'All-through' schools: From here to university

At 'all-through' schools such as King Solomon Academy, children are educated from the ages of three all the way to 18. They're growing in number, but the system has its critics

It's a crisp winter morning and the children in the nursery at the King Solomon Academy in Paddington are taking part in their daily phonics lesson. It looks much like any other nursery class – though it is perhaps unusual that the name of the class seems to denote its location: "London".

Yet just down the corridor, miles contract into mere metres so that the Reception pupils find themselves in "Brighton" and "Southampton" classes, and by the time children are 11 they are in the environs of "Oxford" or "Cambridge".

The theme is continued on the classroom walls, where teachers wearing mortar boards smile down on their wards from their own graduation photographs.

"Every class is named after a university city," says Jonathan Molver, King Solomon's Primary head teacher. "Our over-arching ambition is to prepare each child for university and we start with the youngest children. Every teacher has their graduation photo on display in their classroom, and every class is named after a university and the year in which pupils will graduate from sixth form."

King Solomon Academy is a remarkable success story. More than four out of 10 KSA students (43 per cent) are eligible for free school meals and more than three-quarters (77 per cent) speak English as an additional language.

Children join the school considerably behind expected attainment levels but, under the school's innovative curriculum, they quickly catch up and have made outstanding progress since the doors first opened in 2007.

King Solomon is also one of a growing number of so-called all-through schools: pupils can join the nursery aged three and, rather than progressing through primary school and then switching to a separate secondary, can stay at the same school until 18.

A review by Ark Schools of early years provision this month could also mean that such schools will be opened up to two-year-olds after calls for younger children to be admitted to school-based nurseries.

Venessa Willms, the director of primary for Ark Schools and the founding primary head of King Solomon Academy, believes that the all-through model offers enormous benefits for both students and teachers. "I think the biggest advantage is about having a shared philosophy and ethos which ensures that there is greater consistency around expectations, pedagogy and the cultural ethos of the school," Ms Willms says.

"In a typical secondary or primary school, you have certain ways of behaving or ways of interacting with each other or staff. Having them all the way through is an incredible advantage. The children are not moving between different settings with different expectations.

"I think that is the advantage of working in an all-through school – we are able to get teachers working together above and below all the time. I think that raises the game for everyone – children aren't able to fall through the gaps."

In 2009, there were only 13 all-through academies or schools in England but this has risen with the opening of new academies and free schools as well as the amalgamation of existing primaries and secondaries. In these times of austerity, all- through schools can also cut costs with economies of scale.

Many educationalists favour this model of schooling because it eliminates any unsettling transition between the primary and secondary stages. Having all ages on site also enables older pupils to act as mentors for younger children, while primary pupils benefit from having specialist science and language available and sharing sports facilities that stand-alone primaries can only dream about.

In November, Baroness Morgan of Huyton, the chair of Ofsted, praised the work of all-through schools and sparked controversy by calling for more children to be enrolled in school-based nurseries, saying that radical action was needed to close the achievement gap between rich and poor children by the time they start school.

"I think we need to see a big, bold, brave move on the under-fives agenda to target funding heavily on the children who will benefit most and – increasingly I think – to look to strong providers to go further down the system," she told a conference in London.

Ark Schools is interested in how the idea could benefit its students, and next month will launch a review of its nursery provision to consider whether to admit children as young as two. But critics of the plan are concerned at the growing "schoolification" of the early years and warn that the enormous institutions of all-through schools may not be the best environment for very young children. Sue Palmer, a literacy specialist and author of the book Toxic Childhood, says: "The difference between a two- or three-year-old and an 18-year- old is so enormous that the idea of trying to make some sort of seamless transition is bizarre.

"It is a totally different business caring for small children and teaching people who are about to go to university so why should it have to go on in the same environment.

"There seems to be a strange idea taking hold that small children should not be allowed to be small children any more. The younger the child, the more it needs to be a very personal environment.

"The countries that do the best in the world [in educational comparisons] are the ones that spend a lot of time creating a kindergarten environment between the ages of three and seven. For some reason in this country, we have decided that a regimental approach is the answer."

Wendy Ellyatt, the founding director of the Save Childhood Movement, voiced strong concerns. "Many schools are likely to struggle with providing suitably child-centred environments and the danger is that the needs of the youngest children will be compromised to serve those of the larger system," Ellyatt said.

"I know how frightened my own daughter was when she started primary school at four and went from being in a nursery playground with 30 children to a school playground where there were 400."

Dr Richard House, a senior lecturer in early childhood at the University of Winchester, and the founder of Early Childhood Action said the proposals could be "catastrophic" for young children.

"I am implacably against this proposal until there is a fundamental sea-change in governmental and cultural attitudes to early childhood experience in this country," he said.

"If anything, things are moving in precisely the wrong direction, with early childhood becoming increasingly colonised by a toxic and deeply harmful 'school-readiness' agenda, which is increasingly driving all early years policy-making. This is catastrophic for the wellbeing of England's young children, and many of us believe that England's parlous performance in the Pisa international league tables is precisely because, since 2000, England has pursued a policy of ever-earlier quasi-formal learning, which has had appalling impacts upon may children's love of learning and has generated disaffection from mainstream schooling among many pupils."

However, back at King Solomon Academy, Ms Willms is adamant that the school she founded in 2007 is providing the best preparation for its youngest children. "Our schools are in areas of high deprivation. Although our parents want to do the right thing, they face severe challenges and many of our pupils have not had the richness of home experiences that other children have had.

"Many start school well behind where children are expected to be at that age. That gap needs to be closed fast – and that is what we do."

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