Chapter 9


Middle School Years

by Sue Bell and Susan Anderson

A Life Changing Experience….

 In 1979 I applied for a job at McDonalds. I was fourteen years old and considering that I was only in Year 9, I wasn't sure of my chances. So I told the manager I was 15, had finished school and was hoping for a part time job. At the time I filled in my application I was enrolled at an Alternative School. The expectation and structure of this school were such that when I accepted a full time job at McDonalds, no one at the school was worried by my absence. Consequently, my parents were oblivious to the changes in my daily routine until several weeks later. By this time, I had no intention of returning to school and they never informed anyone that I was a chronic truant.

            I worked as a full time assistant on casual rates for the next eight months. This was to be an amazing and fruitful experience for me. Whilst working at McDonalds, I gained financial independence, contributed to the bills, bought my own food and clothes and remained fully self sufficient. I never filled out a tax return, too scared that the tax department would find out I was only 14 and that I would lose my job. Since I was not supposed to be working until I was 15, and would have to return to school if anyone found out, I considered foregoing a tax return worth it.

            By the end of eight months of serving and asking customers if they would "like fries with that," I was ready, indeed keen, to return to school. However, I no longer wished to be at the alternative school but at a traditional school with bell times, lockers, compulsory attendance and a discipline policy. I wanted something academically challenging and I wanted to go to university. I felt that I had proven myself in the work environment and now I was ready to extend myself in the world of academia.

            My experiences reflect issues that confront students during this period. Like many students around their early to mid teens, I became bored with school. I wanted to explore my options, to earn money, to gain independence, indeed to enter a kind of working relationship with the adult world. I did not feel like a kid, even if I was referred to as one, and I no longer cared for what teachers were telling me about the world, I wanted to see it for myself. Once I had this experience, I felt regenerated and stimulated. I felt confident and reassured of my identity. I had been independent and had taken control over the direction of my life.

            The eight months I spent away from formal academic studies renewed my enthusiasm for school. However, I soon discovered that my life experiences were considered of little value to the curriculum upon my return. My experiences could not be graded like a formal assessment yet I did not stop learning whilst I was away from school, quite the contrary. During these months I improved my social skills by dealing with adults including customers, staff and managers. I learnt practical skills such as how to exchange money, cook burgers, clean machines and tidy the store. I learnt financial skills by balancing my weekly pay packet between buying things and saving regularly. In the end, I learnt to appreciate that being young and enthusiastic offered new and exciting experiences.

Sue Bell

The fact that this personal reflection on the middle years of schooling is still relevant today shows that formal schooling is still excluding many adolescents and their experiences in life.  In many ways the problems experienced by teachers at school in dealing with the middle years age group (referring to students from grade 5 to year 9) correspond to the developmental stages of the young adult. During these years, there is rapid physical, emotional and intellectual development taking place.

            On the other hand, Hill and Russell (1999) found that for many students during these years, there is a limited amount of growth in reading, writing, speaking and listening. It was also found that students’ reading plateaus in grades 5 to 8, and that for the lowest 25% of students, there is an actual decline in achievement levels in the first year of secondary school (year 7). And also, it was found that underachievement is greater among boys compared to girls and lasts longer (Russell, 2000). In terms of literacy, students make the least amount of progress during the middle years (unlike the early years, where they make the most progress) and the gap between the top and bottom 10% of students grows at a rapid pace (Department of Education, Employment and Training (DEET), 1999).

            During this time, adolescents also start to face the pressures of the world, which can come from friends, teachers and parents. There is greater exposure to factors such as alcohol, drugs and violence and youth unemployment, which are all publicized greatly in the media (DEET, 1999). This is reflected in the behaviour of many adolescents during these years, including:

•  Non-attendance at school at particular times;

•       Delinquent behaviour;

•       Suspension and expulsion;

•  Habitual lateness;

•  The dislike of teachers;

•  Anger and resentment towards school;

•  Disruptive behaviour in class;

•  Passivity and withdrawal;

•  Low self esteem;

•  Social isolation;

•  Substance abuse;

•  Failure to complete work or do homework;

•  Peer conflict or gang behaviour;

•  Self injury;

•  Unsafe sexual practices. (Hill and Russell, 1999).

            But the largest concern as a consequence of these pressures is that some students may choose to leave school. The decision to leave school earlier than at the conclusion of year 12 can be due to a positive reason such as employment or an idea of a pathway to adulthood. But unfortunately, most students leaving school early feel the need to do so due to a negative experience at school. As was discussed in the above personal reflection, young people’s reasons for leaving school can be quite varied and can include bad student/teacher relationship, the school environment, or work being uninteresting or uninspiring. Other factors that can lead to students leaving school include abuse in the family, lack of support, or troubles in combining school work with outside paid employment (Dwyer, 1996).

            Studies have found that:

•  The majority of students who leave school early have completed the minimum of 10 years at school and are from a government school background;

•  There is a higher proportion of boys as early school leavers compared to girls;

•  Students from rural areas and Koori students are more disadvantaged, leading to a higher rate of school leaving;

•  Students who are from families with a lower income and residential insecurity (especially homelessness) are more likely to be early school leavers compared with their peers. (Dwyer, 1996).

            Although students may find school at this stage in their life a time to respond to new challenges and to develop their learning productively, many others (in particular boys), have little enjoyment during this time at school. These students see school as frustrating, and can display negative attitudes to learning. This in turn leads to a lack of self esteem, low confidence, poor literacy skills, and as previously discussed, students who are more likely to leave school at an earlier age. It is these students who are titled ‘at risk’ who are likely to be in the 30% of students that leave school before completing their VCE (DEET, 1999).

Approaches to the middle years problem

For the beginner teacher, the challenges facing them in the classroom are overwhelming. However, it is constructive to remember that teenagers are not children and need to be treated as independent and creative individuals. Whilst there are teachers willing to deal with the middle school challenges, there needs to be an approach throughout the whole school rather than changes made in one classroom for one period a day. Beginner teachers need to know there is a support network, and that no one strategy will work for all teenagers.

            As discussed, there are many factors which lead to the problems being found in the middle years of schooling. The problems facing today’s young adolescents can be divided into two broad categories: personal and structural. Unfortunately, there are limited ways for teachers to have an effect on student’s personal problems of external situations. But, through changes in school organization, teaching and learning approaches, and curriculum content and structure, we can help to eliminate or minimize structural problems which occur in the classroom, and this may help in improving learning in the middle years.

            There have been many proposed models of the appropriate schooling in the middle years, including projects undertaken through the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, The Australian National Middle Schooling Project, the Junior Secondary Review of South Australia, and the Schools Council Report, Schooling for Young Adolescents. The following are some examples of how schools in Australia are tackling the problems facing teachers whilst teaching students in the middle years (Williams, 2001).

Vincentia High School

Whilst taking part in the National Middle Schooling Project, Vincentia High School in New South Wales introduced the Marida project. This project was introduced at the school to address problems such as truancy, high suspension rates, lack of respect for property and people, and violence. With these problems in mind, the project aimed to “provide an atmosphere in which the development of relationships between all the people involved in a student’s learning is of primary importance, where a love of learning is encouraged and where all activities have a reason and purpose.” (Cummings, 1998).

            The project was focused on Year 7 students and incorporated the following structure:

•  Teams of 4-5 teachers (including school staff and community) teach the classes;

•  Classes are combined to have a total of 60 students in the class and are team taught by two members of the teaching team;

•  The curriculum is outcomes-based and uses an integrated/negotiated curriculum covering six of the key learning areas;

•       Assessment is currently based on Key Learning Area programs, but is being reviewed to reflect student achievements;

•  Reporting to parents involves the development of a portfolio of each student’s work which demonstrates the current capabilities of each student;

•  The entire project is being carried out as a research project and includes constant review and evaluation. (Cummings, 1998).

            To date, the school has found that this project has been very successful. Through interviews with staff, parents and students, it has been found that truancy rates have been reduced by 80%, suspension rates have dropped by 85%, and harassment rates have been reduced by 64%. There is less disruption in class, teachers have higher satisfaction, and parents have become more involved in the school (Cummings, 1998).

Oatlands School

Also taking part in the National Middle Schooling Project is Oatlands School in central Tasmania. This school was declared a priority project school of high needs, reflecting a population in which there are high rates of unemployment and many low-income earners. With this in mind, the school decided to include a negotiated curriculum for students in the middle years of schooling. Cummings (1998) writes that, in order to support the negotiated curriculum, a whole school approach to core welfare, behaviour management, double units of classes, changes to assessment, and better negotiation among staff as a group was also undertaken.

            In more detail, the project included:

•  Students in Years 5-8 being taught by two principle teachers for up to 75% of the week;

•  Subjects being integrated, making learning personally meaningful;

•  A focus on literacy and numeracy to help develop students’ self esteem whilst focusing on the individual needs of every student;

•  Voices of both teachers and students being heard. This requires students taking on a much larger role in their learning whilst teachers act more as facilitators;

•  Students being supported in order to discover which teaching methods work best for them in discussions on how to learn and self-assess after completing units (Cummings, 1998).

            This project has been a great success, with retention now being well above the state average, suspension rates having dropped, reading ages continuing to improve and attendance rates steadily improving. “Teachers no longer ask whether students have succeeded in meeting our expectations but whether they have been able to achieve the task themselves and how they could improve on the next time.” It is obvious that these students are showing growth as learners (Cummings, 1998).

Middle Years Research and Development Project

In Victoria, the recent Middle Years Research and Development Project (MYRAD) (Russell, 2000) was established in order to address issues in the middle years. This is a project funded by the Department of Education and Training in Victoria, and put into practice through the Centre for Applied Educational Research (CAER) at The University of Melbourne (Russell, 2000). The project was aimed to develop, refine and evaluate a whole-school approach for the middle years of schooling, aiming to make improvements in student achievement, student attitudes and student behaviour (SOFWEB, 2002).

            Replicating the MYRAD approach, which was put into practice in selected schools, the Middle Years Reform Program has since been implemented in all Government schools in Victoria and was designed to meet targets that were announced by the Premier in September 2000, which are:

•  By 2002, Victoria will be at or above national benchmark levels for reading, writing and numeracy as they apply to primary students;

•  By 2005, the percentage of young people aged 15-19 in rural and regional Victoria engaged in education and training will increase by 6%;

•  By 2010, 90% of young people in Victoria will complete year 12 or the equivalent. (Williams, 2001).

            Williams (2001) outlines the history or the MYRAD project. It started with a small number of schools, but in 2001, the number of schools that participated in the project was in excess of 250. That means that there have been approximately 36,000 students and 2,100 teachers in Victoria taking part in the project, making it one of the biggest of its kind. The schools were grouped into focus clusters and general clusters. Each cluster contains one secondary school and up to three connected primary schools. The focus clusters were designed to devote time to a specific area in which the project has identified as needing improvement. The three areas are literacy, engagement and well-being, and the thinking-oriented curriculum.

            Each of the focus clusters is assisted by a representative from the CAER, and it is these specific focus clusters which provide professional development for the general clusters. Hence, the general clusters are supported by the outcomes of the work being done in the focus clusters.

            To date, the project is having a major impact in the middle years of schooling.

•  The project has highlighted the importance of partnerships between primary and secondary schools. It is believed that if people from both of these areas share understandings, then opportunities for challenging, relevant and in-depth learning will take place;

•  The project has demonstrated that changes to school organization will help in reaching curriculum objectives. It is believed that students will be better supported by longer time blocks with a smaller number of teachers per group, and fewer changes of subjects. But to do this, there must be a strong belief from all parties of the underlying need for change. Students are advantaged from this recognition;

•  The project has confirmed international research about the impact of intensive professional development. It is believed that the multi-layer approach to professional development is achieving the desired changes to middle years schooling;

•  In the project, the implementation of practices and activities is giving students the time to think and explore ideas, and involving them in decision making about their learning with regard to such aspects as content, process and evaluation. This has led to the development of the concept of a thinking-oriented curriculum which supports learners/thinkers who:

-    seek depth of understanding and meaningfulness;

-    have strategies and skills that enable the achievement of understanding and productive manipulation of ideas;

-    have a cultural and strategic knowledge base; and

-    are conscious of and reflect on their own knowledge and thinking (Williams, 2001).

            Schools that have been taking part in the project have been required to collect data in a variety of areas, as shown in the box below. They are required to submit reports stating their progress in implementing action plans, and the impact of the project on student outcomes.

Required data

•    Leader, teacher and student attitudinal surveys

•    Focus questionnaire on leader, teacher and student data

•    Reading screening tests for students in Years 5, 6, 7, and 8

•    Benchmark data for targets set in three-year action plans

•    Early school leaver data for 2000

•    Evaluation of progress against targets

•    Students’ absence data

            So, what about the future for the schools taking part in the MYRAD project?  These schools are now at a point in time where they are refocusing their efforts. They have found that the biggest improvements have been in primary/secondary cooperation, team-based professional development, action planning and leadership support.

            These schools are now looking at extending the program within the school. For example, schools that began with one specific focus (literacy, a thinking-oriented curriculum, or engagement and well-being) are now looking at including action in the other two focus areas. Also, schools that began improvement programs with a small number of class groups are looking to include all classes at specific year levels, and expanding programs across additional year levels. This sends a clear signal that the MYRAD project is working in our schools.

Strategies for beginning teachers

It is now time to start thinking of what we as beginning teachers can do in the classroom to help counteract the problem in the middle years of schooling.

            Russell (2000) and others write that students will respond positively when:

•  What is being taught in the classroom is meaningful and can be linked to their lives outside the classroom, not just inside the classroom;

•  Teachers cater for a wide range in skills, interests and futures;

•  Students are able to take part in decision-making processes about their learning;

•  Schools are challenging for students. Classes that are monotonous and routine are boring and students will start to lose interest;

•  The curriculum is individualized and focused for the students who are in your classroom.

            The best advice when looking at the issue of middle years education is to make this an issue concerning the whole school, and not to think that you are the only teacher having problems with students in these years. Studies and projects, especially MYRAD, have shown that better results are achieved if the problem is addressed by the school and not only by selected individual teachers.

In the end it is also worth noting that students who switch off from school do not necessarily fail in life.  My own experiences as a child 'at risk' during the middle school years would have left my teachers with the thought that I would have a grim future with few prospects. However, not only did I return to formal schooling but I went on to university, traveled the world and worked as a journalist both in Australia and overseas. Thus, whilst beginning teachers should encourage adolescents to remain at school by adopting techniques discussed in this chapter, it is worth remembering that you can never write an adolescent off as a failure when their future can hold so many possibilities.


Cummings, J. (1998). Extending Reform in the Middle Years of Schooling. Australian Curriculum Studies Association, Australia.

Department of Education, Employment and Training (1999). The Middle Years. A guide for strategic action in years 5-9. DEET, Victoria.

Dwyer, P. (1996). Opting Out: Early School Leavers and the Degeneration of Youth Policy. The National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies in conjunction with the Youth Research Centre, Tasmania.

Hill, P.W. and Russell, V.J. (1999). ‘Systematic, whole-school reform of the middle years of schooling.’ In R. J. Bosker, B. P. M. Creemers, and S. Stringfield (Eds). Enhancing educational excellence, equity and efficiency. Evidence from evaluations of systems and schools in change (pp167-196). Klewer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA),  (1999).  The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century. Curriculum Corporation. At

National Board of Employment, Education and Training (1993). In the middle: schooling for young adolescents. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra

Russell, J. (2000). A thinking curriculum for the middle years. Incorporated Association of Registered Teachers of Victoria Seminar Series, December 2000, no 99.

SOFWEB  (2002) At

Williams. C. (2001). ‘The Middle Years Research and Development Program.’ Learning Matters, vol 6, no 3

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