Marriage on the rocks

27th June 1997 at 01:00
All over the country, small infant and junior schools are joining forces. In moves planned partly to ease budgetary restrictions, partly to raise standards, local authorities are pushing ahead with mergers, convinced by research that economies of scale and consistency of education can be achieved by administrative renewal. Not everyone agrees.

On June 12 the London borough of Tower Hamlets decided not to go ahead with its planned amalgamation of infant and junior schools. In the face of opposition from parents, teachers and governing bodies, who felt the plan was hasty and ill-conceived, councillors backed down and shelved their proposals.

Earlier this year, council officers had considered research suggesting that amalgamation confers the benefits of continuity in teaching and learning styles, wider coverage of the national curriculum, consistency in school policies, the sharing of space and resour-ces, and the management of only one budget. Making the school more parent-friendly was also a consider-ation, one that seems to have backfired, since anxious parents were a major force in getting the proposals thrown out. Parents, it seems, prefer what they know.

Opponents claimed the plan would save no more than #163;280,000 out of a combined budget of #163;9.9 million for the eight schools in question and would cause unnecessary upheaval. They pointed to neighbouring Newham and Hackney, both boroughs with a policy of amalgamation, which have now fallen below Tower Hamlets to the bottom of the infant league tables. Lewisham and Wandsworth, south London boroughs which are going ahead with mergers, are tackling only smaller schools, having decided that three-form-entry primaries are too big. Not only do opponents of merger decry the supposed educational benefits, they also voice anxiety about the consultation process. For the governing body of Blue Gate Fields Infant and Junior Schools in Tower Hamlets, the process has caused "turmoil" in the local community. Destroyed by fire in 1992 and rebuilt as two schools specifically to raise attainment, its staff were concerned that the gains of the past few years would be lost. So what are the arguments for and against merging?

For Mara Chrystie, head of Hermitage School in Tower Hamlets, the issue is size. Her school is a 3-11 primary, but it has only one-form entry. "It is better to know all the children by name," she says. "Knowing the children, knowing their families, that's a big advantage." Her school has 245 children, which prompted a visiting French infant teacher to exclaim, "This is a big school. In France we would have no more than 100 of this age." In England, however, small schools are seen as expensive to run, with no economies of scale. Fewer teachers means, too, less chance of delivering a broad curriculum.

Jane Wakefield, an experienced supply teacher in east London, sees these curriculum issues as less important than the calm and order which is often achieved in a small infant school, where "an ethos of caring" can offset the often stressful experiences of children's lives. So beneficial can these small schools be, Ms Wakefield believes, in giving support and individual attention to young children, that it would be wrong and wasteful to amalgamate them for the sake of a possibly illusory educational gain such as continuity. Does continuity depend on children staying in the same building?

Mrs Chrystie sees big advantages in having the whole age range under one educational roof. "We have Year 6 pupils reading with little ones," she says. "It's mutually beneficial, not just socially but educationally. It's very good for literacy and self-esteem."

Critics of merged primary schools often point to the intimidating behaviour of juniors in the infant playground. Mrs Chrystie acknowledges that this can be a problem, one which they address at Hermitage School by running a One O'clock Club, where infants come in and play for the last 30 minutes of their lunch break.

Infant teachers worry not only that playtimes will be difficult but that the pressure of the national curriculum will force play, already squeezed to the margins, out of the infant school repertoire. "Little ones," as Mrs Chrystie observes, "don't have the status in society." None the less, the funding following additional children may be attractive to those trying to balance a primary budget. Infant teachers who wish to remain autonom-ous are voicing fears not just for their jobs and the status of those jobs, but also for their whole educational reason for existence: the unique interweaving of play and learning which characterises the best early childhood education. That need not be lost in a sensitively run primary school, but it might be.

Jim Rose, director of inspections at the Office for Standards in Education and a former primary head, believes that if an amalgamation can extend levels of teaching, give infant and junior teachers experience of their different approaches and offer continuity and progression across the key stages, then it is preferable.

Realistically, though, he concedes, there is a risk that infants' concerns get submerged, that infant heads do not get the job of head of the merged school, that infant teachers move down the ladder. And the bigger the merged school, the bigger the risk of this happening.

In Tower Hamlets, although the mergers will not at present go ahead, the issue remains a live one. Says Councillor Michael Keating, chair of the education committee, "We remain committed to the principle of all-through schools and hope that in time we will persuade everyone that amalgamation will help us all achieve the shared aim of raising our children's achievement and expectations."

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