If it’s true that your school days are the happiest of your life, then it’s arguable the best time of all can be the intermediate, or middle schooling, years. As an early adolescent, you’re becoming more independent but are not yet weighed down by exam pressures or the full stresses of being a teenager.

Even better if you get that teacher-pupil match exactly right, which makes for “learning magic”, reckons Ross Leach, a former principal who is now exec admin for the New Zealand Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools (NZAIMS).

“You remember intermediate fondly and those two years are simply too short.”

For others, the two-year phase is short but not quite as sweet. Intermediates have been routinely criticised for their brevity even in the Sixties, the decade when 35 per cent of these schools were built.

The 1962 Report of the Commission On Education in New Zealand pronounced the intermediate school, “whose name shows its essential nature”, as “probably the most controversial feature of the present school organisation”.

Many countries, such as Australia, have middle schools but New Zealand is the only place in the world to have two-year schools for early adolescents. Intermediate schools are uniquely Kiwi but are they are a threatened institution?

There has been a decrease in intermediates since the Nineties, when the first ‘middle schools’  – which take Year 7 to 10 students and are officially known as restricted composite schools or junior high schools – were approved in 1994.

According to the Ministry of Education’s roll returns data, in 2000 there were 135 intermediate schools and seven restricted composite and junior high schools.

As of July 1 2017, there were 117 intermediate schools and nine restricted composites and junior high schools. There are also four schools that are officially secondary (Year 7-15) schools, but who have chosen to enrol students only at years 7-10.

The last intermediate, Somerville Intermediate in Auckland, was built in 1997. Nowadays, any new schools that teach year 7 and 8 students are either restricted composites or junior high schools.

However, since three Christchurch intermediate schools closed at the end of 2013 in a network restructure, the number of intermediates has held steady at 117.

Although the total number of intermediate, restricted composite and junior high schools has decreased by seven per cent since 2000, the number of schools in New Zealand overall has also decreased, by 11 per cent.

But of all school types, intermediates are possibly the most vulnerable to closure.

One argument goes that, since children go there for just two years, families don’t always have the same vested interests in intermediates that they do with primary and secondary schools.

They are more likely to close in places where student numbers are declining. According to 2013 data, 82 per cent of intermediates were in the North Island, and more than a third of total intermediates (34 per cent) were in Auckland.

Certainly, in cities like Invercargill and Timaru, intermediates took the brunt of then-Education Minister Trevor Mallard’s controversial programme of closing schools during the early 2000s. Both centres lost all their intermediate schools in 2004.

The Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary of Evidence, Data and Knowledge, Craig Jones says communities are always consulted when changes to schooling needs to be made. “Where possible, any form of new schooling meets [a community’s] needs”.

As part of the 2003-2004 Invercargill Network Review, for example, he says the Ministry “worked with the community to shape the future of their education network. The community was very supportive of Year 7-13 secondary schooling”.

NZAIMS president Sharon Keen says the association is “disappointed” there are no dedicated intermediates or middle schooling options in the city, “but [we] appreciate many of the Year 7-13 do offer quality options for their students in the middle years.”

Across New Zealand, the variety of options open to year 7 and 8 students is reflected in dropping rolls for intermediates overall.

While a quarter of Year 7 to 10 students (25 per cent) went to intermediates in 2000, just over a fifth (21.4 per cent) did last year.

Meanwhile restricted composite and junior high schools have seen a 1.0 percentage point increase in the share of these students over the same period. The strongest increase in the share of year 7 to 10 students is in secondary (Year 7 to 15) schools, which has seen a 3.7 per cent jump since 2000.

Despite this, the rolls of most intermediates nationwide remain “very, very full”, says Keen.

“As a nation, we recognise the needs of this age group. We’re certainly not declining, we just haven’t had as many intermediates built in recent years.”

Intermediates will continue to play a significant part in educating Year 7 and 8 students, says Jones.

“As long as there is demand for intermediate schools, they will remain a key option for Year 7 to 8 students.”

New Zealand’s first intermediate opened almost a century ago. Auckland’s Kowhai Intermediate was established in 1922 and former pupils include Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who attended in the early 1930s.

Then-Education Director John Caughley recognised that more children wanted to stay at school longer, but secondary school was too great a leap. Instead he wanted a “more gradual and natural transition” which catered for the different needs of all students.

It was not until the 1930s that intermediates really took off, championed by education visionary Clarence Beeby.

Beeby’s 1938 student-centred report, The Intermediate Schools of New Zealand, argued that early adolescents should be free to explore different subjects and experience a critical period of what he called “socially integrative education”.

The paper became the blueprint for intermediate schools for the next four decades, during which time around 100 were built.

It is thought that the founders of the intermediate system always wanted to provide students with four years of schooling rather than two, but history got in the way. “There was the recession and then the war so they only ever ended up being for two years,” says Keen.

The architects of intermediates recognised the phase of early adolescence and its importance. Beeby’s vision in particular, was “forward thinking”, she says. “He realised that people were changing, and they were staying in the school system for longer”.

The concept of catering for emerging adolescents remains key to middle schooling, says Keen, who is also the principal of Casebrook Intermediate in Christchurch.

Intermediates and other middle schooling providers function in a way that is different to both primary and secondary schools, to meet the needs of developing young adults.

The specialist classes on offer – such as science, digitech and design – are a big step-up from the craft classes taught at primary school.

They are also far more sophisticated than what was on offer a few decades ago. During my Form 1 and 2 years in the mid-Eighties, for example, girls were lucky to be offered woodwork and metalwork while ‘home economics’ covered cooking and sewing.

Now, says Keen, a lot of the Food Technology rooms offer a ‘garden to table’ experience a Hard Materials Technology classes teach electronics.

All of these specialist classes are crucial to engaging and extending the child developing as a young person, she says.

“We say at this age, that they should have lots of opportunities so that they begin to understand those capabilities and develop those, and become a well-rounded young person.”

Experiences are what the middle schooling years should be all about, she adds, and they should be broad-based rather than specialised.

At the same time, students are learning independence and self-managing as they move around classes.

Rototuna Junior High School (RJHS) in Hamilton caters for Year 7 to 10 students. It opened in 2016 with a founding roll of 634 and, just two years later, has 1115 students. Its sister school Rototuna Senior High opened in 2017 for Year 11 to 13 students.

RJHS was built in response to population growth in north-east Hamilton, says deputy principal Paula Wine.

The school’s founding vision was to cater for the unique needs of emerging adolescents, “to engage young teens in integrated and authentic learning experiences”.

A key part of this vision was to select “passionate and talented” staff who are committed to, and enjoy, working with this age group.

“We strategically choose staff who have an understanding of the cognitive and developmental changes that teens are going through.”

A 2011 ERO report on the use of formative assessment information and learning in years 9 and 10 found that secondary schools appeared to be failing this age group.

“The overall findings indicate that the situation for Years 9 and 10 students is somewhat bleak,” said the report’s authors, who concluded that many of the 68 secondary schools it surveyed did not have well-established processes for using assessment information to help students learn.

Years 9 and 10 are “vital years” during which time students “build on and consolidate their learning from the primary school years, and lay the foundation for their future success in the senior secondary school, and their post-secondary lives”.

One argument for moving towards four years of middle schooling – like the Australian system – is that secondary schools are focused on their senior students and that middle schools can concentrate on the emerging adolescents.

Wine says that having students at the school for fours years offers a range of benefits.

The main one is having the chance to get to know students and their whānau “really well and to be involved in their learning journey at a pivotal time in their development”.

Good relationships are key to ensuring a positive experience at school.  “When kids are experiencing problems or issues, it is often that long-standing relationship that contributes to a more positive outcome.”

Learning thrives when young people feel safe and happy at school, she adds. “By having them for four years we can carefully design our curriculum to cater for their unique needs.”

As well as an increasing need for independence and responsibility, young teens are also dealing with “greater academic challenges, extra-curricular commitments, friendships, increasing independence and responsibility [and] external factors such as social media, bullying, relationships, identity, and so on”.

Rototuna’s curriculum aims to cater for both academic and social-emotional needs, and targets what they “need for now and for their future”.

“We are able to design a curriculum that is less crowded, more streamlined, enabling a depth of understanding and conceptual connections.”

Changing schools after just two years can add a level of stress and anxiety that isn’t good for many teens, and this is one of the key advantages of a Year 7 to 10 school, says Wine.

“We put a great deal of thought and time into ensuring seamless transitions from primary school to junior high, and then from junior high to senior high. Our goal is to ensure we know our learners as well as possible.  This becomes more challenging the more transitions they have in their schooling journey.”

Transition is often talked about negatively, says Keen. But she sees it as giving students “a life skill”.

“It’s part of life, because in life you do have changes. So you have to learn to manage those, and that’s our job. To be a successful intermediate we have to be good at transitioning.”

Given the chance most intermediates would prefer to have their students for a bit longer, she says. Yet intermediate is still an invaluable experience.

“Obviously I think most intermediates by choice would have the children for three or four years but the two years is a really important, intense time that we give them those experiences, so they do go to high school with a lot more skills, a lot more self-management, we try to teach them a lot of perseverance, social skills.

“All those skills that you need as you’re heading into the challenges of being a young adult.”

If transition is part of life, then middle schooling – whether a two-year stint at intermediate or four years at a Years 7 to 10 school – is a small but important part of that.

“It’s an exciting journey that the kids should be on,” says Keen.

“They should come from their feeder school into the intermediate and then be ready to move on to high school. All of us play a role, in developing our young person.”

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