Sunday, 22 September 1996

Rural schools; a blueprint for the next millennium?

I've returned a lot to the simple idea that geographical economies of scale no longer determine ideal school size. With ICT we shouild be able to support tiny, as well as substantial, school sizes all effectively. I wrote and presented a very short TV programme for Channel 4 showing how the School of the Future could easily be a rural primary school.. and had a huge mailbag as a result. ALL supportive of the idea of course.

Anyway, this was one such bit of writing... for a big SCET conference in Scotland. I wrote it more than ten years ago in 1996.
This short video is rather relevant too!

In most of rural Scotland, and elsewhere on mainland Europe, there are small schools, each deeply embedded in their local community. Their existence starkly contrasts with the huge urban and regional schools that grew up through the 1960's. The rural homes and communities around them contrast with the vast 'new housing' tower blocks that also sprounted in that era.

The tower blocks seemed like a good idea at the time; they were cheap, they seemed to offer a new and modern way to live and of course strong demographic currents threw up a need for them. Unfortunately it turned out that most (but not all) were unpleasant places to live. The traditional community where young supported old and old passed wisdom and experience back to young was broken up. And now we are demolishing them. The vast new schools we created also needed new structures, organisational ones. The old vertical pastoral system, where young chased the role models of older students and these older students reinforced and revised their own understanding by explaining to younger ones, was replaced by huge horizontal year structures. Traditional learning communities and strategies were broken up in the name of economies of scale, and the modern school emerged. The parallels between tower blocks and large schools are clear. But has information technology removed some of our reasons for building these vast schools?

At the time, there were compelling reasons to build these huge schools: how could we offer examination level Russian in a school of only 400? Where would we find a specialist for Higher level economics? And anyway, the pressures of demography were considerable. But suddenly, as we approach the end of the 1990's, we find that information technology is also communication technology; the need to create the critical mass of students that allows broad curriculum choice does not depend of a common geographical location. We can connect them together in different places. Students as far apart as Australia and Scotland are busy proving that technology can bring learners together in a way that is sociable, affordable and plausible. Whether it is the vast distances of the outback or the remoteness of our highlands and islands, a copper wire (or better still, dark fibre) with a handful of silicon offers a stark challenge to much that we had uncritically accepted about the way we have managed learning in the last 40 years or so. It may just be that with the disadvantage of size solved by technology, the small rural school, heading for extinction a decade ago, now offers the blueprint of future learning organisations and institutions.

It is clear from many on line learning experiments around the world (as SCET saw earlier than most with their Contact and eCademy initiatives) that electronic communication does a lot more than simply circumvent the problems of distance and remoteness. The opportunity to reflect before offering your comments, coupled with the chance to review others' contributions, has helped to generate electronic learning environments that are genuinely delightful. Teachers and students within them find that, freed from the indicators of age and status that are normal in our schools, a modeless learning develops where young and old work together when their interests and needs coincide and where teachers are happy to learn from and with students. In a large school, where it is possible to find whole rooms full of children where their immediate learning community is determined by a birth date that falls between two Septembers, this modeless learning may sound radical; however, in a tiny school on the West coast of Scotland this just sounds like everyday life and again it is to tiny schools that we must look for the skills and strategies to make the most of the new collaborative and intimate learning environments that technology is offering us. Interestingly enough, as children from our large schools begin to link electronically with each other the questions they ask most frequently are about "How old are you?" and "Are you a boy or girl?", but as they become more experienced on-line learners these questions diminish because they matter less than questions like "Are you interested in Viking?".

Yet another area where Scotland's smallest schools have something to teach the world is in the relationship with the home. Again, information technology is changing the playing field. Everyone from the traditional publisher to the digital broadcaster will confirm that home learning is the growth market of the new millennium. With 17 million households compared to less than 30,000 schools it is easy to see why they are keen! Already the sales of 'educational' CD-ROMs to home far outstrip the sales to schools. How we respond to, and harness, the potential of many homes equipped with learning technology (and how we handle the social equity issues of the "have nots") is a genuine cause for debate and concern. Again in the very large school we see a one way export of learning from the 'expert', the school. Schoolwork is taken home as homework and the wealthier parents try to build microcosms of the school with little desks in children's bedrooms. But every teacher in a small school will tell you the same story. Their school is not the only source of learning; learning in the community and the family is especially important and the small school plays a key role in offering a central place where that learning can be shared, evaluated and celebrated. If we are to realise the full potential that technology offers us for learning outside our traditional educational institutions then once again it is the model offered by our tiny rural schools that may offer the best hope: small schools never try to 'own' learning precisely because they are too small to do so. Yet their role at the heart of the learning community is undisputed. The explosion of home learning that technology has brought means that, eventually, large schools too will be unable to 'own' learning, yet they also need a role in the new learning community.

Economic progress has a habit of destroying the things we need for our future in a frantic attempt to bury the past. Tower blocks destroyed the very communities that we are now frantically trying to recreate. We must be careful to ensure that we don't make the same mistake with our learning communities. Information technology and telecommunications allow us to rethink the way we organise learning and we desperately need working and effective models. Scotland at least, has plenty of places to where we can look. It is a huge advantage.

© Stephen Heppell 1996