The three-tier school system is often overlooked by policy-makers and poorly understood by those who haven’t worked in them. Nick Wood explains what can be learnt from the way middle schools operate. School-based education discourse often leads to observation of the differences between primary and secondary schooling. Policy-making across the school sector inevitably ends up favouring one or the other, as the reason for the policy is often to address an issue more prominent in that particular part of the sector. As a minority part of the school sector, middle schools are frequently overlooked: in general discourse; in the design of data-gathering activities which are supposed to shed light on macro problems; in policy-making; and in what they might offer in terms of a perspective on what constitutes good practice in schools, and also what doesn’t. There are now just over 100 middle schools in England, the majority of which have academised. The current number is relatively stable. The minority status of middle schools is the result of a process started in the 1980s to rationalise the education system to a consistent primary / secondary model. One might presume this is because middle schools are less effective, however there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Most of these schools are part of a three-tier local system, with pupils moving from first school to middle school at the start of Year 5, and from middle school to upper / high school at the start of Year 9. It’s a model that doesn’t sit neatly with our accountability system. But it wasn’t supposed to. It was designed with child development in mind. A common argument against the three-tier system is the effect often referred to as “transition dip”. Moving schools puts cognitive load under pressure as in the first half-term of a new setting, pupils’ attention to subject learning is hampered by the individual need to learn the geography, social mores and routines of the new setting: something we all do in a new environment to meet the needs of personal safety and security. This leads to an apparent dip in academic performance in the early part of the child’s career in a new school. Surely a system with two transitions leads to more dips in performance, which is to the detriment of pupil outcomes? Yet there is evidence to suggest this is not true. My hypothesis is that pupils, having experienced one successful transfer, build a resilience to moving environments. The second transfer gives feedback that moving institutions is not a barrier to be feared, and this is supported by social proof of one’s peers. Resilience to change is one of the outcomes of education that most people would agree is a good thing; yet is not measured or valued by our accountability system. Imagine the difference at a personal level – a child moving from a typical one or two-form entry primary of between 200 and 300 children to a large secondary of 1500 children has to deal with this change at the same time as most are dealing with all the anxiety and cognitive change that puberty can throw at them. The same child in a three-tier system moved schools to a 400 – 600 environment before this started, has had more specialist teaching and access to specialist learning environments across the curriculum from an earlier age, has been given the responsibility of organising themselves to go from room to room in this smaller, more nurturing environment, with staff that can specialise in the needs of children of this age both emotionally and academically. This second child is supported to develop in this environment and doesn’t move to the relative anonymity of a larger high school until the end of Year 8, having come to terms with their new self and having prepared for the challenges ahead. It’s not all swings, there are roundabouts too, of course. Yes, there is more specialist teaching in key stage 2, which is great for developing a broad and balanced curricular experience, however, there can be more non-specialist teaching in key stage 3 as a result. That said, specialist subject leadership from upper key stage 2 onwards goes quite some way to mitigating this, especially with a CPD programme that values department-led approaches to school improvement. The school system in England has never been more diverse than it is right now, with free schools, academies, local authority schools, special schools, alternative provision, first schools, infants and junior schools,  primaries, secondaries, faith schools, large MATs across wide geographic areas, small MATs made up of local pyramids, some of which include middle schools. Being a minority in such a diverse sector, most middle schools subscribe to the National Middle Schools Forum. The National Middle Schools Forum works hard to ensure practice in the three-tier system is discussed and developed to be reflective and improving. They work with the DfE and Ofsted to ensure the middle school experience is more widely understood by those that make policy. So, how do middle schools hold up to scrutiny in an accountability system they don’t sit so neatly with? It turns out, despite the two transitions (or perhaps because of them) that middle schools perform well. The proportion of middle schools deemed to be good or better by Ofsted has remained stable over the last 5 years at 83%, comparing favourably to secondaries (75%) and not far short of primaries (87%). (Taken from NMSF Middle School report card 202) While performance of middle schools at KS2 has been comparable with that of primaries, progress measures have been less favourable. A report into baseline assessments (Treadaway, 2015) provides a good analysis of why this is the case and the concerns that this raises for the wider system. Advocates of the three-tier system will always point further down the line at later outcomes as evidence for the effectiveness of the system: this table from 2018 data is typical of performance comparisons at KS4.
This bears further scrutiny before claiming that we should have a national three-tier system – for example the results might better be compared with area with similar socioeconomic profiles. However it tells a compelling story and makes a case for considering what other benefits the three-tier system might have, and the circumstances in which it might improve outcomes for children.

Nick Wood is Assistant Head Teacher at a middle school in Worcestershire. He has taught in middle schools for 21 years, been Head of Maths and Head of Year 7. He now leads on curriculum and CPD.

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