Endangered species?

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
Two systems are under threat: middle schools, which cater for 5 per cent of pupils, and the country's 100 sixth form colleges. In a three- page special report, 'The TES' asks if they are becoming...

Middle schools

MIDDLE SCHOOLS now appear a somewhat outmoded model - like that pair of old flares you are too sentimental to throw out.

Frayed at the edges and no longer the right fit, they hail from a bygone era of tank tops and glam rock. The concept of a "transitional school" - to ease the crossover from primary to secondary - slotted in well with 1970s theories on child development, and by the 1980s there were 1,500 of them.

But since the advent of the national curriculum and key stage tests at 7, 11 and 14, the concept has been largely abandoned. Only 5 per cent of children are now educated under the "three-tier" system, in 22 authorities.

Some rural councils are still clinging on to the format, while others cannot wait to be rid of it. Suffolk plans to scrap all 40 of its middle schools, ostensibly to boost school performance at all levels.

But parents and pupils fighting against the switch say it is all about money and will rip the heart out of rural communities.

So who is right? Does changing to the simpler, more brutal primary-secondary system improve children's performance? Or does it deprive pre-teens of the chance to taste secondary-style learning without the social pressures of older children?

Suffolk, using data from acdemics at York, Cambridge and Durham universities, compared test results of pupils in the west of the county, which operates a three-tier system, with the south, under a two-tier system.

They found that all pupils entered school at an above average level, but by key stage 3, GCSE and A-Level, those from middle schools had dropped behind. At key stage 2, the percentage of three-tier schools below the national average in English, maths and science was roughly double that of two-tier schools. This has been put down to the notion that a child's attainment "dips" after each transition to a new school.

Rosalind Turner, Suffolk's director for children and young people, said both sides of the county have roughly the same socio-economic profile and claimed the conclusions of the study were a "robust" argument for change.

But in areas that have already made the switch, the results are good but not so conclusive. Since Bradford switched systems in 2001, the proportion of pupils gaining the top five GCSE grades climbed 10.3 per cent between 2003 and 2006, compared with a national improvement of 5.6 per cent. But at KS2, improvements have only been average.

John McCloud, Bradford's interim chief education officer, said: "The changeover has had clear benefits, especially in making sure the age ranges align with the end of key stages and providing teachers with a greater clarity of role. The results are not definitive, but I suspect if we had carried on under the old system, we would have more cause for concern."

In Merton, in south-west London, which had scrapped all middle schools by 2002, the improvement in KS2 results over the past three years has been exactly in line with the national average. But at GCSE, improvement over the past few years was just 2.6 per cent, compared with a national average of 5.6 per cent.

Max Coates, of the London Centre for Leadership and Learning, said using the argument of improved standards was not justified. The move to the two-tier system, he said, is primarily motivated by the need to arrange schools in line with the national curriculum and to save money.

"Running a middle school system is like driving on the wrong side of the road and finding everything coming towards you," he said. "But it is a lovely environment for children and stops them having to face scary, spotted adolescents. However, it is hard to see how councils retaining the system can demonstrate value for money."

David Stradling, headteacher at Solent middle school in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, which caters for nine to 13-year-olds, said: "To dismiss them as an anachronism shows a lack of understanding of why they were created in the first place. They were supposed to address the disaffection of the 11 to 13-year-olds and concerns over behaviour in this age group. They are smaller and more friendly places, behaviour is better, and give a smooth transition."

He pointed to Ofsted scores which give 85 per cent of middle schools grade 1 or 2 for their pupils' personal development and well-being, compared with scores of only 70 per cent in secondaries.

In Dorset, three middle schools are experimenting with pupils taking their KS3 tests a year early at 13. At one participating school, St Mary's CofE in Puddletown, 84 per cent of children achieved level 5 or above in science, 82 per cent in maths, and 79 per cent in English.

Carl Winch, St Mary's headteacher, said: "Last year, we came second in the county for maths, which is outstanding. It just shows taking the tests early could be one way of making things easier."

He said middle schools give children in Years 5 and 6 access to the specialist teaching and facilities they would receive in a small rural primary.

"Because we feel under threat, there is a strong bunker mentality and sense of comraderie between the network of middle schools around the country," he said. "I feel that makes us better."

Who goes where


37,110 children under four attend 455 such schools.

Primary: 4 to 11-year-olds

4.1 million pupils attend 17,409 schools that cover key stages 1 and 2, either in a straight-through format or split into infants and juniors.

8 to 12 year olds

There are 29,950 pupils in 95 of this type of middle school.

9 to 13 year olds

There are 250 of this type of middle school catering for 106,440 pupils Secondary: 11 to 18 year olds

There are 3,155 of the conventional style of secondary school accommodating 3.2million pupils.

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