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The heroes going out in style

By Geoff Barton

A Personal View
A Personal View

This is a tribute to some of our local heroes. They won’t necessarily see themselves as heroes but, come late July, I hope they will.

They are the staff in the four Bury St Edmunds middle schools which will close for good this summer – Hardwick, Howard, St James, and St Louis.

Here’s why I believe we owe them so much.

Back in 1967 there was national anxiety about standards of education. The post-war promise of grammar schools, secondary moderns and the ill-fated technical schools failed to give better chances of success to children from poorer backgrounds. Standards of education weren’t rising and the United Kingdom was being outpaced by other countries.

In 1967, a major inquiry into education – the Plowden Report – recommended a radical reorganisation. Children should start in first schools and learn the basics. Then, aged around eight, they would move to newly invented middle schools, in which they would begin to specialise in some subjects. Next, aged 14, they would move to upper schools where all the foundations of the previous two phases would prepare them for a more grown-up school culture and subsequent academic success.

By the early 1980s some 2000 middle schools were in place, including here in Suffolk, a county which embraced the new system. Many other places – including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales - never fully adopted the three-tier system.

In Suffolk, parents generally liked the idea that their children moved from one school to the next, protected from mixing with older students and getting early access at middle school to a range of specialist facilities and teaching.

The problem was that education nationally changed again.

With the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, with key stage tests and league tables and more emphasis on Ofsted, middle schools no longer looked as fashionable or successful. They began to feel increasingly out-of-step. So by last year there were fewer than 150 middle schools left in the UK - and from this September there will be four fewer.

Regular readers will know that Suffolk County Council’s transition from a three-tier to full two-tier system has been a traumatic one. Funding changes, government fads and academistation have all changed the landscape. So in Bury St Edmunds and its surrounding villages – one of Suffolk’s top-performing areas – we have experienced a turbulent time.

But that is now almost behind us - which is where the heroes come in.

Because I look at the headteachers of our middle schools, at the teachers, at the support staff and I see people who believe strongly that education is about children and who have kept aloof from squalid politics.

Many of these people have recently been handed notices of redundancy. They could have jumped ship earlier on. They could have tried to derail the move to two-tier.

Instead what they did was focus on their schools and on the children in their care.

These are people who will see their schools through to the very end. And they are ensuring that middle schools aren’t gloomy or self-obsessed places, even with just over five weeks remaining.

Instead, the children and adults in them are celebrating a proud history and commemorating the generations of children who were taught there. They are sharing memories through photographs and anecdotes. They are going out in style.

Come September, a new chapter of education will open in this part of Suffolk. The shift to two-tier – initiated in 2007 – will finally be completed. It will lead to a rich primary provision, a stronger partnership between schools, and lots of exciting opportunities for children of all ages in music, science, sport and many other areas.

But this couldn’t have happened without some great leaders and without so many committed middle school staff, who have shown enormous courage, determination and integrity in helping this final phase of educational transition to be completed.

We owe these people a lot. They are our local heroes of education.

-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds


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