Small schools making a big impact - Education Matters Magazine
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Small schools making a big impact

Small schools are becoming a bigger part of Queensland’s independent schooling sector.

In 2020 they made up 39 percent of the sector’s 222 schools, up from 35 percent in 2010.

Schools are considered small if they have 300 or fewer students in a combined primary-secondary setting or 200 or fewer in a stand-alone primary or secondary setting.

Staff from 26 members of this growing small school contingent and representatives from five potential new schools came together this week to explore the successes, challenges and future of small schools at the 7th annual Small Schools Forum hosted by Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ).

ISQ Executive Director David Robertson said small schools were a significant and growing part of Queensland’s diverse independent schooling sector.

“The majority of new independent schools opening their doors are smaller community-led schools with a particular educational philosophy or specialist schools for children and young people who’ve experienced disruptions or challenges in their education,” he said.

“However, there is also a group of established independent schools that are small by design and intentionally keep their student numbers low in line with their educational philosophy or mission.”

According to analysis of 2020 enrolment data almost 70 percent of independent schools that enrol only primary or secondary students are small, compared with 27 percent that cater for both.

Today forum participants are visiting three of the sector’s smaller established schools – The River School, Caboolture Montessori School and Blackall Range Independent School – to see their environments, operations and curriculum approaches first-hand.

The River School, located in the Sunshine Coast hinterland township of Maleny, has grown to 160 primary school students since opening its doors in 1995.

Principal Ann Donoghoe said being a small school was “central to the building and maintaining of community with our families”.

“Authentic connection, supportive relationships and the creation of a family atmosphere are the basis on which we have established a strong school foundation that all children should feel safe, happy and free to learn,” she said.

“A small school allows you to truly support the individual development of the whole child – academically, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Our children know they belong to a community of love.”

After 21 years of operation Caboolture Montessori School recently celebrated its 1000th enrolment.

The primary school currently has 250 students and intends capping numbers at 300.

In response to community demand, the school plans to commence an adolescent program in 2024-25.

Principal Yvonne Rinaldi said the size of the school yields a strong sense of community and encourages families to engage with staff and others.

“Students become known by all staff, thus supported by every adult in the environment. Small is not cozy. Small makes the school highly responsive to stakeholders,” she said.

Rinaldi added that the school “adapts sustainably to the child’s developing world with proven approaches to topics such as undisturbed concentration, its instruction around collaboration and choice, and the importance it places on movement to facilitate learning”.

Blackall Range Independent School opened its doors in 1975 with 15 primary students.

Now 46 years later the Sunshine Coast hinterland school has more than 90 students from Prep to Year 12.

Principal Louise Cameron said despite significant parent interest in recent years, the school had decided “to keep enrolments growing gradually so class sizes remain between 12 to 16 students”.

“This ensures that each child has a close working relationship with their teacher and programs can be tailored to meet the individual needs of students,” she said.

Cameron highlighted that parents value the school’s holistic approach to education where the social-emotional wellbeing of their child is nurtured alongside their academic growth.

“The school has a wonderful caring and inclusive culture where students feel accepted, celebrated for who they are and are heard. The teaching is flexible, creative and innovative with real life learning opportunities happening wherever possible. Parents love how they are welcomed into the school community along with their child. Education is truly a joyful experience at Blackall Range Independent School,” she said.

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