Retired Ofsted registered inspector and senior inspector in North Tyneside education authority, ALAN HAMILTON, supports middle schools:

In 1965, the Labour Government issued Circular 10/65 to all local education authorities. It gave details of its intention to close all LEA-controlled grammar schools which were to be replaced by comprehensive non-selective schools.

LEAs were required to consult and then submit their proposed model of comprehensive education to the Department of Education. A range of options was possible. Northumberland County Council, after county-wide consultations, adopted the three-tier model. However, there was little time for proper detailed planning for a programme of building and staffing structures for the new schools, so that when change came, there was effectively little change.

As a consequence, middle schools were frequently referred to as “muddle schools” located in their former premises, many with very few specialist teachers able to teach a “secondary school type curriculum”. The “new” nine-13 middle schools were deemed to be secondary schools. The educational theory on which the three-tier system was based, stood up to close scrutiny. Few could argue against the principles of three-tier whereby first schools catered for the early years’ education. The middle schools provided education for pupils in the nine-13 age bracket – Years 5 to 8 - with older students attending high schools for the 13 to 16 or 13 to 18 age groups.

It is important to emphasise that these age groups “matched children’s maturation in terms of physical and mental development”. The ages nine to 13 are widely acknowledged to be “the golden years for the acquisition of skills” and for the further development of inquisitiveness. Initially middle schools suffered problems with the recruitment of specialist teachers who could teach at least two or three subjects, with only generalist teachers working in perhaps Year 5.

The Hexham Courant (June 18) carried a headline “A bright future forecast for pupils”. It is well chosen. The article and accompanying picture highlighted the impact of young meteorologists using high-tech equipment and receiving guidance from weather professionals to enrich their understanding of how weather is observed and recorded. The weather professionals were from Newcastle University and also the BBC weatherman for the North-East and North-West. The young meteorologists were from Corbridge Middle School.

Large 11-18 comprehensive schools with 1,600 to 2,000+ students enrolled were, on occasions, referred to as “factory schools” where timetabling problems, usually associated with allowances having to be made for “travelling time” between lessons. During this time, behaviour frequently deteriorated with consequent disruptive effects on pupils’ behaviour and learning in lessons. There were other adverse effects for pupils’ learning in many 11-18 high schools.

The student roll figure included children who were just 11 years old (birthdays in August). These very young pupils used the same facilities as students who were of adult age and had adult activities and interests. Such “a mix” often resulted in undesirable effects relating to behaviour.

Schools in Northumberland suffered under the Conservative government’s “Northern Powerhouse” plans for regional economic development. A budget of £20m was allocated for the North of Tyne Combined Authority which included Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside Councils, elected in 2019.

The extreme reluctance of some North-East local authorities to combine and form a “North-East powerhouse” has had a distinctly negative effect on funding for education. Compare and contrast this with the North-West powerhouse of the Manchester region with Andy Burnham as its mayor.

Extra funding for North-East England is required. While the North-West flourished, the North-East continued to be neglected in terms of funding for any significant developments and education suffered.

However, middle schools continued to be very well supported by parents. Pupils respond well to innovative teaching. There is every indication that standards of attainment are rising. The benefits of specialist teaching are evident. Curriculum liaison and exchanges between first, middle and high schools are increasingly well established and productive. Parents are very pleased to note how happy their children are at middle school. Behaviour is good.

The belief that development, such as has occurred in the North-West, stops at Leeds, persists. The improvement of the road networks, north to Scotland, and west to Carlisle, remains unresolved at a time when “the racetrack A69” from Newcastle to the underpass at Hexham is under way. This remains a concern.

Our political representatives seem to be slow to understand the pitfalls of very large comprehensive secondary schools and their capacity to develop into “factory schools”. Parents fear the potential drift into schools with roll figures circa 2,000 students. Anxiety remains despite the elaborate systems of pastoral care and improvements to timetable modelling.

Despite the continuing success of middle schools in Ovingham, Prudhoe, Wylam, Corbridge, Morpeth, Whitley Bay and other parts of Northumberland, there remains a continuing and worrying concern for many parents. At Ponteland, (and at Hexham in the planning stage) new schools have been created and are planned. These schools will accommodate pupils and students aged nine-13 and 13 to 18 on one site. Many cynics and “observers of the scene” fear that the creation of very large schools catering for students aged 11 to 18 may be inevitable. They have realistic concerns that the “feared unit costs syndrome is waiting in the wings”.