Pre-adolescents forced into high schools

22:44, Jul 08 2013
Richard Paton, principal of Chisnallwood Intermediate School in Christchurch with Year 8 students Grace Roland (left), Rod Ching, Ben Nicholls and Sophie Yeoman.
Richard Paton, principal of Chisnallwood Intermediate School in Christchurch with Year 8 students Grace Roland (left), Rod Ching, Ben Nicholls and Sophie Yeoman.

Ross Tyson would pick up the phone in Cambridge and there would be an intermediate school principal on the other end, crying down the line from Christchurch.

That doesn't seem so surprising. In the controversial closures and mergers of Christchurch schools following the earthquakes, three of the city's 11 intermediate schools will close their doors at the end of this year.

As president of the New Zealand Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools, as well as principal of Cambridge Middle School, Tyson is thinking about both the human cost and the bigger picture. There will be fellow principals and teachers out of work and there is also the question of whether this government has any strategy or vision for adolescent learning.

Jennifer O'Leary of Branston Intermediate School in Christchurch.
Jennifer O'Leary of Branston Intermediate School in Christchurch.

Talk to people in the sector - the principals, the teachers - and you quickly get a sense of how attached they are to this age group and its particular needs. Whakatane Intermediate School principal Doug McLean talks about research that tells him that "the emerging adolescent is the second most important stage of the human lifespan after early childhood".

Richard Paton, principal of Chisnallwood Intermediate School in Christchurch, goes further. "My readings tell me that the pre-adolescent or emerging adolescent time is second only to pre-birth in terms of the emotional and physical and psychological growth that a child goes through," Paton says. "Having schools that are specifically staffed, resourced and organised to cope with that is quite an advantage."

Of course, C E Beeby was saying much the same thing way back in the 1930s. Widely regarded as the father of the New Zealand education system, Beeby was director of education under the first Labour government. In 1938, he said that the then recently created intermediate school was intended to provide "a period of expansive, realistic and socially integrative education that will give all future citizens a common basis of experience and knowledge".


Does the Ministry of Education still hold such high ideals? In its submission on school closures, Christchurch South Intermediate School said that there was a perception that the ministry was "hostile" to intermediates.

Christchurch South was never under threat. But in the suburbs to the immediate west, Branston Intermediate School lost the battle to stay open. To add insult to injury, Education Minister Hekia Parata then reneged on a promise to at least keep the school going until the end of 2014.

Branston's principal, Jennifer O'Leary, has seen the ministry's hostility or lack of direction up close.

"Other countries see this age group, between 10 and 14, as being a specific group with specific needs," O'Leary says. "This government has never fully recognised that. The other thing is that if you have more places than kids, and you want to make savings, intermediates are easy to pick off."

In some cases, intermediates are closed down and nearby primary schools become "full primary", catering for years 1 to 8. Or a local high school has years 7 and 8 added. In the closures of Branston, Manning and Linwood intermediates, the latter is happening, but full primary options were also considered.

Rather than lose intermediate schools entirely, O'Leary and others in the sector believe they should actually be expanded. Back in the 1930s, Beeby favoured four-year intermediates, but it was seen as an untenable model.

"I would have years 7 to 9," O'Leary says. "You can have a staff who are trained and passionate about the particular age group. You can run a whole school programme that relates just to that age group and its needs. The curriculum is different to a primary school and a high school.

"Children at this age are head- hands-heart. It won't work if they don't feel for it, think about it and have some practical work to do. It's a stage when programmes have to be specifically adapted. That's why Beeby introduced technology. He understood the needs of this age group better than most of them do nowadays."

That last point was amply demonstrated in 2012 when the government proposed cutting an allocation for technology teachers that would have increased class sizes in intermediates. Parata backed down but the simple fact that the ministry proposed it told some teachers and principals that there was limited understanding of intermediate schools. Early childhood gets a lot of attention, as it should. But are we neglecting the early adolescent by comparison?

"I believe we are," O'Leary says. "There are agendas too. Many full primaries do a good job, but for some people, it is about protecting their patch rather than looking at the real needs of children. That worries me."

In Australia's Northern Territory in 2008, the school system was radically reformed from the top down. Middle schools were created for years 7, 8 and 9 and secondary schools catered for years 10 and up.

"Australia is very forward-thinking when it comes to middle school education," O'Leary says. "In Australia, the ministry and the government are trying to convince schools about it. Here, schools are trying to get the ministry and government on board."

The political climate for intermediate schools seems to depend on the tastes and sensibilities of various ministers and sector bosses. Beeby is a historical figure but many remember Labour's Steve Maharey as sympathetic, and some praise National's Anne Tolley. O'Leary says Tolley "had a feeling about intermediates because her dad was a principal of an intermediate school in Rotorua".

When Kawerau Intermediate School went through a period of public consultation, Whakatane's Doug McLean was asked by Tolley to join an expert panel. But after Parata replaced Tolley, the invitation seemed to be withdrawn. The school closed at the end of 2012 despite noisy community opposition.

Officially, the middle school model is enshrined in the New Zealand Curriculum, updated in 2007. It talked of three learning pathways: Years 1 to 6, years 7 to 10 and years 11 to 13. It followed the Education Review Office's view that years 7 to 10 were "the forgotten years".

When Ross Tyson meets with education ministers and secretaries, that is the model he argues for when there is to be school restructuring: Those three age groups, possibly on one campus with shared facilities, but with the middle school managed by a primary-trained principal "because they better understand the philosophy behind middle years".

Tyson found former education secretary Lesley Longstone to be open- minded. "She was just coming to grips with middle schooling when she was made the fall guy."

He is encouraged that acting education secretary Peter Hughes was recently made Longstone's permanent replacement. He says that neither Parata nor Hughes has "ruled out the notion" of a year 7 to 10 middle school being included in the plans for a new school in Rototuna, north of Hamilton. He adds that Hughes has promised that "a specific arm in the ministry that will look at our age group in Christchurch to ensure that it's not forgotten".

The talk sounds positive but, meanwhile, on the ground in Christchurch, three intermediate schools are disappearing, with their students likely to be absorbed at short notice into local high schools.

"That's helped us in our cause because when they continue to say that intermediates aren't at risk, we can say that three out of the seven you've closed are intermediates so don't tell me that you're not targeting us," Tyson says. "If they can come up with something a little bit creative, like [what] we're thinking of, we might think otherwise. It's not about maintaining intermediates, it's about what's best for the kids in our age group.

"If you are going to close intermediates, don't do it by propping up failing secondary schools. That's not best for our country."

In Christchurch, Tyson's organisation found that "the ministry was not putting out material advising people of their intermediate options". The ministry has now "guaranteed to us that intermediates will now be on the top of their schooling options, whereas they weren't before. That was a breakthrough at least."

But if the ministry is "hostile", as some argue, are these closures about an agenda or are they simply pragmatic cost-cutting?

"I don't want to go on record as saying either one or the other because everything leads towards that, but we are always reassured that's not the case," Tyson says. "Until we see some actual buildings being built around the middle-years philosophy, we can't help but think that what they're doing and what they're saying aren't the same."

Peter Hughes was approached for an interview but the request was declined. Written answers to specific questions came from Katrina Casey, the ministry's deputy secretary of regional operations. She spoke of a "very positive meeting" with Tyson and the "exciting opportunity" that education renewal provides in Christchurch.

But are intermediate schools doomed? "There still remains a very strong intermediate school network of eight schools in Christchurch after the decisions are implemented and the ministry strongly agrees with Ross that these schools are a very important part of schooling in Christchurch. The ministry does not have a policy to close or decrease the number of year 7-8 schools in the network. Over the last few years, several different options and models for middle schooling have emerged but the year 7-8 schools remain an important option."

The three Christchurch high schools now taking on year 7 and 8 children will "make their own decisions" on whether or not to include a middle school model. Despite the guidelines in the New Zealand Curriculum, there is no direction from the ministry.

Can Christchurch look to Kawerau for a warning?

When Kawerau Intermediate closed at the end of 2012, years 7 and 8 were taken over by Kawerau College, which was rebranded as Tarawera High School. The rebranding signalled a fresh start for a troubled secondary school.

But parents voted with their feet. There are reports of children going 25 kilometres each way by bus to Whakatane Intermediate rather than trying their luck at the new high school. Whakatane Intermediate's Doug McLean estimates that his school has taken in around 70 pupils from Kawerau this year and he was still enrolling them in June. Seventy pupils is a sizeable number given that Kawerau Intermediate had a roll of 150 in 2011.

McLean describes himself as an activist for middle schooling, based on research and 34 years as a principal in all sectors. He was once principal of an area school where the years 7 and 8 were in a secondary school model, going from class to class. He moved them into intermediate-style home- rooming and "their achievement levels were stunning". Previously, they had been the worst behaved in the school.

From his experience, about 80 per cent of emerging adolescents need to be home-roomed and only 20 per cent can cope going from class to class.

"On average it takes 13 minutes to leave one class and settle into another and get to work. Imagine that six or seven times a day."

McLean believes that our rates of youth suicide, crime and teen pregnancy reflect the way we educate emerging adolescents, including throwing year 9 kids into the deep end at high school. "They're like crayfish without the shell," he says. "We make them very vulnerable."

"If the decision-makers thought about it, we could certainly improve our statistics in New Zealand. But these people don't have the knowledge or background. It's very easy to close an intermediate and just slap it on to a high school. I've never seen that work anywhere."

We may see Kawerau-style bussing in Christchurch next year. O'Leary says that she has had strong indications from contributing schools that parents will not be sending their year 7 children to Hornby High School. Instead, they will look for places in remaining intermediate schools, which will increase traffic, challenge zones and disrupt community.

Parents have "realistic" fears about exposure to older kids and their influence. O'Leary says that you could dress some of her Branston girls up and they would look 16 but they don't act 16.

O'Leary also sees a broader picture, noticed by others in Christchurch. Lower-decile intermediate schools are disappearing, meaning that children in poorer neighbourhoods are being experimented on and having their options reduced. Intermediate schools remain in the better-off areas.

When intermediate schools argued that the best option for middle schooling in Christchurch was to keep them going, parents overwhelmingly agreed. Across town at Chisnallwood, the community was surveyed. The school learned that 94 per cent of its community supported Chisnallwood staying open as a stand- alone intermediate and that 99 per cent wanted to retain a specialist intermediate or middle school option in east Christchurch.

With a role of 700, Chisnallwood is the largest intermediate school in the South Island. It had ambitions to add year 9 and become a genuine middle school, which also had community support, but those plans are on hold for now.

Despite its size and success, it too was threatened and Richard Paton believes that the market research data helped to keep his school alive.

Does he expect to see extra busloads of children coming to Chisnallwood from next year as intermediate closures hit home? It's too early to say.

"But one of the things that was clearly apparent was that 99 per cent of people said they wanted to have choice and wanted to be able to exercise that choice," Paton says. "Based on that, one could assume that Chisnallwood would be a strong option for those who want specialist intermediate education for the children."

One other thing is clear. Even if the Ministry of Education does have "exciting" new plans for middle schooling in Christchurch, rather than the cost-cutting model many fear, the surveys and wider public response show that it has done an utterly poor job of selling them. ?

Fairfax Media