I loved intermediate school. Two blissful years sandwiched between primary and secondary school, ripe with new challenges and opportunities. Seldom a day passed when I wasn’t out of the classroom at a student council meeting, school production rehearsal or some such activity. Undoubtedly these activities helped to expand my horizons and to develop cultural and sporting skills previously untapped in my primary school years.

Little did I know the shock I was in for the following year at high school. Gone were things like ‘school singing’ and ‘advanced art’. ‘Thursday house sports’ was a thing of the past. Concert-band practice was confined to lunch times. And worse, I found myself playing ‘catch-up’ with subjects like maths, which had been largely neglected in the two years between primary and high school. The contrast was stark, the transition unforgiving.

While I concede my intermediate years were (sadly) some time ago, I have since discovered that many others have had similar experiences – embracing every extra-curricular experience at the expense of the more core aspects of their education, making for a rude awakening at high school.

Research reveals intermediate schools can be problematic for different reasons. According to a 2008 Ministry of Education review of teaching and learning in middle schooling, the big problem for emerging adolescents is not so much a preoccupation with out-of-classroom doings, but rather a lack of engagement altogether.

The research, conducted by Stephen Dinham and Ken Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research, acknowledged disengagement as ‘a well-recognised phenomenon in New Zealand’ for some students in the early secondary years. ‘Switching off’ is often accompanied by behavioural problems which serve to further hinder a student’s educational achievement.

Clinical psychologist Sarah Calvert, who has collaborated on several research projects with the NZCER concerning youth connectedness and education, believes the intermediate system does not help with this problem of disengagement.

“Two years is just too short a time for any real sense of ‘belonging’ or full engagement to occur,” she says. “Young people are just getting used to the school and its system and they are focusing on leaving, so they psychologically focus only on engaging and leaving, never on being a part of.”

Indeed, research consistently shows that feeling ‘connected’ is a vital part of a successful education experience. This is of even greater significance when one considers the transitions young people are coping with outside of their school lives.

“We’re asking children to cope with an awful lot of things at the time when there are lots of other things going on in their lives,” says Calvert. Up to a third of children are coping with family separation by this time, and Calvert believes a school system that focuses on beginnings and endings is likely to embed very unhelpful psychological dynamics.

So what are the alternatives to the intermediate system? While there are advocates for full primary or secondary schools that incorporate years 7 and 8, there is burgeoning support for middle schools which typically cater for students from Years 7 to 10, bridging the gap between upper primary (Years 7 to 8) and junior-secondary (Years 9 to 10) education, which the ministry review notes are ‘traditionally two quite distinct forms of schooling in terms of curriculum, delivery, structure and approach’.

Despite the growing interest in middle schooling you could count on your fingers the number of middle schools that cater for Years 7 to 10 in New Zealand.

A closer look at some of these schools reveals them to be aware of, and geared to catering for, the rapid change their students are undergoing at this stage of their lives.

Take St Andrews Middle School in Hamilton. Principal Keith Jackson says in his online principal’s message: ‘The middle years are a very important time of rapid personal development and educational growth. At St Andrews Middle School our programmes of learning are provided in a way that is geared especially for young emerging adolescents in their time of rapid change.’

Similarly, Principal Mike Jackson of Albany Junior High School says in his online principal’s statement: ‘AJHS is designed philosophically and structurally to identify, and cater specifically for, the needs of the emerging adolescent.’ The school adheres to Gayle Dorman’s seven needs of emerging adolescents: diversity, self-exploration and self-definition, meaningful participation in their schools and communities, positive social interaction with their peers and adults, physical activity, competence and achievement, and structure and clear limits.

This isn’t to imply intermediate schools do not articulate similar visions; on the contrary, many display a keen awareness of the transitory nature of this stage.

The question shouldn’t be whether middle schools are better than intermediate schools, but whether those schools catering for the middle years have the ability to meet the developmental and educational needs of this age group.

Calvert says the failure to consider developmental models when designing a school system as well as the ways in which young people actually lead their lives is a key factor in the difficulties some have in engaging effectively in education. The ministry review says the middle years cover the period from pre-pubescence to adolescence and sexual maturity and the time when young people start to think more about the world around them and learn more independently.

“Developmentally and socially there is a significant change point at mid-adolescence (14 to 16/17 years generally) and those young people are really very, very different from the younger group (now, say, 10/11 to 14 years) so the way we try to put them all together is, I think, unhelpful,” says Calvert.

Unsurprisingly Calvert believes the American system with its junior high-school stage, is more ‘natural’ and a better fit for young people, if not teachers.

And of course there are other factors to consider here, besides what is best for the child, despite this being the driving factor. Interestingly, there has been an ongoing decline in the number of middle schools in the UK due to concerns over educational standards in middle schools, and financial concerns over maintaining a third tier of educational provision.

By contrast, Dinham and Rowe report that, in Australia, there has been an increasing focus on middle schooling over the past 20 years, albeit mainly in the non-government sector. While they concede that middle schooling in Australia is ‘something of an unfinished project’, recent studies have shown positive advances for students.

Will New Zealand schools follow the lead of our Australian counterparts? Dinham and Rowe declare New Zealand ‘is unusual in having intermediate schools’, which were first established here in the 1920s. A study by Nolan and Brown in 2002 made the point that ‘although many elementary and intermediate teachers in New Zealand appear to be opposed to the four-year model of middle schools (Years 7 to 10), they are increasingly adopting the philosophy and approaches of middle schooling’. Nolan and Brown go on to suggest that it remains moot whether intermediate schools cater to the needs of students better than other types of New Zealand schools attended by emerging adolescents.

Ten years on from Nolan and Brown’s research, we have to consider whether this is still a moot point. While consensus will probably never be reached on such a topic, both formal research and canvassed opinion over a coffee suggest we might need more investigation into the education systems in place for this vital stage of a person’s development.

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