David Reynolds, Karl Napieralla, Joanna Parketny and Menna Jenkins
Research published by School of Education at Swansea University.
An ‘all-age’ also known as an ‘all-through’ school combines at least Primary and Secondary stage of education and at times also Nursery and Senior Phase within a single institution, and provides continuous education for its pupils throughout phases. The school often occupies a single site or is in the process of joining its previously separate campuses, and has one governing body. This model of schooling has been adopted by many countries worldwide, with ‘K-12’ schools in the United States and similar establishments in Canada, Australia, Philippines, India, South Korea, or a Scandinavian ‘Enhedsskole’ in Europe. Since the beginning of the millennium, but particularly after 2010, this model of schooling has been also adopted by many (~200) of English schools, a substantial number (~40) of schools in Scotland and is becoming increasingly popular in Wales. There are currently over 20 allage schools across Wales and according to the most recent estimates, there may be around 40 by September 2018, with plans for more to be established in the coming years. The reasons behind the increasing popularity of this approach to schooling in the Welsh context are manifold. A number of newly formed all-age schools came to existence as a result of rationalisation, and as a by-product of the 21st century schools funding programme that has encouraged innovative approaches to schooling. However, it has soon become apparent that the consequences of joining of traditionally separate phases of education reach way beyond an improved economic efficiency stemming from sharing of financial and human resources, and may have numerous beneficial effects on various aspects of school’s day to day running, professional development of staff, and on the educational experience and outcomes of their pupils. And indeed, these positive effects shared amongst the growing all-age schools network are becoming a driving force behind plans to establish more schools in line with this model. The implications include effects on the leadership and management structure and style, curriculum, pedagogy, transition between the key educational stages, wellbeing, Welsh language, and an involvement and enrichment of wider communities.
The research up to date on the all-age model is very limited. We have used several publications search engines including Educational Resource Information Center, Science Search and Google Scholar amongst others. Internationally, there are a handful of articles on all-age schools in Scandinavian countries and Jamaica that we were able to identify. The paper on all-age schools in Scandinavia (Wiborg, 2004) outlines the trajectory of development of the unique comprehensive school system in Scandinavia that differs from the British one in having non-selective, public schools that cover the whole length of compulsory school age within the same setting, and can be therefore defined as all-age schools. While the article sheds light on socio-economic and political factors that have led to the establishment of this system, it does not offer insight into how it compares in terms of its effectiveness to others. The study conducted by the University of Wolverhampton and Jamaican Ministry of Education on the Jamaican All-Age Schools Project (JAASP) that included 48 all-age schools, found an improvement in pupils’ attendance, quality of teaching and learning, school management and involvement of parents, and the wider community (Jamaican All-Age Schools Project, 2003). The JAASP project ran between 2000 and 2003 and included a number of training programmes such as workshops for teachers to develop their understanding of curricula and skills in literacy, numeracy, special needs and learning support, and training for managers in leadership and management and in school improvement planning. Additionally, schools were resourced with books and computers, and community participation facilitators were recruited to enable better community engagement. While the reported effects are clearly beneficial, they appear to be related to the number of interventions that were put in place, rather than intrinsic features of an allage model.
The majority of evidence for potential advantages that an all-age model might have over the traditional one within the British context, is either anecdotal or has come to light as a result of HM Inspectorate of Education inspection findings and a couple of small research projects. The ‘Opening up learning in all-through schools’ report on Scottish all-age schools (2010) focuses on teaching and learning outcomes and a collective aspect of an all-age endeavour to create continuous and effective learning environments for children.
Department for Education and Skills Resource (2006) commissioned by the Innovations Unit offers a guideline for setting up an all-age school structured around five principal areas: Leadership, Management and Governance; Curriculum; Resources; Ethos and Community. The National College for School Leadership (2011) report explores the opportunities and challenges of all-age leadership and management, and benefits for teaching and learning, pupils’ educational experiences and outcomes, and professional development for teachers. Lastly, the University of Bristol’s (2010) study that includes six all-age schools in its sample investigates transition related issues and the associated dip in academic performance. Findings in all of these sources consistently point out to the following strengths of the allage model:
The aim of our project was to initially investigate the effects of all-age model and to gain insight into how it compares with the traditional one within the Welsh context, in preparation for a larger scale research study. We held a meeting with the Welsh All-Age Schools Network and were given a list of schools interested in participating in this project. We visited six all-age schools in south, middle and north Wales and carried out semistructured interviews with leaders, teaching staff and pupils throughout a visit day. We explored the challenges in setting up and running an all-age school, the successes, and the prognoses for future developments as well as the impact of the model on schools, their staff and pupils and their local communities. Details and outcomes of our discussions are outlined in the Summary of Findings section (for a visit day agenda and script please see Appendix 1 and Appendix 2 respectively).
In an endeavour to get an understanding of a wider spectrum of issues relevant to different stages of their development trajectory, we selected schools with differing histories, some long established as an all-age school and some at their early stages of merging with the partner primary school (for a list of visited schools please see Appendix 3). Selected schools had also different socio-economic backgrounds affecting their intake, including a range of Free School Meals ratios, mix of urban and rural locations, from areas of high, middle and low rates of employment, and varied level of interaction with their communities. Our preliminary findings offer an opportunity to reflect on unique features of the all-age model and point in the directions for the future research.
Summary of Findings
Our interviews with school leaders, teaching staff and pupils were structured around the themes that included the effects on the leadership and management, teaching and learning, wellbeing and transition related issues, Welsh language, and involvement of parents and communities. The summary of our findings is presented accordingly, and offers insight into each of the topics discussed.
The model comparison with other models
We have asked the visited schools about the differences between the traditional and all-age school set up, and perceived benefits and challenges associated with the all-age model. Below is what we have learned:
Issues with the school set up
Setting up an all-age school is an ambitious and a difficult endeavour. Our study identified a number of common issues that leaders have come across in this process. They include the following:
Our interviewees have agreed that the difficulties in setting up the school, and differences in approaches between phases, have been initially challenging, but have also offered numerous opportunities for innovation and positive change. The early successes shared by the schools in our sample include:
The effects on leadership and management
It has become clear that an all-age model has a substantial impact on the leadership and management structure that require a design that allows for effective and efficient running of the school and coordinating of complex activities. Below are the common characteristics:
The effects on learning and teaching
Despite the initial uncertainty about the capacity to effectively deliver and adapt to the new teaching and learning requirements brought about by the all-age model, both leaders and teaching staff were in agreement that they face a unique opportunity to transform traditional teaching and learning strategies and develop more flexible curricula in the future. This in turn benefits staff professional development and enriches educational experience and outcomes for the pupils. Several implications for teaching and learning have emerged from our discussions:
The effects on the community, involvement of parents/carers and wider community
Contrary to the initial concerns regarding the public reception and parental and community involvement with the new all-age schools, it appears that the merging of different schools and the continuity of educational journey that pupils go through, encourage community building rather than division. Schools that we visited pointed out to the following outcomes:
The effects on the wellbeing and transition related issues
The effects on Welsh language
The development plans for the future
All schools in our sample have ambitious plans for the development and utilising of the transformative potential of the all-age model to its fullest. Several ideas for further growth emerged:
A couple of additional reflections were shared with us as important implications of adopting an all-age model and suggestions for future developments:
Conclusions & Recommendations
The aim of our project was to shed some light on the characteristic features of an all-age model and gain an understanding of how it distinguished from single phase establishments. We were able to identify a number of differences, explore the challenges with the school set up and running, and importantly, recognise a number of innovative solutions and benefits of the joint working for pupils, as well as staff that have the potential to inspire the transformation of the Welsh educational system in the future.
Apart from the practical advantages of sharing of the resources which promotes the efficiency of all-age schools, of particular interest are the emerging benefits of this model on the pedagogy, and an innovative and synergic approach to teaching and learning that allows for combining of the most effective elements of teaching strategies in different educational phases for the benefit of pupil’s learning outcomes. Moreover, this approach appears to stimulate the professional development of staff, enrichment and diversification of their skillset, and with it, increase in their professional competence and confidence to create the best learning environment for their pupils. This combined with the continuity of the education throughout the key stages within the same environment can allow for greater coherence and reduction in the transition related issues, which in consequence may minimise pupil’s stress, enhance their wellbeing and give them a better chance for more favourable educational outcomes and a higher quality of life in the future.
Building a society of competent, confident and happy young people, ready to embrace the challenges of an adult life, and encouraging the community connectedness lie at the core of the Welsh Government vision and we believe that an all-age model has the potential to aide this vision to materialise. The identified benefits for the wellbeing of children and the more active participation of parents and wider communities enabled by the all-age model could be the solution worth serious consideration.
Based on the existing evidence and our initial findings we believe that the potential of the all-age model and the opportunities it brings for innovation and transformation of the educational practice require further exploration. We propose the following future research directions and objectives:
We also propose that the following recommendations are taken into consideration in the future policy development:
The all-age model of schooling continues to increase in popularity in Wales and has already influenced educational practices across the country. We are witnessing an ongoing transformation rich in potential for innovation and creative solutions. We could allow for this transformation to continue to unfold organically, or ensure that the direction it takes is evidence based and streamlined in a fashion that enables the best possible outcomes for the Welsh young people and communities. This is an outstanding opportunity to undertake unprecedented research into unique features of a Welsh allage school network that would enable informed decision making and policy design for the benefit of children today and future generations.