School size: A literature review

by Deborah Nusche
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

How big should schools be?

Is bigger better? Or do all the best things come in small packages? For education systems, the question of how school size influences quality and efficiency has long been an important issue. It has become especially pertinent in recent decades, as fiscal pressures and a falling school population in rural areas have meant that countries are looking for the best way for their schools to be effective.

A new OECD working paper on school size policies, published today, shows that there are many ways in which school size may influence learning environments. Small schools make personal contact easy and are often strongly defended by local communities, while larger schools can provide more options to meet a diverse range of interests and needs. Sometimes, due to demographic or geographical challenges, there may be little choice regarding decisions on school size. But disadvantages can be offset, whether through connecting small schools using ICT, or through providing incentives to make larger schools more attractive for teachers and students.

Australia, for example, has used technology to help small schools in rural areas connect with each other through blogging, emailing and engaging in collaborative projects. This has reportedly led to students being more excited about their learning and more motivated to work. In Korea, where over a third of schools have fewer than 60 students, there has been a focus on consolidating schools in rural areas. The process involved many challenges, but due to targeted investments, many of these consolidated schools have thrived and are now attracting students even from urban areas.

In a time of fiscal constraints, consolidating schools is an appealing policy option for governments under pressure to reduce spending. Large schools are often seen as more efficient than small schools: they can use facilities to full capacity, buy large amounts of materials at lower cost and hire support staff to reduce the administrative burden on teachers. But such calculations often forget about hidden costs of consolidation such as increased transportation cost and time for staff and students. There is also evidence that the student body in large schools is often divided with some students taking full advantage of the broader learning options and others not participating at all. Younger students and those from less advantaged families are more vulnerable and may disengage when lacking personalised attention.

While, certainly, there is no “one size fits all approach”, there is much that can be learned from existing research and experience in different countries. This new literature review draws attention to the many factors to be considered when making decisions about school size. What are the transport and cost implications? How can interested parties become informed and engaged in the process? Will the effects of school size changes be different for differing school populations? What type of additional care would be necessary to support those affected by the change? Including such elements in the planning process will help make the full costs and benefits of school size changes transparent and support a constructive debate among stakeholders.

This paper is the first in a series of literature reviews looking at the use of resources in OECD school systems to be published in the coming months.

School Resources Review – Background papers and studies
Photo credit: Art Supply, An Illustration Different Size of Sharpened Detailed Pencils for Writing or Sketch and Draw A Picture /@Shutterstock

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