School changes fail kids in the middle

Casebrook Intermediate Foods Room teacher Lauren Dick-McCann shows a class how to make fried rice.
Casebrook Intermediate Foods Room teacher Lauren Dick-McCann shows a class how to make fried rice.

Hands up who knows how many intermediate schools there are in Christchurch?

A gold star for those who said 11, but if current restructuring proposals go ahead, that will shrink to six.

Linwood, Shirley, Branston, Manning and Chisnallwood intermediates are under threat.

Does this amount to an attack on intermediates? Have specialised schools for years 7 and 8 fallen out of favour?

If the changes proposed for Christchurch schools go ahead, the number of intermediates will be almost halved.

The children bearing the brunt of that loss will be those in the lower-decile areas. All the intermediates under threat are decile 5 or lower.

When the proposals were announced, Branston Intermediate principal Jennifer O'Leary denounced them as an "attack" on intermediates, and the New Zealand Association of Intermediate and Middle Schooling's website described the cuts as "savage".

In its response to the proposed cuts, the Canterbury branch of the association is urging the Ministry of Education to reconsider.

Under the changes, "a relatively confined section of the central-city area would retain the option to conveniently attend intermediate schools", the association says.

"Children from higher-decile areas of the city would retain the option to attend intermediates. Children from lower-decile areas of the city would lose the option.

''Inequality would be increased in the city and in spite of Christchurch being projected to be larger in the future, the provision of intermediate education would be approximately halved. Instead of an advancement of education into the 21st century, there would be a decline in opportunities for year 7 and 8 pupils."

In promoting the benefits of intermediates, Sharon Keen, principal of Casebrook Intermediate, speaks for all intermediate principals when she says: "Our main points of difference are that every resource we have is especially developed to meet the needs of the emerging adolescent.

"Our playground equipment can offer physical challenges, our teaching resources are engaging for the age, we offer a degree of specialisation in academic areas, our teaching staff understand the physical and emotional needs of our students, and the level and range achieved in cultural, arts and the sporting fields is extensive as we only have the one age group to focus on.

"This stage of development is widely recognised as the second-largest time of growth in a person's life. Because we specialise, we have a high level of engagement from our students and they have a healthy, positive attitude towards school learning and towards themselves."

Intermediates can enhance pupils' engagement with school, Linwood Intermediate principal Lee Walker says.

Walker has been a secondary-school teacher and has seen pupils drop out of secondary school because they couldn't cope with the transition between primary and secondary.

Walker argues that intermediates can play a key role in helping ease pupils from one level to the next, particularly in adjusting from the primary school model of one teacher a day to the secondary school model of multiple teachers.

It's a lack of focus about what works best for intermediate-age pupils that bothers Walker most about the proposed changes.

"The shame of what is happening is that the argument about the pedagogy of education and the best way to teach is not happening. There is too much emphasis on land, buildings and people, rather than how pupils could be taught."

This concern is widely shared by other intermediate principals, who were keen for a revamp of Christchurch schools to look at the wider issue of what works best for middle learners, and keen to look at even more radical change than is proposed, by considering specialist schools for years 7 to 9 or even years 7 to 10.

"Research suggests that the age 10 to 14 is a special time for young people and that there are proven ways of working with them," Kirkwood Intermediate principal Phil Tappenden says.

"One way would be the construction of specialist middle schools. These schools would work with children from year 7 to 9 or year 7 to 10 - the latter being the preferred model.

''You may ask why this doesn't happen in the state system very much, when in private and integrated schools such as St Andrew's, St Margaret's and Middleton Grange it is the preferred model. One simple reason is the way our system has been structured to date.

"There is talk about excess capacity, and yet we keep open small secondary schools and close effective intermediates and primary schools.

''Why did the ministry not look at the possibility of creating year 0 to 6 contributing schools, year 7 to 10 middle schools and year 11 to 13 secondary schools. This would have given secondary schools an opportunity to really work with their preferred age group and to enhance educational possibilities with tertiary providers - more of a seamless education system where children at year 11 could have their specific needs met. Imagine how exciting and innovative this approach could be?

"In Christchurch, we had that opportunity and we blew it."

Blown opportunities are also feared by Gary Sweeney, president of the Association of Intermediate and Middle Schooling.

Sweeney doesn't think that the Education Ministry is deliberately targeting intermediate schools in Christchurch, and suggests that formulas covering schools, buildings, resources and collective employment contracts are the real drivers of ministry decisions.

But he does think the plans reflect "limited thinking within the ministry about how kids in the middle should be valued and treated".

He says there is a terrific opportunity in Christchurch to consider new approaches to middle schooling.

"It's stated in the New Zealand curriculum that kids in the middle are different from those before them and after, that there's a distinct stage of teaching and learning,'' he says.

"But there's no division or section within the ministry that deals with this. There's no real distinct feeling of value or importance there, and that's doing a disservice to kids."

Sweeney hopes that at least one proposal for a middle school will get a hearing - Chisnallwood Intermediate is proposing to run a school for years 7 to 9 on its present site.

"I was given great heart at the community meeting at Chisnallwood,'' he says.

"The parents, the grandparents, the teachers who stood up and said, 'These kids need different handling; this is a special time in their lives and schooling should meet that, and not just brush them aside', which is what closing schools would appear to be doing."

Sweeney suspects that the Christchurch ministry office (which will collate responses to the change proposals and send a range of scenarios through to Wellington for the minister to consider) was surprised by the "depth of passion and thinking and ideas" that came out of community meetings.

"Whether that allows them to go past their formulas and their rules and regulations, I don't know,'' he says.

"I think things have been rushed. Christchurch is potentially going to miss out on some real opportunities for the kids of the future."

The Press