Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Small schools and multiple criteria

The county of Devon, where I live, has many areas where there are small villages and few towns. The population is concentrated in the towns and cities, but a significant number of people live in the villages and commute, or work locally. Today there has been some discussion about the provision of education for children and a report about Devon has identified several primary schools with fewer than 30 children in the whole school (age 5 to 11) and one secondary school with less than 500 children. The report raises the question about the viability of such schools, based on the cost per capita. Fairly obviously, education is an area where there are economies of scale -- you need a couple of teachers at least in each school, you need buildings and these must be heated and lit whther there are 10 children or 50.

So should small schools be closed and the pupils transferred to larger ones, where the cost per child will be smaller? I suggest that this would make an interesting question for an examination on multiple criteria optimisation or soft systems. There are other factors than the cost per capita to consider. Schools in small communities are a social focus for those communities. Families and children belong to them. What are the effects on children if they have to spend an extra hour at each end of the school day in travel?

Listening to the radio discussion this morning reminded me, once again, that operational research needs to be multidisciplinary. The figures matter, but behind those figures are people with needs and aspirations that cannot be measured.