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The Conversation: All-through schools

Serlby Park takes pupils from 3 to 18. Dave Harris, the principal (below), believes in the benefits of all-through schooling, as he tells Geoff Barton

Q: You're principal of an all-through school. Tell us what that means.

A: Two years ago we amalgamated an infant school of 250, a junior of 300 and a secondary of 650 to make an all-age school of 1,200 pupils in Bircotes, near Doncaster. This was done for the sole reason of improving the learning opportunities of the community. We have a single leadership structure, with responsibilities spanning the phases, and are moving towards mixed-age teaching in many areas. We have an enthusiastic staff, many of whom are teaching outside the age group for which they trained. This environment helps you realise what a ludicrous system the primarysecondary one is.

Q: What does this mean in practice? If you are on different sites, does it feel like a single all-through school? If so, what did you do to achieve that?

A: Each term the school grows a more all-through feel. When I walk around the school, it is almost impossible not to see people working out of their "usual" phase. For example, Ellen Leese, who has responsibility for teaching and learning, was a Year 4 teacher; now she leads a team of secondary staff delivering a competency-based curriculum in Year 7. This inevitably gives a more primary feel to the secondary site. Each week, many secondary pupils complete some of their studies on the primary site, some acting in a "teacher" role for younger pupils.

Q: This is distinctive. As teachers, we tend to retreat to the safe bunkers of our phases and specialisms. So what was the starting point for creating an all-age school; was it philosophical or practical?

A: A mixture of the two. We get visited frequently by groups looking for help in collaboration. Some come from purely practical positions (saving money, falling rolls, and so on) and they often suffer internal resistance and lose momentum. Those who come with a philosophical approach tend to spend too much time thinking rather than doing. For us, the philosophical starting point was that there is no educational basis for separating pupils solely by age; the practical point was that we could see the common passion between the three schools, but also the distinct (and often unnecessary) differences.

Q: So what is the practical, day-to-day impact of a 3-18 school, then?

A: I think people are more ready to question everything and not just plod along the same road as they've always done. Increasingly, we are seeing pupils educated in groups assembled by need, rather than by age. The "stage, not age" philosophy is starting to emerge right across the school, from mixed-age literacy in early primary to mixed-age GCSEs. All this needs a very imaginative timetable, and lots of goodwill.

Q: For example?

A: We run a numeracy project in which high-ability Year 8 pupils have been paired with underachieving Year 6 pupils. This has been particularly effective when the pairing is Year 8 girl with Year 6 boy. It really seems to motivate the Year 6s.

Q: Even at this stage, is there any evidence of an impact on standards?

A: The indications are very positive, with next year's GCSEs looking to be the best ever by miles. However, I am nervous of any work which uses statistics to prove its success, particularly such a narrow benchmark. I would ask how having teachers collaborating across the phases can fail to benefit all aspects of the progress into happy adulthood - including achievement.

Q: In your book, Are you Dropping the Baton?, you say "transition is the biggest unsolved issue facing education". If you were in charge of education policy-making, would you make all-through schools the norm?

A: All-through isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Each community needs to find its own solution. Should it be the norm? What kind of education system are we developing if it isn't? Would you develop a construction industry where each firm specialised on building just one floor?

Dave Harris has been appointed principal of the Nottigham University Samworth Academy, which will open in September 2009. His book 'Are You Dropping the Baton?' is published by Crown House.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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