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Middle Schools in England

In 1963, the West Riding County Council in Yorkshire presented a proposal to introduce Middle Schools in an attempt to reorganise the authority’s provision along comprehensive lines. His proposal was for First schools for pupils up to the age of 9, Middle Schools for 9 to 13 year-olds, and High Schools for the 13+ age range. This allowed existing buildings to be converted to comprehensives for the top range.

Until 1964, schools were required to provide for either Primary or Secondary pupils. The former being those pupils who were aged up to 10½ , the latter providing for pupils aged 12 and over. Pupils were therefore required to transfer from one type to the other between those ages – which meant an age of transfer at 11, as had been the case since 1926. This changed in the 1964 Education Act, where provision was made for schools with different ages of transfer. However, no specific provision for categorisation of Middle schools was made. For funding, and statistical purposes, schools still had to be categorised as either Primary or Secondary Schools. Consequently, those which took children up to age 12 were “deemed Primary” while those with older pupils normally “deemed Secondary”

The growth of Middle Schools would likely have been slow (although perhaps sustained) had it not been for the other great factors in the late 1960s - comprehensive schooling, and the Raising of School Leaving age to 16 by 1973. The push for comprehensive schooling was led by the Labour government. Its Circular (10/65) invited local education authorities to put forward proposals to reorganise their provision to provide comprehensive secondary education. The circular included a number of options, including the introduction of Middle Schools. Alongside this, the need for authorities to find space for an additional year group of pupils by 1973 led to a range of different solutions, including Middle Schools with a variety of ages of transfer.

While it is now mainly agreed that these factors had been the driving force behind change in the 1960s and 1970s, one other factor gave the process some added validity. In 1967, the Central Advisory Council for Education produced its report into Primary Education. Known as the Plowden Report, it recommended to the government that it seek to promote Middle Schools, and indeed standardise transfer at age 12. It argued that an extension of the good work taking place in Junior schools was to be commended, and that the government should fix a standardised age of transfer. (Its recommendation was age 12, although it proposed that age 13 was feasible). While the government did not oppose the introduction of Middle Schools, it did little to encourage it, and as such, the schools appeared in a variety of forms, as suited each authority.

The years following the report saw Middle School number soar from under 100 to over 1000 by 1974 (following the raising of School Leaving age). Number continued to grow in the late 1970s with over 1800 Middle Schools open in 1981 in nearly 50 Local Education Authority areas from Devon to Northumberland.

The patchy way in which the schools developed led to a variety of provision that exists still today. Combined with the reorganisation of local government in 1974, this meant that some education authorities had pupils transferring between one type of school and another at every age from 7 to 13. Even now, there exists 6 different types of Middle School based on age-range alone.

However, 1981 saw the first large scale closures of Middle Schools. Falling rolls across the secondary sector led authorities to examine their provision. To maintain viable Upper or High Schools it was sometimes deemed necessary and/or desirable to return to a two-tier structure.

The gradual decline was given a boost in the late 1980s with the introduction of the National Curriculum. The Curriculum is divided into 4 clear sections, known as Key Stages. Each of these aligns with the traditional splits in schooling. Key Stage One, for pupils aged 5 to 7, aligned with Infant Schools, Key Stage Two with Junior Schools (ages 7-11) with Key Stages 3 and 4 representing the Secondary sector – the latter dealing with examination years. The implementation of both thet curriculum, and the associated end-of-Key-Stage testing arrangements led yet more authorities to reorganise their provision, often disbanding Middle Schools and returning to the traditional Primary/Secondary split.

By 1999 numbers had fallen back to the levels seen before the Raising of School Leaving Age with around 550 schools open. By 2005 this had fallen again. In September 2011, just 215 will open for a new academic year – fewer than at any time since 1971. The number looks set to fall yet further. If all of the authorities which currently have plans to withdraw Middle Schools achieve their aims, by 2020 there could be fewer than 100 Middle Schools remaining.