Friday, March 19, 2010

notes on a small school

This started as a comment on someone's Facebook status (a friend who has just started sending her previously homeschooled kids to school), until I realised it was a) very long and b) all about me. So I thought I'd write it here instead. Sorry if it all appears a bit random.

Fred asked this week who works the most (meaning out of me and Martin) and I told her, quite honestly, 'you do'. School is intense and as we come up towards the end of term I can see Fred is tired. Our school isn't big on homework (yay), but Fred is constantly building on her skills, reading, writing, working out maths problems, partly because we encourage her to (we make her do her own tuckshop bag for instance), and partly because, like most kids, she is constantly seeking out opportunities to flex or hone these skills.

Fred really does love school. This year there are 48 kids in the school (prep-6), ten in her grade and fourteen in her class (a combined prep/1/2). In a way it kind of offers some of the supportive nurturing of homeschooling, but it is still institutional, a purpose built school with three wings of double units (all of which, I think, can be sectioned off, allowing for three or six class groupings, this year there are three).

Fred works differently at school. At home she is a very motivated 'self learner', setting herself little projects, like writing in her diary, or making books, or measuring things, but at school she responds really well to structure and routine. Her teacher says she has a quick, little mind, which is a relief because once I thought she was so impossibly scattered and flyaway that I feared she would actually fly apart into pieces like a dandelion clock.

We worried about which school to send her to (the big shiny, recently rebuilt school a short drive down the road, the smallish well set up school, a short drive down another road, or the extremely small community-minded but definitely not shiny local). The local school is struggling (you may have worked out that there is only a handful of preps and grade twos, in fact there is only one prep), though it doesn't FEEL like a school that is struggling. It feels like a school that is bursting with life, honestly, with dynamic kids and good ideas. Fred is thriving. It's only when parents and teachers get together that you feel this urgency, that the school population is dwindling, that the already small staffs' jobs could be at stake, that - for us - Una may be going to a school of 38 kids, and the next year it might be 30 kids as the older grades graduate and leave and the prep numbers stay low.

I asked Una if she minded the idea of being the only prep next year (which so far seems likely), for the present she finds the idea quite appealing. I am concerned about how this will play out longterm, one of the disadvantages of our area is that there are few regular groups organised locally, if she was to look outside of her school for a social group (Brownies, ballet etc) we have to do a lot of driving around, and she won't be mixing with kids who live a short walk away. I grew up with lots of kids within a 10 minute walk and I grieve for Una that she won't have this as part of her childhood. Oddly, it is not just that parents are taking kids out of the area for school. There's simply not that many kids Una's age in the area. I know that the positives of this are that Una will be more self-sufficient, and she is that way inclined anyway. And she will get a lot of teacher attention! She'll be able to work at her own level. And she will make friends with kids who are older or younger than her, which will present its own rewards. But isn't it sad, if she won't have the opportunity of having a best friend in her own grade, someone she can travel through the school with?

This wasn't meant to be a panic about the school (I am easily diverted into anxiety on this topic). Because we're happy there. We really are. It seemed so important which school to send Fred to, and I worried about her missing out at a small school. (By the way, the thing that clinched it for me was reading a study that said kids that go to a small school are more likely to LIKE school, which seemed an excellent foundation for further education).

I think for me the big surprise about school is how much you still 'homeschool' even when your kids go to school. Though there's lots to love about the idea of it, homeschooling full time was never an option for us, for logistical and ideological reasons. And besides, when I explained the concept of homeschooling to Fred she was visibly appalled. She learns well in a group, and benefits from the combined ages - both as peer support to the younger kids and by working with older kids. This year she is reading a year above her grade level, which is easier because she is in a blended class group. Her written comprehension is still at the same level as the other grade ones, so this is good too, she can swing between grade one and grade two work without there being any disruption. One advantage of a small school is that they can tailor to kids individual needs, while still having to remind kids that their needs aren't the only consideration - which is important too.

Sometimes I worry if Fred is Missing Out on vague, abstract things that I imagine are at bigger schools - a more immersive music education, a second language, and that Una in turn will also Miss Out. But then we go to the sport's carnival, or get a notice about an excursion the whole school is going on, or she makes a play date with a girl in grade three, or she hugs the cleaner on the way out of school, and I think about the things other kids miss out on, in bigger schools. Not that they're missing out, no one's missing out. It's just the shape of a childhood, that's all.


  1. Lots to digest here - all rational thoughts and possibly fears for what's right for a child. These decisions bear such weight, don't they? We agonised over moving town and choosing new schools and on and on it went. In the end, especially as they near the end of their schooling life, it's the life lessons, and in some ways the ones they've learned themselves that stand them in best stead. Honestly. You'll see. I'm 36 going on 60 and of four one remains at school. Two at uni, I know it will eventually be three. They just took time to get there.

  2. Grace's school is small by city standards - less than 100 kids - but it has the opposite scenario. Increased prep numbers. It's the first year for a while that there have been enough children for a single prep class. We are loving the smallness of the school, eventhough we know in the long term it will grow again. The thing I most love is that I don't think a child could get "lost" in this school. The big kids look after the little kids and everyone in the school knows everyone else. That's really important, I think. Today I spent my first afternoon as a parent helper and I wondered how one teacher would teach a much bigger class than 17 preps. Small definitely has advantages.

  3. Katie - I am sure you're right, whatever school they go to there are certain things they will learn regardless.

    Janet - I think it would be exciting to be part of a school on an 'up' cycle. Maybe this will happen for us in a few years. I love the fact that everyone in the school knows Fred and I know Fred likes that too. I think she would have been pretty miserable at Hurstbridge, where she would have been one of 100 or more preps. I'm not sure about Una though, I think she'd kind of like the efficient anonymity of a big school.

  4. We are battling with this same dilemma as next year our eldest son starts Prep. As a primary teacher I've taught in big schools (800+ students) and I know how easy it is for a kid to get lost. I've also taught in a school with 125 kids. I knew all their names, knew their brothers and sisters, knew whose grandmother had just died or whose mum had just had a baby. That's the sort of school I want for my kids. Even though there's a school 5 minutes up the road (with over 1000+ kids) we're going to drive 20 minutes in the other direction to a school with just 170 kids.I hope we're making the right decision...

  5. Our girls are going to a small school too, although like Janet's it's getting bigger in the kinder/preps (all that baby bonus money?). We thought a small school offered our kids the best chance of leaving school as confident and sure in themselves as they are going in, which is our aim for their schooling.

    Here's why I like our small school: the other day some 'big girls' strolled over to the kinder room with a box of blue tongue lizards they had brought from home to show. That easy sharing of experiences is what I want for the girls.

  6. After I wrote this blog post Martin and I went to the school assembly (we have just switched Una's childcare day so I can go every week, which I'm excited about). This week the 3/4s ran the assembly, they take it in turns, which means every three weeks it's Fred's turn. All the kids get up and speak during the term and it's big enough (kids, teachers and parents) that they can be a little nervous and small enough that they all feel supported. It's great, think about in a big school how LONG you'd have to wait for something to be your turn, how easy it would be to get overlooked over and over again.

    Though imagine the sense of achievement a kid must feel getting up in front of 800 students. That's a whole other kind of awesome.

  7. Anonymous9:36 PM

    One of my relatives is teaching at a school that is closing at the end of the year. She has a class of nine grade 1s. She's loving it. She feels more effective as a teacher than she has in years.

    None of our local schools are big, but in a few years our primary school is merging with the high school onto one campus, so there'll just be one big educational facility from go to whoah.