Battle for the middle ground

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Middle schools, in my experience, are good, creative places, Sadly, however, where 25 years ago there were 1,500 middles, according to the National Middle Schools' Forum, fewer than 400 remain. Last year Northumberland, one of the last bastions of the three-tier system, voted to return to transfer at 11.

Middles came into being in the late Sixties largely to solve the bums-on-seats problems caused by the Wilson government's determination to abolish selective secondaries. Now, the tectonic plates have moved again, and middle schools are dying in the cause of surplus school places and to fit in with the national curriculum.JThere is no evidence, though, that a three-tier system gets in the way of educational progress.

Professor Peter Tymms, director of Durham university's Curriculum Evaluation and Management Centre, says: "I've looked and tried to find evidence, but there isn't anything to say that children benefit from one system or another."

That has been the argument put forward on the Isle of Wight - another remaining middle school stronghold - by a pressure group, Standards Not Tiers, that has fought successfully to prevent their system going the same way as Northumberland's. In the May council elections, the ruling Liberal Democrats, who planned to abolish three-tier schooling, were thrown out and the Tories were returned to power on a platform that includes keeping middle schools.

Parent Chris Welsford, of Standards Not Tiers, says: "We are different and we want to stay different. Middle schools and small primaries are worth preserving and will provide a good basis for improving educational standards."

The middle school battle is an example of government, local or national, apparently believing that school improvement can be accomplished by structural change. Teaching and learning, though, happen in classrooms, and that is surely where effort and resources are best directed. As Peter Tymms says: "The idea that you can suddenly switch from one system to another and then standards will improve is a mistake. Changing classroom practice requires massive effort, and changing the name on the door isn't going to do it."

National Middle Schools' Forum: www.nmsforum.co.ukStandards Not Tiers: www.freewebs.comstandards-not-tiersDurham CEM: www.cemcentre.org

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