Changing schools at age 11 could put pupils at a disadvantage in the classroom, new research shows.
A University of Virginia study reveals that grade 6 (Year 7) and grade 7 (Year 8) pupils tend to achieve better results in reading and maths in elementary school than in middle school.
And the effect was more pronounced for the younger children.
In the US state of Virginia, most pupils attend middle school for three years from age 11 to 14. But others move straight from elementary to high school at age 12 or 13 – skipping middle school altogether.
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Analysing pupil progress over three years at more than 500 schools in Virginia, the researchers also found that reading and maths scores for grade 8 (Year 9) children were higher in middle school than high school – suggesting that the process of adjusting to a new school environment may impact on performance.
While the study, published in the journal School Effectiveness and School Improvement, focused on pupils in the US, lead researcher Marisa Malone said children in other countries who change schools in their early teens may face “similar challenges”.
The impact of school transition
“The current study adds to the growing body of research that experiencing a school transition during early adolescence is associated with detrimental outcomes,” she said.
“Early adolescence is a challenging time for youth; these individuals are experiencing a host of physiological, psychological and social-emotional changes.
“At the same time, they experience the transition to middle school, which is structured very differently than elementary schools.
“If these structural changes are similar in other countries, then we may suspect that students in other countries may experience similar challenges adjusting to the new school environment.”
The researchers concluded that it might be beneficial for middle schools in the US to be eliminated altogether.
But Nigel Wyatt, executive officer of the UK’s National Middle Schools’ Forum, said it may be the age of transition, and not the three-tiered system, that is the problem.
“Middle schools in Virginia cater for 11- to 14-year-olds. This is very different to the middle schools in this country which cater for over 50,000 students between the ages of 9 and 13,” he said.
“There is a great deal of evidence that the age of 11 is just the wrong age for children to be facing a change in schooling. This is a time when children lack self-confidence as they go through puberty with all the pressures that it brings.
“Some would have you believe that three-tier systems are faulty by design and cannot produce the best outcomes for pupils. If that were the case we would see this when comparing the outcomes for students at age 16 in their GCSEs.
“In fact, when you analyse the results of students in three-tier areas their results are above those for all schools at age 16 – and this has been the case for the last three years at least.
“So, in fact, the exact opposite is the case – pupils thrive within our three-tier schools and consistently produce outcomes above the national average at age 16.”