How many pupils is too many?

Lunch at Ocklynge Junior School takes an hour and a half for the 840 pupils Credit: ITV Meridian

All things Titanic are in the headlines at the moment - including our schools. Defined as a primary with more than 800 puils and a secondary that tops 2,000, the number of so-called Titan schools is on the up - and beginning to make waves.

Figures from the Department for Education show that there are now 22 primary schools in England on a Titan scale. "Going up to big school" is starting to take on a whole different meaning.

It used to be that your average primary school took one new class of 30 each year. But as schools expand to cope with rising demand for primary places due to rising birth rates, three and four classes of four and five year olds starting school together are becoming more common. With 350,000 extra primary school places to find within the next three years, they could become the norm.

But is it good for very small children to belong to a giant school community? Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham thinks not.

"How does it look from the child's point of view? Frightening. It is a very big step to move from the comfort and security of the home to mixing in the social world of the school. Surely a better way forward would be small schools close to people's homes with one headteacher in charge of a group of them."

Along with others, Professor Smithers questions if you really can provide a nurturing and caring environment on such a massive scale.

Mark Trott, head of Ocklynge Junior School at Eastbourne in East Sussex thinks the answer to that is a resounding yes. His is the largest junior school in Europe - it's ranked as outstanding, has a long waiting list - and he sees no issue over supersized schools.

He should know, having taught at both ends of the size spectrum. Ocklynge Junior has 839 pupils taught in classes of 35 children - his previous school was a small school with just 150 children.

"I think it's a cultural thing. In this country for some reason we seem to think that big is bad when it comes to school yet there are many countries around the world where there are extremely large and successful schools and no one gives it a second thought.

"The important thing is what you are doing as a school for your children - not how many children you are doing it for."

Playtimes are staggered at Ocklynge Junior School which has 840 pupils

Brighton & Hove already has primary schools with five and six class intakes. The authority's head of children's services, Sue Shanks (Green party) told me recently she thinks young children don't notice the size of school they are in. In her experience they only identify with their own class and their own class teacher.

"Most primary schools now have three or four separate playgrounds with different children going out at different times. They're not all thrown together at the same time. "

But is that really the way things should be at primary level? Isn't the strength of the primary school community that it is just that - a community where you actually CAN have a full school assembly and kids from different year groups rub along in the playground together quite happily?

For pupils who don't have loads of siblings surely this socialisation across the key stages is a key stage of being at school? And you've got to guess that it reduces the potential for bullying and increases the chance of the older children becoming mentors and role models.

Of course there are good things about big schools - a bigger budget to ring the changes on for starters - more options when it comes to mixing classes within years to get the balance of personalities right. Employing a full time music or PE specialist becomes an option.

But overall do the disadvantages outweigh the positives? Expect much more debate in the months to come about whether size really does matter.

Christine Alsford talks to pupils at their supersize school