Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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An academy for all ages

Published By: The Independent - 02 Oct 2008

From the outside the most striking thing about St Matthew Academy, in south London, is its shiny, new, zinc-tiled building. But go inside and things quickly get stranger. There are all the usual things you would expect to find in such a school, the art room and science labs and hulking teenagers lounging in front of computers, but there are other things, too -- a line of infants scampering up the stairs to lunch, a bright corridor of primary classrooms, and pupils from five to 16 sitting together in a house assembly.

There are mixed ages in some classrooms, too. In a lesson on enterprise, groups of 13-year-olds are designing new board games, and younger children are helping them.

“We tell them what colours we like, like red, black, pink and multicoloured,” says Skye Thompson, 7. “And we help them because the games are for people our age,” says Alicia Hutchinson, 7.

Welcome to the all-through school, where pupils start in the nursery or reception class and go through to 16 or 19. This model is familiar in public schools, which have long got their hands on children early, but is now taking off among state schools. By the end of this year there will be 14 all-through Academies up and running, with more in development.

“Academies and Academy sponsors are very keen on all-through schools and more and more are coming up with proposals. They see the advantages of getting children at a younger age,” says Schools Minister Andrew Adonis. “And we are very receptive to such proposals, although we are not saying they should become the standard model that everyone should follow. They may have implications for how schools work, but will have to wait and see how they do.”

Yet the spotlight is certainly turning onto this model. This week sees the annual conference of the rapidly-expanding Consortium of All-Through Schooling, which now has 120 members, and two weeks ago a massive new all-age school was announced for Nottingham, which will cater for more than three and a half thousand pupils and be the largest school in the country.

However this, like most all-through schools, will retain separate primary and secondary school buildings and heads. Merged and federated schools are the most common models for all-age schools.

But at St Matthew, which opened last September for children from three to 16, the primary and secondary schools have been fully amalgamated -- and everyone is delighted with the result.

“There’s less arguing and fighting, because it makes the little ones cry,” says Dane Moore, 13, “You have to be setting an example.”

For principal Monica Cross the advantages are legion. “Our teachers are teachers of children, not primary and secondary school teachers,” she says. Primary teachers turn to subject teachers for specialist help, and secondary teachers learn from their primary colleagues about running lively, interactive lessons and putting up great classroom displays. The pastoral care is integrated, and there’s a cost saving on facilities. Primary pupils use the art and music rooms – although not the science labs, where the benches are too high – and share the library. Teachers share professional development, and the all-through structure looks set to eradicate the traditional dip in achievement as students change to secondary school. It also allows gifted primary children to join in with older lessons, and struggling older ones to get primary help with the basics.

This is south London gangland, though, so many parents were nervous about the thought of their little children being around bad-ass teenagers, and about 10 families from the primary school that was being replaced voted with their feet. But those that stayed are more than happy, and numbers wanting to come to the school are rising. Monica Cross says the all-through structure generates “a real sense of belonging -- and if you get parents on board early you’ve got them for life.”

Any problems are practical ones, like pressure on the use of specialist drama, music and art spaces, and having to pay for booster seats for the minibus. But the advantages far outweigh difficulties. “At our sports day last year, the pupils were chanting for their houses, and the older ones were organising events for the younger ones,” says Monica Cross. “It was all very Hogwarts! But they loved it.”

Heads of all-through schools that have been going for longer are even more enthusiastic. Hilary Macaulay, principal of West London Academy, in Northolt, which opened in its new building three years ago, adds a slew of other advantages – improved welfare and special needs services – “How many primary school children have access to a counsellor?” -- a seamless English and maths curriculum, and improved status for primary teachers because all her teachers, like the ones at St Matthew, are paid on a common pay scale. “Our building was designed by Foster and Partners. It’s one big curve, a quarter of a mile long, and pupils progress along the curve. We have no such thing as transition. It doesn’t exist.” The school has a Children’s Centre and a further education centre, and is improving rapidly. In 2007, 47 per cent of students achieved five good GCSEs, a 19 per cent jump on the year before.

Research from the National College for School Leadership shows that all-age schools reduce barriers to learning, give students a greater understanding of their local community, bring leadership benefits and are good value for money. Richard Gilliland, the executive head of a trust overseeing a group of new Academies in Lincoln, one of which will be an all-through school, believes the model provides all-round benefits. “It is a win-win situation for everyone,” he writes in a recent book, Academies and the Future of State Education. “It allows for the cost effective use of facilities and for the creation of a community school in the widest sense.”

In fact the integrated model can only happen when a new school is being built from scratch, so many schools are now developing local federations, to bring primary and secondary school pupils closer.

The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust recently published “top tips” on transition for secondary schools, including encouraging primary pupils to visit secondary schools, having secondary school pupils talk to primary pupils and introducing curriculum projects that span the divide.