Urban Village Schools

Urban Village Schools book cover
26 nov 2009

The Government’s multibillion pound Building Schools for the Future programme offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for school development and renewal, but are we simply re-housing old problems in new buildings?

Following on from his Channel 4 Dispatches programme, ‘The Children Left Behind’ (2008), former head teacher James Wetz challenges the existing orthodoxy of large schools and Academies and proposes a radical blueprint for the future of secondary schooling in a new book published today by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Urban Village Schools.

“After more than 30 years working in state education, 16 of these as a head teacher of two large secondary schools, I am convinced that the current design and organisation of many secondaries thwart our best efforts to support young people and institutionally exclude those most in need of academic enrichment,” he said. “Urban Village Schools is an urgent call for us to set aside preconceived notions and think deeply about what will work best in the interests not only of those currently marginalised but of all young people.”

Drawing on the testimonies of young people, theories of attachment and child development, and international examples of human scale education (a vision of schooling based on the premise that teachers cannot teach children well unless they know them well), James Wetz explores the factors that promote successful learning and applies them to school organisation and design – with the help of award-winning architects, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

The result is the Urban Village School – a practical, coherent, cost-effective model that could replace the current provision of large secondary schools. Based on the principles of human scale education, an Urban Village School would put relationships between staff and pupils at its heart, accepting no more than 375 pupils in all (although several schools could link together to benefit from the economies of scale), and organised so that staff teach only 75 pupils a week (compared to the 250 a week common in large schools).

Every pupil would have access to an “attachment worker” to support their progress and make links with families; the school day would be from 10 am – 6 pm (taking account of research into the biorhythms of adolescents); all “homework” would be school work, done in school hours with support from teachers; and there would be a radical approach to staff training and development. The Urban Village School would foster a powerful sense of community and a stronger commitment to academic rigour for all young people.

Andrew Barnett, director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK Branch, said: “For the past three years the Foundation has been supporting the introduction of human scale practices into selected secondary schools, convinced by growing evidence that students learn best in small-scale settings. Urban Village Schools may seem to offer a utopian vision, but in fact James Wetz’s ideas have already attracted interest from local authorities, academy leaders, parents and community groups eager to translate them into practice. We hope this book plays its part in encouraging the development of an education system that enables all young people to fulfil their potential and contribute to our society.”


James Wetz is available for interview. To request an interview, a copy of the book or for more information, please contact: Louisa Hooper at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
at [email protected] or on 020 7012 1408.


  1. Urban Village Schools: Putting relationships at the heart of secondary school organisation and design by James Wetz is published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on Thursday 26 November 2009.. Copies of the book can be ordered from www.centralbooks.co.uk. (£8.50 + p&p, ISBN 978 1 903080 11 5)
  2. James Wetz has worked for over 30 years in education, 16 of these as a secondary school Headteacher. Now an educational consultant and researcher, he is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Bristol Graduate School of Education, where he is working on rethinking the design and organisation of secondary schools on a human scale informed by ‘attachment theory’. His report Holding Children in Mind over Time was published in 2006, and in 2008 he authored and presented ‘The Children Left behind’ for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme. He has been commissioned by the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) to explore the ideas behind Urban Village Schools and their impact on Initial Teacher Training – and will publish the results in 2010. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Social Policy at the Warren House Group at Dartington, a Fellow of the RSA, a lay member of Council at Bristol University and chair of the Board of Governors of a South Bristol primary school. He has contributed to Bearing the unbearable, a film on how professional agencies can support some of our most vulnerable children, and chairs ‘The Avon Sexual Abuse Centre’ which provides for long term psychotherapy and counselling for people affected by sexual abuse. He is also a Trustee of the Richard Feilden Foundation which is developing exemplar vocational schools in Uganda, and of the Emerald Ensemble where he has been influential in designing ‘Preludes’, a seven-year programme to introduce classical music training into two primary schools in the most deprived wards in Bristol, to build primary school orchestras starting with children aged 4 years old.
  3. Urban Village Schools includes architects plans and visualisations of an Urban Village School from award winning architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Associates, www.fcbstudios.com.
  4. James Wetz’s ideas on Urban Village Schooling are part of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative’s policy for future educational change in the city. He is also developing them with schools in Wiltshire, and with the Rural Academy in Cumbria.
  5. 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. It published Schools within Schools: Human Scale Education in practice in September 2009. 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. 
  6. Human scale education is a vision of schooling based on the premise that teachers cannot successfully teach children whom they do not know well. Its central principle is that relationships must be at the heart of school organisation and design if all young people are to be enabled to fulfil their potential and contribute to a successful, cohesive society. 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 www.hse.org.uk.

Cookies settings

Cookies Selection

This website uses cookies to improve your browsing experience, security, and its website performance. We may also use cookies to share information on social media and to display messages and advertisements personalised to your interests, both on our website and in others.