By Anthony Doornbos | Posted: Friday October 7, 2016
Structures of schooling that may have served the country well in previous decades need to be overhauled and updated to cater for the needs of adolescents entering a technological society significantly different from one that existed even ten years ago.
Learners’ progress through the middle years of schooling is currently marked by transitions between different school settings. The transition from primary to secondary school can be especially challenging. The New Zealand Ministry of Education’s research (2010) showed that most students cope with the immediate transition from intermediate to secondary school, but become more negative in the second half of year 9. For a significant minority, this is a time of considerable stress. Consequently, it is important to think of the year 8–9 transition as a process rather than an event. Supporting students through this process requires schools to know each learner well and to build positive relationships among students, teachers, families and whānau, and “feeder” and “receiving” schools.
The current New Zealand process of transitioning students between schooling structures in the middle of their emerging adolescent phase needs to be questioned. At an individual’s second most crucial development phase our schooling system moves them at least once, and often twice, between schooling structures. This is at a developmental stage when students should experience the greatest stability and a specific age-appropriate learning experience. While middle schooling is not specifically a schooling structure debate, the intentional alignment of specific schooling structures and pathways would serve our emerging adolescent much better than what is occurring presently.
The Ministry’s research shows widening gaps in achievement at secondary school, with some students falling behind as the literacy and numeracy demands of the curriculum increase. Teachers need support in understanding these demands and how they can help students meet them (Dinham and Rowe, 2007). Transitions can be especially difficult for specific groups, such as Māori and Pasifika learners and learners with special needs. Students with sensory disorders such as those on the autistic spectrum, for example, need extra support to cope with changing classrooms and teachers.
Disengagement, alienation and boredom in traditional secondary schools often peak in these middle years leads to a decline in academic achievement. It was for this reason that an Education Review Office report (ERO, 2006) suggested that students in years nine and ten are currently the “forgotten years” of schooling in New Zealand. Reports from the Ministry of Education’s Middle Schooling Research Programme (2007–2010) reveal that New Zealand students are generally positive about schooling and achieve relatively well (Durling, Ng, and Bishop, 2010). However, in these years, many learners’ perceptions of school become increasingly negative and their overall engagement in learning declines. This “switching off” can be accompanied by behavioural problems that affect educational participation and achievement, as evidenced by increasing rates of truancy, expulsions, and stand-downs.
Māori boys are the group most vulnerable to these experiences, Absenteeism, truancy, stand-down, attitudinal and engagement data from [New Zealand] sources indicate that some students’ perceptions of school become increasingly negative over the middle years, suggesting that a portion of students make the choice to leave school early far sooner than the senior secondary years. […] Therefore, schools must understand and respond to the needs of their young adolescents, keeping them involved, engaged and wanting to stay in school beyond Year 10. If educationalists wish to discourage students from leaving school early, these students must both achieve well and feel engaged in their work.
Hence the middle years, particularly with respect to the productive engagement of this age-group in schooling, must become a priority for policy makers, the Ministry of Education and educators.