One head is cheaper than two, but what about quality?

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Kent, like most other local education authorities, is trying to cope with the joint problems of falling rolls and excess places in its primary schools. It recently released a strategy consultation which reiterates its commitment to standardised two-form entry all-through primary schools.

These primaries, the strategy says, "help to eliminate barriers in children's learning by providing continuity, which in turn leads to an overall higher quality of educational achievement". When a headteacher leaves, it continues, "amalgamation of separate infant and junior schools should be considered".

Amalgamation usually means great savings - one headteacher is certainly cheaper than two. But while I accept that schools need to be financially viable, I take exception to the premise that all-through primaries offer a higher standard of education. Staff, governors and parents are watching carefully as a pattern emerges: if you are a two-form entry infant or junior school, your days are numbered. Larger schools may be safe for a while, but drives to lower intakes mean that they too, in time, will become ripe for amalgamation. Size really shouldn't matter; the quality of education should.

The clear implication is that separate key stages disrupt learning and break continuity. However, as little research has been done, it's impossible to make reliable judgements. In my experience, all infant school staff are passionate about the early years. The schools are also featured more frequently as examples of outstanding practice in Ofsted's annual report - look at last year's and you'll see the high number of separate nursery, infant and junior schools on the list. Junior and nursery school colleagues have the expertise that suits the age groups they serve, and so do well by their pupils.

At the other end of the spectrum we have another success story: sixth-form colleges. They are successful for the same reasons as infant, junior and nursery schools - well-trained staff who are experts in their field.

Specialisms are being encouraged in secondary schools and yet infant schools "specialists" are not given the recognition they deserve. The Government has invested heavily in early-years education, recognising its vital contribution in laying the foundations for learning and life. Key stage 1 can so often get "lost" in a primary school, particularly where, as in Kent, there is the pressure of selection testing in key stage 2.

Critics of separate schools frequently cite the drop in standards between Years 2 and 3. But this dip occurs in all-through primaries and again at Years 6 and 7. With good planning and close liaison, infant school children should not be disadvantaged in the move to key stage 2. In fact, they often leave their infant school with a high level of independence and self-esteem because they have already been the eldest in the school for a year.

Horror stories also abound about the lack of liaison between infant and junior school heads. They feature the controlling junior head (usually male) and the ineffective infant head (always female). But these two have long since realised that if they don't work together, falling school rolls will happen sooner rather than later. All successful separate infant and junior schools have initiatives to ensure that staff, children and parents from both schools feel they belong to one family. They have buddy systems, joint staff meetings and joint PTA activities. Many share governors, and the heads meet regularly.

A few years ago there were eight separate infant and junior schools in our area. Today there are two. Parents often seek us out, as they would rather entrust their young children to a school dedicated to their needs. The loss of infant schools would be an educational tragedy.

Sue Walker

Sue Walker is headteacher of Shears Green infant school, Northfleet, Kent

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