Middle Schools Re-energised ! Misconceptions or myths about

Middle Schools Reconsidered
Challenging misconceptions or myths about middle school systems
NMSF Conference October 2012
NIGEL WYATT Executive Officer
Misconceptions or myths about
middle school systems
Plans to reorganise middle school systems have
been supported by a number educational
arguments that often obscure the real
motivations of those proposing change.
The purpose of this presentation is to challenge some of the
myths about middle school systems that have become
common place in some of the debates surrounding
consultations over reorganisation. Through frequent
repetition these myths have become common currency.
We will examine current evidence that challenges these
Some of the assertions
1) That middle schools and three tier systems cannot be successful
2) That middle school pupils do not achieve well at the end of KS2
3) That two points of transfer in three tier systems mean lower
outcomes for pupils
4) That reorganisation will lead to higher standards
5) Parents find middle schools confusing
Examining these issues provides an opportunity to consider the
merits and advantages that middle school systems have to offer
1) That middle schools and three tier systems cannot
be successful
There has been an attempt to portray middle school
systems as somehow inherently deficient in such a
way that they cannot deliver the best outcomes for
their pupils. This is completely unfounded.
i) Evidence from successful three their systems
There are a number of very successful and high
performing three tier pyramids in the country that
are popular with parents and delivering good
outcomes for their pupils.
Three Examples of Successful Pyramids
The percentage of pupils
getting grades A*-C in five
GCSE qualifications only,
including maths and English
The average number of
points netted per pupil at the
institution taking AS/A-level
or equivalent qualifications
Sharnbrook Upper School
Sharnbrook Pyramid
outside Bedford
The Thomas Hardye
Dorchester Pyramid,
Shelley College
Shelley Pyramid, Kirklees
Indeed within Suffolk, County Upper School in
Bury St Edmunds was among the top five
maintained secondary schools in the 2011
secondary results tables, and was judged by
Ofsted to be outstanding when last inspected.
There is nothing inherent in the structure
of three tier systems that means that they
cannot be successful.
ii) Outcomes of Ofsted Inspections
Ofsted provides the most rigorous system for judging the
effectiveness and quality of education provided in our
schools and has consistently judged a proportion of middle
schools to be good and outstanding.
Monitoring of the outcomes of inspections shows that the
proportion of middle schools being judged to be good and
outstanding is in line with, or slightly above, the proportion
achieving these categories for all schools.
So, to take a typical year, in the academic year 2009 to 2010
the proportion of middle schools judged to be good and
outstanding by Ofsted was slightly above that for all schools
inspected in that year.
Middle school data – September 2009 to July 2010
All schools
All middle schools
Satisfactory Inadequate
12% (8)
46% (31)
41% (28)
1% (1)
Ofsted teams regularly judge that middle schools, together
with first and upper schools, provide good and outstanding
quality of education for their pupils.
2) That middle school pupil do not achieve well at the
end of KS2.
i) The results of Key Stage 2 assessments
It is frequently asserted that middle schools do not perform as well as two
tier schools at the end of KS2 assessments. The results from three middle
school areas in the table below show that in each case the middle schools
achieve at or above the level of the results for all schools within their local
authority area.
KS2 2011 - Percentage of pupils achieve Level 4 and above in English and Maths
Suffolk *
All schools in the LA
Middle schools
*includes the results of the remaining middle schools in Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket and Stowupland areas.
The figures come from three Local Authority areas with a substantial minority of
middle schools where such comparisons would be meaningful.
ii) Ofsted inspectors do not judge the effectiveness of
middle schools on the basis of the results in Year 6 alone.
Judging the effectiveness of a middle school by
the results in Year 6, half way through its
planned course of education, is like trying to
judge the quality of a cake when it has been
mixed – but has not yet been cooked. Imagine
carefully weighing and mixing all the ingredients
for a chocolate cake, and taking this mixture to
the village show to be judged in the cake making
competition. A fair judgement of the finished
cake is of course impossible.
Ofsted have accepted that middle
schools should be judged on the
progress of pupils between the age of
entry and the end of the final year – and
that while Key Stage 2 data will be
considered, it should not be given undue
prominence – it cannot show the full
story of the progress achieved over the
full four years in the school.
35. Key Stage 1 assessment results may not provide an accurate
picture of pupils’ attainment on entry to a middle school because this
will depend on the progress they have made in the intervening years.
It is important, therefore, that inspectors carefully examine any data
provided by the middle school about the attainment of its pupils on
entry. The rigour and accuracy of the school’s assessment procedures
and the efforts made to moderate them will be an important
contributory factor to inspectors’ views about attainment on entry.
36. Inspectors will need to adopt a similar approach to considering
pupils’ attainment when they leave the middle school. This is
important as it will help to determine whether attainment is
sufficiently high and may contribute to the evidence on how much
progress pupils have made. Again, Key Stage 2 test results may not
reflect pupils’ attainment when they leave the middle school.
This is made clear in the new Inspection
Framework that came into effect in
September 2012:
Inspection Framework – September 2012
107.Inspectors should also note the following:
- In school settings where attainment is not
benchmarked nationally, for example in the final
year group of a middle school, inspectors should
draw on all the available evidence to decide
whether attainment is above average, broadly
average or low
iii) Progress by end of Year 8
In fact the evidence suggests that pupils in middle
schools make greater progress during KS3 than
pupils in any other type of schooling, even though it
includes the transition from middle to upper school
in Year 9.
Recently compiled data on the achievement of
about 6,000 pupils leaving Year 8 in middle school
in 2011 shows that these pupils are already
achieving at a level above that achieved nationally
at the end of Year 9 in other schools - shown in the
last of the nationally set KS3 SATs in 2007.
Comparison of Year 8 results from 2011 with the last
national SATS for Year 9
Average points score per
National Year 9 SATS
All middle deemed
secondary 2011
Source for National data: http://www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000776/sfr06-2008.pdf
National Ave Point Score =APS for all maintained schools Year 9 KS3 in 2007
Many middle schools were involved in the pilot of the two year Key Stage 3 and
continue to teach the Key Stage 3 programme over the final two years of middle
school, taking advantage of the opportunity to build on Key Stage 2 without the
regressive effect of transfer at age eleven.
These results from Year 8 in 2011 confirm the continuing relevance of a study
by Professor David Jesson, of York University, in 1999 which compared the
achievements of pupils who transfer between schools at different ages. It
showed that pupils from middle schools consistently made better average
progress between Key Stage 2 and 3 at the end of Year 9, as the following
table shows:
Table showing average progress from KS2 to KS3 by type of school in levels of progress
/ Junior
Source : Performance and Progress of pupils in Secondary Schools of Differing Types. Professor David Jesson,
University of York, 1999
3) That two points of transfer in three tier systems
mean lower outcomes for pupils
Evidence of dip in progress when transfer is at age 11
The suggestion that there is evidence of lowered achievement at
the end of Key Stage 2 would be more telling if it was not for the
considerable evidence of regression in development on transfer
from primary to secondary school at age 11. This reversal of
progress in two tier systems is well documented and it has been
termed a national scandal by Ofsted and by successive education
“Continuity in the curriculum and progression in
learning as pupils move from primary to secondary
schools are long standing weaknesses of the
education system.” – (Changing Schools, HMI 2002 p.2)
Work by Professor Maurice Galton of Cambridge University
suggests that:
… around half the pupils in
English and Science (49% and
49% respectively) made no
gain in their level score one
year after moving from
primary to secondary school.
For mathematics, however, the
corresponding figure was 33%.
… the relatively high
proportion of the sample
failing to make progress
suggest that transfer to
secondary school is still
associated with subsequent
underperformance in the case
of certain pupils.
(Source: Transfer and Transitions in the Middle
Years of Schooling (7-14): Continuities and
Discontinuities in Learning, Maurice Galton, John
Gray and Jean Ruddock, 2003, p. 58)
ii) Evidence that transfers in three tier systems
are better managed
There has been an assumption that transfers at age 9
and 13 must lead to similar regression in progress.
There is less research on the effects of transfer in three tier
systems. However as the paper on transfer written by Maurice
Galton for Suffolk’s own reorganisation research points out:
“…the evidence supports the view that delaying the move from
the elementary school helps to reduce dips in transfer. There is
less of a case for arguing that the dips are cumulative so that
pupils attending a three-tier system of schooling are
permanently disadvantaged” (Suffolk County Council, School
Organisation Review, 2006 p. 45).
What evidence there is, then, points to the fact that in
middle schools systems the transfer is better managed
and is more in line with what we know about child
development. As the Cambridge Primary Review
research points out, middle school systems ... avoided the developmental double whammy of
school transfer coinciding with the onset of puberty.
(Community Soundings: the Primary Review regional witness
sessions, Cambridge Primary Review, 200, Page 38)
iii) Why two points of transfer might offer advantages
The advantage of a system with two points of transfer is
that it results in schools which are better able to focus on
the needs of children at different stages of their
The change of school at age 11 came about by historical
accident, and has resulted in schools catering for a wide
span of ages. The introduction of middle school systems
was, in part, an attempt to introduce a form of schooling
better matched to the developmental needs of children.
One where schools catered for about four age groups,
and so were not over large and one where schools could
be developed that were better focused on the needs of
pupils at each stage of their education.
4) That reorganisation will lead to higher standards
i) Systems in place to support failing schools
All local authorities have systems in place to
support weak or failing schools. So in Essex, say, the
authority will have a series of steps and
interventions in place to help turn a failing school
round. Where there are weak or failing schools in
three tier systems this is the approach that should
be adopted.
It makes little or no sense to close good and
successful schools under the guise of seeking to
raise standards.
ii) Looking closely at the argument that reorganisation
raises standards
Let us consider the logical form of the argument underpinning the assumption
that reorganisation is required in order to raise standards in three tier areas.
We can represent it in the familiar form of the following syllogism:
Premise one: This middle school is underperforming
Premise two: Reorganisation is required to raise standards
This middle school should be reorganised to raise standards.
Substituting the word ‘middle’ with ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ or any other type of
school reveals how inconsistently this argument is being applied. If premise
two is true then it should be applied consistently to other forms of schooling but it is not. Middle schools are being singled out here, and treated
iii) Evidence that reorganisation raises standards
• There is no reliable evidence that reorganisation raises standards from
experience around the country. In some areas already rising standards
of achievement have continued.
• In others reorganisation has led to difficulties. For example in Wiltshire
reorganisation led to two first schools going into special measures
shortly after attaining primary school status. In Oxford the rising
results in a middle school coming out of special measures during the
period of reorganisation masked falling results elsewhere, while at
Peers School in Oxford the reorganisation was a major factor in its later
When Oxford's middle-school system was abandoned in 2003,
Peers faced the upheaval of reverting to an 11-18 school. It was
one whammy too many.
(continued on next slide)
Chris Dark, who succeeded Clarke in 1998, recalls how nearly 700
children joined the school in three days, of whom nearly a third had
acute levels of need. The school's approach had been based on giving
autonomy and responsibility to an older age group, and it wasn't
prepared for the challenge of dealing with less mature pupils. In his
moving and honest contribution to Roberts's book, Dark says: "For me,
at that time, the demands outstripped the capability and I have not
felt at ease about it since."
(And so farewell, to a school that was once the future, Guardian, 24th
June 2008 and Peers School: A Comprehensive With a Difference, 19682008, by Martin Roberts)
What needs to be considered carefully is the harm done to three
tier systems through the blight cast by the threat of
reorganisation proposals, often over long periods of time,
preventing development and making it difficult to recruit and
retain high quality staff.
5) Parents find middle schools confusing
It has sometimes been claimed that middle school systems are
confusing for parents and that when parents move to a middle
school area they will not understand them.
i) The education system is becoming more, not less, diverse
The assumption that underpins these statements is that middle
schools are an aberration in an otherwise uniform education
system in England. In a system in which there are more middle
schools than grammar schools, to pick just one obvious
comparison, this assumption is clearly unfounded. The truth is
that we are in a period when government policy is leading to the
development of an increasingly diverse education system with
the development of all through schools, academy chains and
free schools. The ability of a Local Authority’s to plan for school
places is breaking down in the face of changes which are beyond
their control.
ii) Parents clearly articulate the advantages of their
three tier education
The evidence gathered by the Cambridge Primary Review
demonstrated that parents have a very clear understanding of
the advantages of the middle schools systems:
“Interestingly, parents in a number of other soundings
commended a return to the middle school system to reduce
the trauma of primary–secondary transfer and segregate
younger children from the influence of teenagers.
Contemporary anxieties are in this case prompting a desire to
reinstate a pattern of schooling with which an earlier
generation had decided to dispense. The middle schools may
have disappeared but the anxieties have not, and for this
reason we suggest that the issue is of much more than local
Cambridge Primary Review - Community Soundings, 2007
These views, expressed so clearly by parents, inform some of
the important recommendations of the final report:
No 94. Like the class teacher system and the structure of the school year,
the ages and stages of primary education have historical provenance
rather than, necessarily, contemporary currency. The old infant/junior
structure persists largely unchallenged, but the more recent experiment in
8–12 and 9–13 middle schools seems already to be in terminal decline.
However, we heard strong arguments in favour of the latter
arrangement from teachers, and from parents who were worried about
their children growing up too soon.
(Cambridge Primary Review, Page 501)
No 107. Local authorities responsible for England’s remaining first
and middle schools should not lightly dismiss the case for their
retention based on the developmental benefits for their pupils.
(Cambridge Primary Review, Page 503)
The real story behind the rise and fall of middle schools
The rise and fall of middle schools nationally has little to do with educational
arguments about the merits of the system. The real story, rather, is revealed
in this graph showing the number of middle schools in the country since
1970. The curve matches the rise and fall in the size of the school population
over this period demonstrated in the graph below.
Number of middle schools by type since 1969
Deemed primary
Deemed Secondary
Full time equivalent pupils by type of school 1970 to 2010
(Source: DfE statistical release NATIONAL PUPIL PROJECTIONS: OSR 15/2010)
• The rapid expansion and then slow decline in the number of middle schools has
been driven by economic forces.
• These forces have not been affecting middle schools alone. There has been a
corresponding decline in the number of primary schools, from 18,500 in 1996 to
16,800 in 2011. (1700 primary schools have closed over this period, a fall of 9%).
• After a period of declining pupil numbers, however, we are now at the start of a
rapid expansion in the school population, reminiscent of the early 1970s which
gave birth to middle schools. Between the school year 2010/11 and 2014
primary pupil numbers will grow by 400,000 or 12%.
• In the 1970s middle schools were introduced in part to cater for the rapid rise in
pupil numbers and increase in the school leaving age, together with the
introduction of comprehensive education. They have declined as the number of
pupils has declined, as local authorities were pressed to remove surplus places
from their systems.
• In each local authority area the prime motivation for reorganisation has been
financial, although this has been carefully presented with a clothing of
educational arguments.
A system fit for the 21st Century
There are many examples of successful primary and secondary
schools around the country. So what is the distinctive
contribution that a successful middle school system can offer?
This presentation has made reference to a number of these
features in the discussion above – to summarise:
i) A system better suited to child development
As we have seen above in the discussion of transfer, the
middle school system provides for schools which span over 4
or 5 age groups - schools which are better able to focus on the
needs of children at their different stages of development. The
system avoids the problems associated with transfer at age 11
when children are at their most vulnerable through changes
associated with puberty.
A system fit for the 21st Century
This is not a small point. Upper Schools
within three tier systems, for example, are
institutions with a more adult climate and
ethos, one appropriate to the delivery of the
14 to 19 curriculum. First schools can create
the nurturing environment appropriate to
the needs of young children, while middle
schools are able to offer wider opportunities
to pupils from the age of 9.
ii) Access to specialist teaching
• The Cambridge Primary Review echoes other research
in identifying the role of the general class teacher as a
weakness in the present primary school system for
older pupils.
• The model of the generalist teacher in primary schools
has been in place since the 19th century when it was
introduced to cut costs. This system should now be
revised with the introduction of more specialist
teachers, some of whom could be shared between
schools. It acknowledges that this would be expensive.
(Cambridge Primary Review Booklet, page 36)
The report argues that this generalist teaching role is no longer
sufficient and that the subject knowledge of primary teachers is
one of the often cited weaknesses of primary schools in Ofsted
reports. The report concludes:
Recommendation no 128 …a fully generalist approach
may be maintained for the early primary years with a
generalist/specialist mixture in upper primary.
(Cambridge Primary Review, Page 506)
If you have once seen children aged 9 and 10 working with
specialist technology teachers in a workshop, or seen them training
with specialist PE teachers, you see that they are ready for wider
experiences than a single teacher can offer.

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