Bring back schools for all age groups

1st May 2009 at 01:00

Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson prioritised presentation over content in politics. Alas, the spin-doctors' pernicious influence also affected education. The phrase "a 3-18 curriculum" sounds attractive, with its implications of continuity, progression and growth. As used, it is meaningless.

My school and its associated primaries and nurseries worked for a week on the theme of Scotland. It was an excellent pilot in cross-curricular and cross-sector working, but what was taught in the nurseries, primaries and in the secondary was very different in content, method and intended outcomes. The relationships which underpinned the teaching were fundamentally different, shaped by the age, maturity and understanding of the children involved.

Brian Boyd recently asked in these pages if A Curriculum for Excellence was emperor's new clothes, hinting at the concerns being spun by its supporters. He also asked why the primary-secondary transition was so difficult, repeated arguments against children moving from one teacher in P7 to 13 or 14 in S1 and that a more gradual transition might make learning more seamless and less traumatic. Boyd asked if we needed a 10-14 curriculum.

This is not a new concept: the English Plowden report advocated middle schools in 1967. They are the norm in New Zealand and many parts of the United States. They were proposed for Grangemouth by Stirlingshire (and ultimately implemented by Central Region from 1974) and they exist in parts of England, including Bedfordshire, Dorset and Suffolk.

Middle schools offer a secure environment, continuing the scale and broad educational experience of the primary. English research indicates that the rates of disaffection and exclusions are lower in middle-school systems. They support cross-curricular learning with each child experiencing perhaps five or six teachers, but increasing specialisation. They allow young people to mature in stages and avoid the pressures on "tweenagers" to grow up too quickly. They allow children to enter the turmoil of adolescence in a more supportive environment than secondaries offer. The removal of 11 and 12-year-olds would allow secondaries to be more adult environments and avoid imposing the rules and order necessary for adolescents on young adults.

The Grangemouth experiment, based at Abbotsgrange and Moray middle schools, ended in 1988 because of falling rolls, as have some south of the border. One of the main arguments for middle schools, that they are smaller and on a more human scale, can also be their Achilles' heel in periods of demographic decline.

He also argued that the structures of schooling, timetables and school organisation should not dictate the curriculum, but that the curriculum should shape structures. Perhaps the emotional and maturational needs of children should also shape educational structures.

Schools for young children, schools for adolescents and schools for young adults make sense. A 3-18 curriculum makes sense if we break it into its constituent parts: 3-4 nurseries, 5-9 primaries, 10-14 middle schools and 15-18 high schools. Worth a thought.

Alex Wood is seconded head of Tynecastle High, Edinburgh.

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