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Secondary school size: a systematic review

What do we want to know?

In England schools can theoretically expand or contract in size in accordance with parental preference, and in the USA there is an active ‘small schools advocacy’ movement which has a high media and political profile.  How do the outcomes for schools of different sizes differ in OECD countries?

Who wants to know?

Parents and policy-makers have given this issue considerable attention in recent years.

What did we find?  

  • For some outcomes larger schools appear to be better, for other outcomes smaller schools seem better.

  • The larger the secondary school, the better pupils’ results and attendance, but only up to a certain size of school. The estimates of the ideal size range from about 600 to 2000 students.

  • Pupils felt less engaged with larger schools.

  • Teachers felt less happy with the climate in larger schools.

  • Some kinds of violent behaviour rose as school size increased while other kinds of violent behaviour increased as school size decreased.

  • Costs per pupil decreased as school size increased.

Because of the research methods used, all these results should be considered tentative.

What are the implications?

The results of the review suggest that there is little good-quality research evidence to justify policies that aim to change or mandate particular school sizes. However, as there do appear to be optimal sizes for some outcomes, stakeholders should be made aware that dramatic changes in a school’s size may change the characteristics of its learning environment.

How did we get these results?

The review synthesised the results of the published research from 31 studies on the effects of secondary school size from OECD countries since 1990.

This summary was prepared by the EPPI Centre

This report should be cited as: Garrett Z, Newman M, Elbourne D, Bradley S, Noden P, Taylor J, West A (2004) Secondary school size: a systematic review. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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