To be or not to be? We shall see! Intermediates, Middle Schools, or ?

By Lester Flockton | Posted: Monday February 10, 2020

NZCER director John Watson noted that the intermediate school had been subjected to almost continuous scrutiny for several decades. The debate has continued to rattle on

Lester Flockton

Almost 100 years after the first intermediate was opened in 1922 (Kowhai Intermediate) it was recommended that these schools be phased out in favour of a not-totally new model. Given the cost, complexities and logistics of doing this, it could well take another 100 years for them to finally disappear. In 2018 there were 117 intermediate schools with about half of them established over 50 years ago. There were just three Year 7-10 middle schools despite legislation allowing these so-called “restricted composites”.

Writing in the 1960s, former NZCER director John Watson noted that the intermediate school had been subjected to almost continuous scrutiny for several decades. The debate has continued to rattle on since then so it is not surprising that the review of Tomorrow’s Schools (of which intermediates were not the subject of any attention) should have taken the opportunity to again put them under the spotlight.

Tomorrow’s Schools Review: Phase out Intermediates

The Tomorrow’s Schools review ordered by Education Minister Chris Hipkins recommended the “phasing in” of a new schooling model based on:

• primary schools (Years 1-6), middle schools (Years 7-10), and senior colleges (Years 1113) or:

• full primary schools (Years 1-8) and secondary schools ((Years 9-13) or:

• Composite schools (Years 1-13)

We currently have all of those school types in various parts of New Zealand - plus intermediate schools (Years 7-8) and extended secondary schools (Y7-13). The effect of the recommendation is two-fold. It would completely eliminate Intermediates over time and replace Year 7-8 schooling with one or more of the options suggested by the Bali Haque review committee. It would also discontinue the Y7-13 secondary structure favoured by the likes of former Education Ministers Trevor Mallard and Hekia Parata, neither of whom showed much policy appreciation for intermediate let alone middle schools.

The recommended options (which were dismissed by the Government) recognise that New Zealand’s considerable rural geography and demography rule out the provision of middle schools for all of our communities and their students. So for some, especially those in small rural areas, the options given in the review would have been Y1-8 primary schools and Y913 secondaries or compositive (area) schools, but not Y1-6 primaries followed by Y7-13 secondaries.

There is sound argument in favour of the review recommendations. Nolan and Brown (2001), for example, contend that the primary school, perhaps with the exception of very large primaries, is not best suited to students in their middle years.

Little evidence can be found to support the inclusion of Year 7 and 8 students in primary schools. This is because students in these age groups are generally more influence by peers than by parents. They need a school culture more responsive to them as a group than the primary school is or could be. (p. 27) While they don’t completely dismiss the attachment of Y7-8 to secondary schools it is not an option that fits well with middle school philosophy, and one that carries risks. It is argued that for this “school type” (Year 7-13) to be acceptable, there would need to be resolute ring fencing for Years 7-10 that gives substantial autonomy to the leadership and management of the middle years. It would require that it be largely under the direction of a fulltime head of school supported by interdisciplinary team leaders for each year level. But there is always a risk that they would end up as second rather than first cousins within the school. In my experience, I have only seen this arrangement working well in one school, Southland Girls, but others are likely. Mostly I have seen examples of where it is far from ideal. The Tomorrow’s Schools review was well advised in excluding the attachment of Y7-8 to secondary schools in its recommendation, despite its convenience to some policy people and politicians.

Why were intermediates set up in the first place?

In his time, Watson lamented that it was “no matter for rejoicing” that the history of intermediate schooling in New Zealand was so little known. Men may judge without history, of course, but no sound judgment of the circumstances or value of intermediate schools is possible without an understanding of the history of the problems they have been expected to overcome, and the difficulties that have attended their introduction. (p.

In charging ahead to change things, education policy and politics in New Zealand generally pays scant attention to what has gone before and what we might learn from it. However, the circumstances that initially led to the creation of intermediate schools are most certainly no longer relevant today (times when many students didn’t qualify for secondary education because they didn’t pass Standard 6 or because they were faced with attending either technical or secondary schools depending on their academic aptitudes). Yet after those circumstances disappeared, the establishment of new intermediate schools continued but for different reasons. Clarence Beeby, labelled the father of modern education, a visionary educationist and psychologist who served as an exceptional director of education in the 1940s and 1950s, was significantly responsible for the growth of intermediates.

Beeby’s 1938 student-centred report, The Intermediate Schools of New Zealand, argued that early adolescents should be free to explore different subjects and experience a critical period of what he called “socially integrative education”. The paper became the blueprint for intermediate schools for the next 4 decades, during which time around 100 were built. Education Central, October 24, 2018

Through all of this, Year 7-8 schools came to be recognised as a transitional or “intermediate” step from primary (general) to secondary (subject-based) teaching and schooling. There was and continues to be wide-spread satisfaction that they are good for many students and that they are relevant, despite a persistent range of opinions that are either positively or negatively persuaded.

In possibly the most comprehensive research ever conducted on the performance of intermediates, Watson (1964) set out to discover “whether different kinds of school create different conditions for learning that are of significance in judging the quality of education provided by them” (p. 127). In his study, he identified four major problems that historically presented themselves at the intermediate level of schooling in New Zealand:

• Easing the transition from primary to secondary schooling

• Provision of a broad, expansive, and common curriculum that provides a maximum opportunity for the growth of individual talents and interests

• Making effective and economic use of the relatively expensive equipment needed to provide a richer and more practical curriculum

• Ensuring that the fullest possible use was made of the qualifications of teachers to provide a more consistent and balanced treatment of the syllabus at this stage of schooling. (p. 305-397)

Watson’s conclusions from his investigation acknowledged that various positions could be taken on a number of fronts depending on the opinions and perspectives of those making the judgments. Those fronts range over academic performance, student social and maturational factors, economies of resourcing, administrative arrangements, curricular provisions, etc.

But taking everything into account from his extensive inquiry, and for good reasons, Watson concluded that wherever possible intermediate schooling (Years 7-8) should not be attached to primary or secondary schools (i.e. Y1-8 or Y7-13 schools) and, significantly, he recommended that, the intermediate school system should be continued, extended, and strengthened. In saying “extended”, his recommendation was two-fold: extend the number of intermediate schools and extend the year levels beyond Year 8. Following its evaluation, the Currie Commission (1962) also supported the concept of intermediate schooling, and following a review of intermediates for Phil Amos, Minister of Education in the 3rd Labour Government, an additional 29 intermediates were established during the 1970s.

Middle Schools: Agree or Disagree?

In a review carried out in 2007 by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) for the Ministry of Education, they found strong views both for and against the concept of the middle school, noting that it has been relatively slow to develop in New Zealand. Among others, this mix of views was shared among primary and intermediate teachers according to Nolan and Brown (2002)who note, however, that while many of them appeared to be opposed to the four year (Y7-10) model of schooling they were nonetheless increasingly adopting the philosophy and approaches of middle schooling. So, what is that ‘philosophy’?

Middle School Philosophy

There is little robust and dependable, well researched evidence to suggest that one schooling type is more or less superior when it comes to measures of academic performance. But schooling is much more than the singularity of academic achievement despite what some might think or say. Educational provision needs a much richer and deeper rationale and attitude.

When it comes to the question of philosophy, Nolan and Brown (2001) place the focus of middle school clearly on the distinctive nature and needs of emerging adolescents. They quite rightly argue that “the principal reason for assigning such importance to middle years education comes from human development researchers”:

In terms of growth and development that takes place, the period from 10 to 15 years is second only to infancy in its significance for lifelong learning. It could be that infancy is our first chance, emerging adolescence is our second-best chance – and possibly the last – to keep students “switched on” to education and lay the motivational foundations for educational success at this critical turning point in their lives. (p. 26)

Translating our understanding of the uniqueness of the adolescent years into definable educational philosophy and well-tailored practice is absolutely the critical issue for middle schooling. Nolan and Brown say this should include such features as holistic curricular programmes, active, interactive and inquiry-oriented pedagogy, dedicated student guidance and counselling, and flexible timetabling.

They remind us that this is a time of reciprocity, give and take, along with energy and enthusiasm. For many it can also bring times of personal confusion as they transition from childhood dependency to youthful independence and a growing sense and assertion of self.

For these things to be understood and reflected in the school’s culture and practices, the ability of the principal to collaboratively lead strong positioning on policies, programmes and practices that recognise differences in students’ intellectual capacities, their spiralling physical maturation, their social and emotional ups and downs and their cultural identity, is crucial. These are years of heightened personal and social development and they are not always “easy”. They benefit from a school setting that is sympathetic to their needs yet clear and capable in its counsel.

To pin down an educational and pedagogical framework for middle schools that is entirely consistent with the special character of early adolescence, we would do well to follow the propositions along the lines offered by Nolan and Brown (2002):

• Positively recognise the distinctive characteristics, interests and needs of young adolescents, and commit to developing programmes that incorporate all three.

• Focus on educating the whole child, intellectually, culturally, socially, emotionally and personally.

• Develop demanding yet personable and trusting relationships.

• Structure learning to think critically through disciplined inquiry referenced to appropriate bodies of knowledge in ways that will help students to live healthy lives, behave ethically and lawfully, and share responsibility for their own learning and development.

The lingering myth of disruptive transitions

The Tomorrow’s Schools review committee’s justification for its recommendation to phase out intermediates is their view that it would provide more stability, better transitions for students and better support for their learning and wellbeing. They were of the view that the two-year intermediate schooling model is “unnecessarily disruptive of learner/akonga pathways” (p.61), whatever those pathways might mean or be, let alone the questionable presumption that intermediates somehow “disrupt” them. Regardless, middle schools could have the advantage of allowing teachers to know their students “as well as possible” according to Rototuna principal  Paula Wine.But note that claims by a train of policy people of the supposed deleterious effects of school transitions are often without strong evidence or argument. As Sharon Keen, principal of Casebrook Intermediate correctly and sensibly observes, transition is often talked about negatively, whereas it is arguably an important life skill. In the real world we are constantly faced with having to make and adjust to changes in our life and work situations; some are easy, some are tough. It's part of life, because in life you do have changes. So you have to learn to manage those, and that’s our job. To be a successful intermediate we have to be good at transitioning. Education Central, October 24, 2018. p. 7

But what do students say about all of this?

A notable feature of the literature and outpourings on intermediates has one thing in common: the absence of student voice. Does it matter? Of course it should! While we don’t have the resources of a well-funded research institution, it seemed nonetheless important to give students the last say on the matter of the Tomorrow’s Schools review recommendations. All 468 students at Tahuna Normal Intermediate responded to a survey intended to capture their preferences, thoughts and feelings. For many, their preferences revolved around age-appropriateness, making friendships, wider curricular opportunities, and having teachers who understand the early teenage years.

I like intermediate because you are separated from younger and older kids, and you make new friendships.

In middle school, you wouldn’t be there for too long or too short. It’s preferable.

Being at an intermediate for 2 years isn’t long enough and middle school is more popular globally.

I think that it should be an intermediate or middle school because most kids would be coming into their teenage years and they will need teachers who can potentially relate to them.

When asked for their preference of school type, the intermediate school was clearly the strongest option, followed by the middle school. In contrast, preferences for Year 7-8 education in primary or secondary schools were weak. Moreover, preferences were substantially similar for boys and girls, and for Year 7 and Year 8 students. The data speak for themselves.

Table 1: Percentage preferences of Years 7-8 students for the type of school they would like to   attend (N=468 students)

Concerns for the effects of transitioning from one school type to another is something that is not sufficiently substantiated by well-rounded evidence and rationale, so the students were asked questions to help give some substance to the matter. A small percentage of students said they found changing from primary to intermediate very hard, and that it took them a long time to feel okay at intermediate. By contrast, the large majority made the transition with little or no trauma or drama. This is no reason for dismissing the plight of the small minority. A good school will always be aware of these students and provide them with caring support. This is unquestionably about differences in personalities rather than transitions across schools – or a least within the school zone surveyed.

Table 2: Percentage student responses to the question: What was it like for you changing from your primary school to your intermediate school? (N=468 students)

Table 3: Percentage student responses to the question: How long did it take for you to feel okay being at your intermediate school? (N=468 students)

What, then, might we conclude from all of the foregoing?

Intermediates are unlikely to be out of favour or fashion for those communities where they are proving to be in tune with their students’ needs. Regardless, they continue to be criticised for their two-year brevity. Their extension to Year 10 through the creation of Y710 schools that are intermediate to primary and secondary is arguable, particularly with regard to the strong educational implications of the unique time and needs of adolescence. There is little good educational justification for simply retaining Y7 and 8 students at primary schools where this can be avoided, or for tacking them onto secondary schools.

Arguments around the harmful effects of transitions are overstated and flimsy. Good schools will always work caringly and professionally to monitor and help ensure that their students experience smooth transitions and develop the life skills and personal resilience needed to face and manage changes, including those from one school to another.

If our system were to successfully ease out intermediates and phase in middle schools it would have required widespread belief and commitment, a lot of money, industrial resolution, absence of botched processes, and a long time.


Appreciative thanks to principal Tony Hunter along with the students and teachers of Tahuna Normal Intermediate who happily and helpfully participated in the survey reported here.

Author Lester Flockton’s parents moved him from his Y1-8 Primary to an Intermediate for his Y7-8 schooling. His first and only assistant teacher position was in an intermediate, followed by principalships of two Y1-8 primaries, a Y1-6 primary, and two intermediates.


Nolan & Brown, SET. NZCER: Wellington. 2001

Nolan, C., & Brown, M. (2002). The Fight for Middle School Education in New Zealand. Middle School Journal 33(4), 34-44.

Watson, J.E. (1964). Intermediate Schooling in New Zealand. Wellington: NZCER.

Education Central, October 2018

Teaching and Learning in Middle Schooling: A Review of the Literature, Ministry of Education, March 2009.

Our Schooling Futures: Stronger Together (2018). Tomorrow’s School Taskforce. Ministry of Education: NZ. November 2018.


For those interested in knowing more about Intermediates in New Zealand, an excellent account is given in Derek Lucic’s sabbatical report, A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, August 2013.