Soaring Auckland secondary school rolls may force more parents to look at options outside the state system, a leading educationalist believes.
Clarence van der Wel, a senior executive with ACG Education which operates four independent schools in New Zealand, thinks student numbers will continue to grow: "We have to accept this, and as a result I believe parents may start looking at alternatives for their children in private schools."
His comments come as 2018 Ministry of Education figures show two Auckland secondary schools now have rolls over 3000 and at least another ten have more than 2000 students.
Auckland student numbers (including primary schools) grew by over 75,000 between 1996 and 2018, rising from 202,600 to 278,336. This has put increasing pressure on school infrastructure, particularly primary schools, with reports that in recent years some have been forced to erect temporary classrooms on fields or set up space in staffrooms, libraries and, in one case, an old dental clinic.
van der Wel questions whether large rolls are good for students. "Years ago people thought a roll of 1600 was big, so perhaps we should now be asking, 'how big is too big'?"
However van der Wel, who is CEO Schools and Early Learning at ACG, says his comments are not meant to be taken as criticism of state schools which, he believes, do a good job in educating young people. Rather he sees them as part of a debate about what is an optimum school roll level.
"I would go further and say the issue is really one of how can we provide a quality education for students? If schools get too big education can become less personal making it harder to ensure the needs of all students are being met," he says. "We don't want to find ourselves in a situation like in China where you see schools with up to 10,000 students."
In very large schools it can be easy for students "on the fringes" to slip through the cracks and become somewhat anonymous, a situation van der Wel fears could lead to a greater incidence of problems such as failing to identify a need for support or bullying not being seen and therefore not addressed.
The issue has long been debated around the world. In Canada a 2007 review by Simon Fraser University, a public research university in British Columbia, found "a growing consensus that small schools not only have an academic achievement advantage, but promote character development, emotional stability among their students, higher attendance, lower dropout rates and safer schools."
The review also noted the schools create higher levels of job satisfaction for teachers as well as increased public confidence and parent satisfaction.
"Most importantly, small schools improve educational outcomes," it said. "Students from small schools tend to complete more years of higher education and score higher on standardised tests."
And in 2010 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - in a project known as the Small Schools Initiative - determined that "mega" US high schools with as many as 4500 students were found to be breeding apathy, sapping students' motivation to learn and the commitment of teachers.
Although the initiative also concluded there is no guarantee small schools in and of themselves will create good climates, "smaller schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and teachers that motivates them to work harder."
Meanwhile van der Wel says the four ACG schools - which run classes from pre-school to Year 13 - generally have no more than 100 students at each year level.
"Some large schools have up to 600 per level which is a big number," he says. "My concern is that it becomes difficult to ensure quality."
He says smaller numbers mean ACG teachers can get to know the names of all students in the school, not just those in their class. This, he believes, creates a sense of community - and conditions beneficial to their academic, social and emotional development.
"Their school becomes an anchor, especially as they get to the turbulent adolescent years," he says.
"Because we can be with them from Year 1 (and sometimes from pre-school), we are able to track their learning journey and early on recognise any weaknesses; we can closely monitor their social development and help them become well-adjusted, well-rounded young people.
"More importantly, early intervention means we're in a better position to remove any barriers to learning."
van der Wel says in the state system students go through big changes at Year 7 (when they go to intermediate school) and again at Year 9 (secondary school) "so a lot of information about them is lost at that stage, as is the all-important knowledge of the student as an individual."
"By moving to new schools, students also need to form new friendship groups and for some this can be quite unsettling."