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Would Goldilocks prefer clusters?

30 September 2013

Purely by chance, I found myself in a small chapel, recently restored with a clutch of grants, which was open for London’s “Open House” weekend.  Assiduous readers of this blog will be aware of my commitment to Open Gardens and the interesting features that can be discovered without really looking for them. Open House does the same for architecture.

So, the little chapel is called Boone’s Chapel, on Lee High Road between Lewisham and Blackheath. It was built in 1682 for Christopher Boone, associated with his grand house and a row of alms houses.  It is seldom open to the public as it is usually in use as an architect’s office.  The story behind it is fascinating and worthy of investigation, but the interesting discussion that I had while looking round was about social groupings – how communities look after the sick and those experiencing hard times.  We talked about the optimum size for a community in order for it to have a suitable mix of people to help and be helped, and that got me thinking about schools, their communities and science education.

I happen to believe that a school can be an agent of social change.  I understand all of the mathematics about the time spent in schools compared with that spent away, but school is an intense part of our experience (one of the reasons that so many people who should know better think that they know all about schools by having attended one[1]).  In the seventeenth century, some of the Livery Companies, such as Merchant Taylors (with which Christopher Boone was associated) were setting up schools as part of their philanthropic endeavour in an attempt to effect social change.

So what has all of this to do with today?  Here, as they say, is the thing.  The current academisation of schools along with the reduction of influence, for the purposes of schools, of the Local Authorities means that individual schools are now forming optimally sized groupings so that they can provide and receive support.  These could be academy chains, for example.  Within the remaining Local Authorities “clusters” are forming.  Artificially imposed groups of schools didn’t work nearly so well in the LAs when they were too big or too small – if you think of it in terms of central provision and science education support, you can see how difficult it might be to provide appropriately across widely varying sizes of group.  In 1682, the population of the community of Lee, where the Boone’s Chapel is located, was about 200 individuals – which seemed to be the perfect size for a self-helping community in terms of social welfare.

Care is needed, though. If a grouping in the new world order is successful, there’s a temptation to let it grow. If this were to happen in one of those 17th century communities, for example some of the sick and needy might go unnoticed.  Perhaps, then, there’s a Goldilocks size for Clusters.


[1] I may have said this before…

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