The end of three tiers of education, from innovation to demise in 50 years?

Education is changing in Bedfordshire, and in some sense, we are maybe seeing the end of an era. That being the end of Middle Schools and the three-tier education system.

But first, you may be asking what are Middle Schools and the three-tiers?

They came out of the Plowden Report in the 1960’s, and promoted by Sir Alex Clegg, an educationalist who conceptualised them as a developmental opportunity for children.

Sir Alec Clegg the Educationalist.

The original concept that Mike Berrill the Executive Principal of Biddenham School believed in.

They were also an opportunity to increase capacity in Schools following the change of Schooling age, the move to comprehensive teaching approach and the increase in the population of the baby boomers.

Not all counties embraced Middle Schools or adopted the three-tier system, and in Bedfordshire, it was only North and Mid Beds (Now Bedford Borough and Central Bedfordshire) that changed, whilst Luton stayed two-tier.

By why the decline in middle schools? and the transition back to Primary and Secondary two-tier?

Middle Schools peaked in the early 1980’s with around 1400 in 49 local education authorities across England (Hansard), today there are estimated to be only just over 100 still open.  (National Middle Schools Forum)

The decline could be correlated with the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988, a radio change to teaching practice, and more importantly exams normally referred to as SATS.

The testing points didn’t align with the three-tier system, and many teachers raise a concern about what is sometimes described as coasting, where Lower and Middle Schools stop pushing the children in their older years because they have no accountability at that point, and seen as one of the main disadvantages of the system today.

Abigail Gosling qualified teacher and senior lecturer of education at the University of Bedfordshire describes.

Across Bedfordshire, the transition from three-tier to two-tier has been long and complicated.

Bedford Borough at the end of this years academic year see’s the final transition to a fully two-tier system, but it’s a process that’s taken over 10 years. In the 2010’s there was a big drive for change, driven by the disadvantages above and imparticular that Bedford’s results were lower than national averages, although this is compounded by a high number of private or specialist Schools across the borough that requires the most gifted and talented. The campaign for change was also aided by a promise over £100 Million pounds in funding as from the Labour governments building schools for the future fund.

In 2009 there was a close vote in the council, with the change in schooling winning 19 votes to 17. However, the following year these plans changed with the election of the coalition government, as one of the first major changes they made was to scrap the programme. Bedford could not move forward without this vital funding and it wasn’t until just 3 years ago when the Borough unanimously voted re-established this policy of change following the elected Mayor promising £25 million pounds of funding to support the transition.

In Central Bedfordshire, it’s a very different picture, over 10 years ago the council adopted a policy of keeping middle schools, this was following a large public consultation with the overwhelming feeling of residents reluctant to any change.

Lower, Middle and Upper Catchment Areas of Central Bedfordshire

However, some schools decided to go ahead anyway via the academy route. The academisation of schools has disrupted the education system in the UK, whereas before they were local authority funded and controlled, once a school becomes an academy it is funded and the responsibility to the government directly under the Department of Education. This meant that schools could become academies and regardless of local educational policies then convert to Primary or Secondary schools.

This process impacted in some areas of Central Bedfordshire as there was no local plan or support, and in particular in Dunstable, the largest town in Central Beds saw three middle schools close in 2016, as a direct result of other local schools becoming academies and changing to primary and secondary school

Last year the council changed it’s stance and now has a policy to actively support schools that want to make the transition, and only recommend that new schools being built follow the two-tiered Primary and Secondary approach to help accommodate the thousands of homes being built across the county.

This new policy has created what they refer to as ‘locality clusters’ were local areas, the towns and smaller rural villages work together to create a local plan that takes account of new housing developments and also is designed to not impact other clusters or ideally schools within their own cluster.

However, this hasn’t always been the case and it is causing a negative impact on families. Lesley and her family live in Sandy, and the Middle School that her Son goes to is about to close.

Lesley and Harry are now faced with a decision, for him to stay in his new secondary until he leaves school, or stay for two years before joining his sister at Samual Whitbread Academy in the next Town, which is a bigger upper school and which Lesley feels is a much better environment for her son, but at that point he would have changed schools 3 times in 4 years, or the more drastic choice of moving house.

Sandye Place Academy is set to close at the end of the 2019 academic year.

But it’s not just families that are being impacted, it is effecting teachers as well, the headteachers and other educationalists I spoke to told me of staff they knew who were leaving Bedford Borough to continue teaching in the three-tier system or even taking early retirement. Common concerns being raised include having to teach years younger than they were comfortable with or suddenly faced with the challenge of teaching GCSE’s after a career in middle schools.

None of these teachers were willing to be interviewed on the record, but one who was happy to speak to me anonymously shared her concerns as a teacher and as a parent about the loss of innocence of children with the end of the middle schools, and how personally she is moving to a new school in September to stay in a middle school environment.

Of course with any change, there will always be someone negatively impacted, and we just have to hope that children who only ever get one chance at school don’t have any long term repercussions.


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