Consider pros, cons of integrated primary-middle school education

December 30, 2014 The Yomiuri Shimbun
The education ministry will introduce a system of integrated primary and middle schools teaching nine years of compulsory education, which is not shackled by the traditional model of six years at primary school followed by three years at middle school.

The Central Council of Education has presented a report on this issue to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, which will submit bills to revise the School Education Law and other laws in next year’s ordinary Diet session. The ministry hopes to introduce the newly configured education system beginning in the 2016 school year.

The big question is whether this new structure will improve the quality of education children receive.

The main point of integrating primary and middle school education is that municipalities would have the discretion to divide the nine years of compulsory education into a 4-3-2 system or a 5-4 format, and be able to begin teaching middle school content in advance at primary school.

The education council’s report proposed two configurations: A “unified primary and middle school model” that would be administered by a single principal, and a “separated school facility model” in which a primary and middle school would retain their respective principals and teaching staff systems, but cooperate to provide a continuous education for the students.

Unifying a primary and middle school will be affected by the costs involved in setting up the required facilities, such as consolidating the school buildings at the same site. Adding the option of the separated model, which will help keep down expenses by using existing school facilities, was likely designed to encourage greater adoption of the new configurations.

There are expectations that systematic implementation of the unified schools will help eliminate the so-called chuichi gap, in which nonattendance and other problems increase among children who struggle to make the transition during their first year at middle school. It is hugely significant that flexible curricula can be drawn up and tailored to fit students’ powers of understanding.

Local govts have big role

According to a survey by the education ministry, 90 percent of schools that have already adopted a unified primary and middle school education program have reported positive results. These schools were able to integrate their programs under the government’s special school system.

As an example, adopting a system in which teachers specialize in teaching a certain subject — as is done at middle schools — from the senior years at primary school, when class content becomes more difficult, reportedly resulted in improved results in academic tests and a greater desire to learn among students.

On the other hand, 90 percent of these schools also reported issues that need to be ironed out. There was strong concern that spending nine years in the same environment would cause human relationships to grow entrenched.

There also are fears that if the teaching methods and learning progress at existing public primary and middle schools become excessively different, children and students who move to a new area may become bewildered when they start at a new school.

First and foremost, it is important that each municipality clearly discern the effects and issues that might arise. After this system is introduced, it will be essential to devise steps such as detailed instruction for students who transfer to new schools.

There are regions where many children take exams to enter private middle schools, and where public middle and high schools have already adopted an integrated education system. Local governments will need to give proper consideration to the actual state of schools in their area and carefully think about how to proceed.

It also will be vital to specify the guiding principles that will oversee the nine years covered by an integrated primary and middle school system. Many parents consider the education offered by public schools when they decide to move to a new area. We urge local governments to improve the provision of such information as much as possible.