Teaching `small is beautiful'. Parent-run village school offers alternate education model

`WE provide what any ordinary school provides, but also more than any ordinary school provides,'' says Satish Kumar, headmaster of The Small School in the village of Hartland, Devonshire County, on the southwest coast of England. ``In a smaller school you can provide better education, instill more self-confidence and motivation.'' Mr. Kumar, currently on a lecture tour in the United States, was describing the school he founded in 1982. The Small School is an example of ``education on a human scale,'' reflecting the philosophy of economist E.F. Schumacher, author of ``Small is Beautiful.''

A further impetus to Kumar's own educational involvement was the graduation of son Mukti - now a Small School student - from the local primary school. Secondary school pupils in Hartland (population 1,000) must ride buses 30 to 40 miles round trip to the regional school at Biddeford (school population: 1,800 students).

``Essentially, the commuting life begins at age 11,'' says Kumar, also founder of the E.F. Schumacher Society in Britain and editor of Resurgence Magazine. Kumar feels that commuting students may be intimidated by the size of regional schools and unnecessarily weaned from the flavor of small town life. He describes Hartland as ``an intact community with practically everything'' - a baker, a blacksmith, a potter, a primary school, and a playgroup. ``But if you say to older children their community is not good enough to educate them, they aren't likely to stay and improve that community.''

Christiana Rawley, doctoral candidate in international education at Harvard University, sees The Small School as part of a much larger movement:

``There's a global need for people to take control and educate in ways that make sense for their communities,'' she says. ``That holds as true for the countryside as for the city.''

At The Small School, eight part-time teachers have been drawn from the community itself, teaching subjects related to their own livelihoods, in addition to two full-time professional teachers working at half the standard pay.

For example, a local doctor teaches biology and anatomy one morning per week. A farmer supervises student work in the school garden and excursions to the Devonshire coast and wetlands. Philip Leach, grandson of the famous British potter Bernard Leach, teaches pottery and crafts.

Presently there are 25 Small School students between the ages of 11 and 16, with enrollment expected to increase again next year. The Small School does not aspire to much larger size itself. It hopes to provide a successful model for other such schools, especially in rural areas.

``If you are simply teaching a subject,'' says Indian-born Kumar, who teaches Sanskrit at the school, ``then you are not teaching children. The subject should be an excuse to bring out what is in the child.... Our point to teachers is that smaller classes [8 to 10 students] enhance their role.''

Career educator Brenda Landsdowne, for many years an education professor at Harvard, agrees with The Small School theory but points out the difficulties of wider practice. ``Of course it's a good idea, but we have to be realistic and add up the numbers.

``It's quite difficult to arrange 10 adults educating every 25 children,'' says Ms. Landsdowne, in recent years a language and education teacher in China. She points out that in England during World War II, for example, the Leicestershire group-integration method successfully educated large numbers of children despite a teacher shortage. ``Children can learn a great deal from each other with a teacher circulating group to group.''

The Small School curriculum is roughly divided in half with 2 days devoted to traditional subjects like Latin and literature, and 2 days to practical subjects such as cheesemaking, weaving, computers, building project, etc.

Each child's classes are jointly decided by parents, teachers, and the children themselves.

Unlike conventional British secondary schools, the curriculum is not geared toward the comprehensive exams that determine college admissions. ``If you want to take the exams, we will help,'' says Kumar. In fact, several Small School students are studying toward university.

Affordability is an essential criterion of The Small school. Fees are about 300 (roughly $500) per year. But as Hartland is not an affluent town, families who cannot afford the fee may provide practical payments, such as firewood or food for the school lunches that students prepare on a rotation basis.

Kumar readily concedes that a network of such small schools cannot arise without a ready source of capital, private or public or both. He hopes that the success of a few small schools will convince the British government to help fund such schools set up by parents in various communities.

Such a scheme already exists in Holland and Denmark where government provides 60 to 80 percent of funding for schools meeting minimum standards. Other small schools on the Hartland model are planned for South Wales, Liverpool, and Biddeford.

Meanwhile, the Hartland school is being monitored by Exeter University education authorities, who will report to the Devonshire County Council in two years. In September of this year a conference is planned at Oxford to launch a national movement of such small-scale education.

``What a wonderful thing for the government - to be free from the headaches of day-to-day school management,'' says Kumar, very much in the decentralist spirit of friend and mentor Schumacher. ``And the moment you involve parents you release a tremendous energy which will create vitality and diversity in education.''

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