School Size and Diversity in the Senior Secondary Curriculum: A Generalisable Relationship?
Elsworth, Gerald R., Australian Journal of Education
UNDERPINNING the debate on the desirable size of secondary schools is the assumption that larger schools are able to offer a more diverse curriculum and thereby provide greater equality of educational opportunity and outcomes. A detailed study of curriculum provision at Year 12 in Victoria showed that the positive relationship between school size and the number of distinct subjects offered was generalisable across `mainstream' schools and all curriculum fields. But many small schools were able to offer a broad range of subjects, and the increase in diversity with school size was uneven across fields. Furthermore, evidence that students actually enrolled in the additional subjects offered in the larger schools was equivocal. It remains problematic whether the apparent diversity in Year 12 subject offerings achieved in the new, larger, secondary colleges in Victoria has led to a more equitable curriculum.
Pursuit of the goal of a comprehensive curriculum was, until recently, the single stated purpose of the reorganisation of secondary schools in Victoria (Ministry of Education and Training, 1989). After the election of the Kennett government in October 1992, economic arguments also became salient in policy statements (Directorate of School Education, 1993) and a new urgency entered the reorganisation processes. But the manifest goals of the policy have been retained. Centrally these goals assume that larger secondary schools make possible the diverse curriculum that is necessary to ensure equitable opportunities and outcomes for the increased number of students now continuing to the final year of schooling. In its revised version, the policy also assumes that larger schools are less expensive to operate; equity is linked with efficiency and so incorporated into an economic rationalist conception of `quality provision'.
Relevant to the renewed debate on the perceived advantages of larger schools, some recent studies in Australia and the United States have explored the relationship between high school size and the curriculum offered (Barker, 1985; Hailer, Monk, Spotted-Bear, Griffith, & Moss, 1990; McKenzie, 1988, 1992; Monk, 1987; Monk & Hailer, 1993). A positive relationship between school size and the extent of the curriculum both across and, in aggregate, within major groupings of subjects has been described, possibly attenuating as higher enrolment levels are reached. Monk and Haller (1993), however, questioned the generality of this relationship across secondary schools with different structural characteristics, and across curriculum fields, arguing that a number of `supply side' and contextual factors potentially limited the extent to which a comprehensive curriculum was achieved within particular schools and clusters of subjects. The factors discussed included, on the supply side, differences in the availability of teachers, the levels of specialisation within various subject fields available in teacher training, and the perceived effects of class size on learning outcomes. Contextual influences such as the mean socioeconomic status (SES) of parents of students, the rural/suburban/urban setting of the school and its grade configuration were also argued to be salient.
In their national analysis of the High school and beyond data, Monk and Haller (1993) showed that size-related differences in the American curriculum, as expected, differed according to school structure and subject field. The relationship between school size and the number of unduplicated course credits offered was found to be stronger in suburban schools compared with those in urban areas, and stronger in non-unionised schools. Further, the number of course credits offered was shown to increase with size in (at least) social studies, foreign language, and the performing and visual arts (mathematics was also mentioned but no data were presented). But there were differences in the rate of increase such that the percentage share of the curriculum allocated to foreign languages and the performing and visual arts increased with size whereas the share allocated to mathematics and social studies decreased. …