connect the experiences of individuals and secure lasting and beneficial change. One of its current aims is to support imaginative interventions that help build relationships and reduce social exclusion – with a particular focus on young people in school. The Foundation was established in Lisbon in 1956. The UK Branch, based in London, has for more than 50 years initiated and supported pioneering educational, social and cultural developments.
  4. Human Scale Education is an educational charity set up in 1985 with the aim of promoting small, human scale learning communities within the state maintained and independent sectors of education. Human scale learning environments can foster the positive relationships that enable teachers to know their students well and make possible a more holistic approach to learning that engages the whole person. For further information please visit


Wendy Wallace is available for interview and interviews can be arranged with the head teachers and other staff members featured in the book, as well as those involved with the Human Scale Schools project.

To request an interview, a copy of the book or for more information, please contact:

Laura Smith at [email protected] or on 07811 218 621, or

Felicity Luard or Danielle Meiners at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
at [email protected] or [email protected] or on 020 7012 1415.

Schools within Schools: Human scale education in practice by Wendy Wallace, photographs by Mike Goldwater, is published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The book can be downloaded free from this website. Copies of the book (£8.50 + p&p, ISBN 978 1 903080 12 2) can be ordered from

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