Education: The tragedy of middle England

Hailed as the ideal solution 30 years ago, middle schools now seem doomed, says Maureen O'Connor. Yet they have enduring support
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The Independent Online
If you are a parent of a child in a middle school, then your child is studying in a doomed species of an educational establishment. With numbers down from more than 1,500 to around 760 over the last few years, the chance of your child going to one in future is getting slimmer. Yet 30 years ago the system of which they are a part was thought to be the ideal way to meet the needs of the different development phases of children. Their supporters regard their apparently inexorable decline as a tragedy.

For those who do not know them, which includes the Scots, the Welsh, most Londoners and the inhabitants of many other cities, middle schools are hybrids that cross the traditional primary/secondary divide by taking children usually from the age of eight or nine to 12 or 13.

They came about with a typically English mix of pragmatism and idealism when local education authorities wished to go comprehensive but did not really have the money to do it. With the authority of the Plowden committee, which reported 30 years ago this month, administrators, trying to juggle school buildings into new patterns, jumped at the notion that the traditional transfer age of 11 did not fit children's educational development. The Plowden report suggested that once children had acquired the basics in infants' school there was a distinct "middle" period of learning before they were ready to move on to the more formal and specialist disciplines of secondary education. Transfer to the top tier, it suggested, might be better made at 12 or even 13. It did not take local authorities long to realise that a three-tier comprehensive system would fit into their existing school buildings much more easily and cheaply than a two-tier one which required massive building work to expand existing secondary schools into 11-to-18 comprehensives.

"Plowden was the only official report ever to look at an appropriate curriculum and teaching style for those middle years," says Martin Thomas, chair of the Middle Schools' Forum and head of a middle school in the city of Oxford, one of the latest enclaves to find its three-tier school system "under review".

"Now we all know that there are problems at the top end of the primary schools, where children are not being challenged. Only the middle schools have consistently looked at what's right for this age group, and in my view they have got it right."

Before even more middle schools close, the forum is determined to back its feeling that they work with hard research evidence. The schools have raised pounds 12,000 between them and commissioned the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele University to look at existing ones.

"We've already been told that middle schools come out way ahead in inspections on school `ethos'," Mr Thomas says. "We believe we cope better in every way with children who are beginning to need the subject specialisms that the primary schools can't provide, yet who tend to be neglected in secondary schools which inevitably concentrate most of their efforts on examination classes." Fighting words, but the struggle looks like being a bitter one. For every Northumberland, which reviewed its three-tier system last year and decided to keep it, there are two Warwickshires, which decided to phase out its middle schools. Northumberland's director of education, Chris Tipple, says that his county's review concluded that the disruption of a reorganisation was not worth the candle. There would have to be massive capital spending to accommodate 11-and 12-year-olds in existing secondary schools, he says, and revenue savings would not be large in a rural county where the school transport bill is already enormous.

Margaret Maden, now a professor at Keele, who was Warwickshire's director of education when it came to the opposite conclusion, reckons that in her county's case the sums more than made sense. "Anywhere that has surplus school places is under enormous pressure to phase them out, and there are financial penalties if you don't," she says. Research in Warwickshire concluded that parents and governors on the whole favoured the traditional transfer age of 11, especially now that it comes at the end of the national curriculum's key stage two. They also felt that children were ready to face the rigours of large secondary schools at that age. So Warwickshire's middle schools went, and more look likely to follow. The main problem is not that anyone can come up with cast-iron evidence that middle schools are an educational disaster. It is that the same pressures - finance and buildings - which more often than not brought middle schools into existence are now closing them down.

The plight of Buckinghamshire is a case in point. The county has remained determinedly selective at secondary level but decided, in line with the Plowden Report, that transfer to grammar or secondary modern school at 12-plus was preferable to 11-plus. Accordingly it reorganised its younger age groups into either middle schools serving eight-to-12-year-olds, or combined schools taking them right through from five to 12.

Ironically, in view of its dedication to grammar schools, the county has been undone by Conservative government policy. Recently in the area around Slough, which was previously part of Buckinghamshire and retained 12-plus transfer when it became part of Berkshire, several grant maintained grammar schools have decided unilaterally to change their admission age to 11. A grant maintained girls' grammar in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, has sought to do the same. In the "money follows the pupils" market, an extra year group, of course, brings extra funds. Officials at Buckinghamshire's county hall therefore found themselves in the unenviable position of seeing their middle and combined schools which feed into these grammar schools likely to lose a large proportion of their top-year children a year early. Those left behind would be the "rejects" who had been unable to get into a grant maintained grammar school.

As if that was not bad enough, officials believe they risk a challenge on equal opportunities grounds if the Beaconsfield girls' school admits at 11 but there is no grammar school provision in the town for boys at that age. If the Department for Education and Employment approves, Buckinghamshire's middle schools will revert to junior school status, serving 7- to 11-year- olds, in autumn 1998, and the first schools will take children aged four to seven. It is the sort of expedient solution which makes the middle school enthusiasts see red. But they also face some critics who doubt their claims to be able to satisfy the need of 12- and 13-year-olds as effectively as traditional secondary schools do. John Howson, educationist and a former co-opted member of Oxfordshire's education committee, reckons that as middle schools decline in number it is becoming harder to find experienced staff and heads to run them. "There used to be courses for junior/secondary teachers but these were phased out so now there is no coherent training for this age group. It is also very difficult to attract applicants for headships as the career options become more and more restricted."

Mr Howson also has reservations about a break at 13, in spite of the fact that private schools for boys have operated on that basis for many years. "Adolescence is getting earlier," he says. "I do wonder if transferring pupils at that moment doesn't make life very difficult for the upper schools."

Chris Tipple, very much the hero of the middle school movement since saving Northumberland's, has few reservations on educational grounds. "I am not convinced by the argument that children should move at the end of a key stage. There is a lot to be said for leaving them with the teachers who know them and can put right any weaknesses which have been found by the tests. There is no evidence that our middle school children are losing out. They get access to specialist teachers earlier than they would in primary schools, liaison between the tiers is excellent, because it has to be, and I think both age groups benefit"

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