Growing up, my daughter aspired to great heights. Literally, that is. She aspired to be tall, and looking at her father’s side of the family, she believed the odds were in her favour. For better or for worse, the other half of her gene pool – from my much shorter side of the family –conspired against her, and she topped out at 5’3” (almost). Over time, she came to see her below-average height as a positive thing, and she now refers to her small stature as “fun sized” – a rather apt description, as it turns out.
In a world that seems to super-size everything, it’s worth considering that bigger is not always better. There are, in fact, benefits to being small. That goes for schools, as well. A significant body of research points to the multiple advantages offered by “small schools”, a term researchers typically use to refer to schools with a population of less than 300 students. While larger schools might offer more in terms of physical space, course offerings, facilities, or even playing fields, it turns out that bigger is not better in the world of academics. The outward appearance of things being superior doesn’t hold up upon closer examination, and in fact, the number of areas in which small schools have a measurable advantage is significant.
Research tells us that small schools outperform larger ones in five key areas: relationships; students; teachers; administration; and teaching and learning. How does this manifest itself in the day-to-day operations of the school? At Trafalgar Castle, the small-school advantage is evident from the moment you enter the school and feel the warmth of the community.
Small schools more easily put students at the centre of all they do in a way that large schools simply cannot. When you’re part of a small school, for better or worse, everyone knows you. It’s common at our school for the entire faculty to talk about ways to support a struggling student, or suggest strategies for bringing a quiet one out of her shell, or brainstorm opportunities for a girl who we believe needs a bigger challenge. We can do this because we see the girls in a variety of contexts – in chapel, on the playing field, in the dining hall – not just in the classroom. So we get to know them as multi-faceted individuals. When challenges or opportunities arise, we come together with a sense of shared responsibility and look for creative and individualized solutions to help each girl thrive.
Small schools build community in ways very different to their larger counterparts. Our students from Grades 5 to 12 spend time together every day, walking through the halls, attending chapel, and eating together every lunch hour. The integrated structure of our school and the natural rhythm of our day allow our youngest girls to watch and learn from our older students. The younger girls benefit from the role modeling of the senior girls, and learn by example the importance of responsibility, compassion and (hopefully) how to wear your uniform well. Our senior girls benefit as well, developing skills in mentoring younger ones, showing our junior grade students that public speaking is a natural thing or giving “big sister” advice to our Grade 7s and 8s as they navigate those tricky middle years. Watching a young girl’s face light up when a Grade 12 greets her by name and gives her a high-five in the hall is priceless. The school-wide personal connections that small schools create allow a tightly knit community filled with warmth and authenticity to flourish, providing students with a sense of security and belonging.
Leadership is another area where small schools can hold an advantage. As the math might suggest, fewer students means more opportunities. For teams, clubs and activities to thrive, everyone learns to step up. Students may be more likely to make the soccer team, earn a coveted role in the school play, or head up the robotics club. Involvement in school activities becomes an expected part of school culture, resulting in higher levels of student engagement.
It’s important to note that in order to benefit from the small school advantage, a school has to be well run. Simply being small doesn’t mean you’re great; but a small school that gets it right represents the best of the best. I’m proud of the efforts we make at Trafalgar to be the best that we can be. We aspire to great heights, while proudly embracing the joy of being small but mighty.