School Improvement and Governance Network

Big Ideas

P-12 education partnerships - discussion paper

This discussion paper, based on a report prepared by the Country Education Project, is dedicated to the many principals, teachers, parents and students working to create P-12 partnerships. They are the pioneers envisioning and developing learning communities and a more coherent model of education. Consistent with their pioneering work, among the key findings and observations discussed are:

  • A P-12 approach takes shape when primary and secondary educators and schools work toward a deeply shared view of pedagogy and a seamless curriculum
  • This involves the greater pooling of teachers’ expertise and skills across the pre-school, primary and secondary sectors
  • P-12 schooling does not have to be a P-12 school per se. It may also involve five or so primary and secondary schools in a learning community or cluster that integrate their practices and work toward a shared pedagogy and seamless curriculum
  • The 'stages of learning' model can focus P-12 schooling work. However, if it results in three, rigidly demarcated early, middle and later years 'mini' schools, it may obviously be an obstacle to the futher development of 'next practice' P-12 schooling
  • P-12 schooling is relevant to all schools and learning communities; indeed, the very future of education and public education may pivot on P-12 schooling
  • There is likely to be a shift from a focus on the performance of any one school to the performance of a cluster of primary and secondary schools creating a learning community.

Introduction

The development of P-12 schools within Victoria has been steady across the three education sectors over the past twenty years.

There are at least 192 schools that provide both primary and secondary education. This comprises 51 government schools, 12 Catholic schools, and 129 independent schools. Some of these schools are also pre-school linked, enabling a K-12 model. As well, there in growing interest in the potential of P-12 schooling and K-12 models to provide a continuous, connected and personalised learning experience for children and young people.

Further, many schools that are not P-12 schools per se have worked in clusters and networks to blend primary and secondary school cultures and types of teaching and learning. A mix of three or four feeder primary schools and one or two secondary schools is at the core of 21st century learning communities.

There is also a long and rich history of teachers from primary and secondary schools working in teams to improve middle years learning and transitions from primary to secondary schools.

Key questions

Yet more needs to be known about three key questions:

  1. What really is P-12 schooling (as distinct from the co-location of a primary and secondary school on the one site)?
  2. What is the potential of P-12 schooling to significantly improve learning outcomes for students?
  3. What is the relevance of P-12 schooling for all schools?

The Country Education Project and a group of P-12 school principals thus decided that the time was right for research into current and potential practice with P-12 schooling. A research project was developed, which was funded by the then Department of Education and Training. Over fifty Victorian P-12 schools were surveyed as part of the research project.

Key findings

The main findings of the P-12 education research project are:

  • A more unified P-12 approach to teaching, learning, and curricula and a common educational language are needed, but it will take a significant policy and operational shift and system leadership to create a unified P-12 pedagogy, culture and curriculum
  • The research literature and the potential to be found in existing P-12 schools suggest that this educational policy and operational shift could significantly improve learning outcomes for all students and reduce the achievement gap.

A key distinction

The project made a distinction between a P-12 school and P-12 schooling or ‘P-12ness’. A P-12 school is any educational institution governed by a single body, managed by a central administration, and operating under the same name that offers schooling for students from Prep (at least) until the end of year 12. The Country Education Project P-12 research report found:

“The data collected about the curriculum offered in P-12 schools suggests that whilst the number of P-12 schools is increasing, the development of a P-12 schooling approach within such schools has not always been the priority. Many P-12 schools have been established for administrative or community reasons, not curricula, pedagogical or teaching and learning reasons”.

Many of these P-12 schools went on to develop extraordinary innovations in P-12 schooling and to develop some degree of curriculum alignment, providing deep insights for all schools.

Nonetheless, P-12 schooling is more radical than simply establishing a P-12 school on the one site (as important as this is and notwithstanding the creative work in these schools). It refers to a systemic educational approach that incorporates lifelong learning, a shared pedagogy and curriculum alignment.

P-12 schooling is not dependent on a P-12 school per se. It may exist in communities where there is no P-12 school if the schools in that community or cluster integrate their practices and work toward the development of a shared pedagogy and seamless curriculum. Thus, P-12 schooling is relevant to all schools.

This issue is pivotal for efforts to improve outcomes. Primary and secondary schools, in isolation from each other, cannot improve student learning outcomes to a significant extent.

But building on the past and present creative work of P-12 educational leaders, next practice P-12 schooling and education partnerships is poised to significantly boost achievement for all students and especially improve performance among students of low SES background.

Four major areas

But for these performance gains to kick in, all schools may need to further think about four things:

  1. P-12 leadership and governance
  2. P-12 teaching, learning and curricula
  3. P-12 organisation and partnerships
  4. P-12 resources and facilities.

What follows is an analysis of these four issues, based on the key findings of the P-12 education research as led and organised by the Country Education Project.

1. P-12 leadership and governance

In this part, P-12 system leadership, governance and strategic plans, and management are briefly explored.

P-12 system leadership

Leaders in P-12 schools are, of course, faced with the same issues as stand-alone primary or secondary schools (e.g., the demands of management and administrative responsibilities that can reduce the opportunity for educational leadership).

P-12 schools also highlighted the difficulties they face as a P-12 within an education system focused on a primary and secondary divide. The resulting challenges include the use of staff, provision of school performance data and the development and resourcing of facilities by sector.

Leadership within a P-12 school (positions such as principals, assistant principals and leading teachers) are generally organised around the physical layout of the school or sub-schools (e.g., three mini schools) or are based on year levels and curriculum areas.

Leadership structures may also have a strong student management focus - rather than a whole school leadership focus.

APs are often allocated responsibilities based on the primary and secondary divide or stages of learning (the mini schools of early years, middle years and later years). Indeed, the project found that AP roles are moving away from primary/secondary structures to developmental stages of schooling.

Based on the information collected through the P-12 research project the leadership structure for leading teacher positions also included:

  • 30% of schools structured their leadership according to primary/secondary areas
  • 58% of schools structured their leadership according to stages of schooling
  • 7% of schools structured their leadership according to year level management
  • Only 5% of schools identified P-12 leadership roles.

However, some areas of responsibility could mean that an educational leader/manager worked on a whole-school, P-12 basis. Some of these roles include:

  • Student welfare/well-being
  • Various curriculum leaders – but this could be organised in a primary/secondary or stages of schooling way or as a more strategic P-12 role
  • Professional development coordination
  • Information and communications technology
  • Library and information resources
  • Careers and pathways.

There is also some evidence of cross-age student leadership within P-12 schools.

While at least one P-12 school principal reported that “the P-12 structure allows some flexibility in designing opportunities for student leadership”, there was little evidence of a new, whole-school, P-12 approach to student leadership.

Thus, the research project noted the need for new thinking around leadership within a P-12 setting. Curriculum planning and whole school leadership roles are two early indicators of change.

But there needs to be a stronger commitment to the P-12 learning model and the application of system leadership. The P-12 project also recommended that there be provision of leadership programs focusing on P-12 schooling.

Governance and strategic plans

P-12 schools operate within the guidelines and role definition of one school governing body with working groups. But it is not clear how such working groups or committees plan for P-12ness.

Likewise, while P-12 schools indicate that they have developed P-12 goals within their strategic plans, there is little information as to what whole school planning means in practice. However, at least one P-12 school had developed a process with its cluster of feeder primary schools to produce a shared strategic plan.

As a key role of a governing body is the development of a strategic plan, a P-12 school structure can obviously provide major advantages in developing a plan that supports and promotes a unified approach to student learning across the P-12 spectrum.

But while many of the schools surveyed indicated that they did address P-12 goals in their strategic plans, more detail needs to be collected about what these particular goals are and in what way they can be considered to be new, truly strategic P-12 goals.

Management

Management of staff is generally focused on primary/secondary schooling or stages of learning. For those who do manage staff across the sectors, this occurs in the middle years or in curriculum areas.

Further, the staff/student ratio requirements in the P-2 area and the need to offer a broad range of subjects in years 10, 11 and 12 may mean that schools have limited flexibility in the allocation of resources across the middle years.

2. P-12 teaching, learning and curricula

In this part, curriculum alignment and planning, learning pathways and student progress and teacher education and training are briefly discussed.

Curriculum alignment and planning

A key indicator of P-12 curriculum planning is how well each year level builds on the learning of the previous level without major gaps in learning and without duplication.

The degree to which continuity of curricula is achieved varies markedly in P-12 schools. Curriculum can be largely organised into primary and secondary areas with a degree of continuity across the P-12 spectrum maintained more through informal means than a systematic approach to curriculum alignment.

Curriculum alignment is the defining element of P-12 education but is in its infancy. The challenge is how best to blend primary and secondary school cultures, pedagogies and curriculum knowledge, to really combine the expertise of primary and secondary teachers.

So far, only smaller, rural P-12 schools have evolved flexible P-12 models of delivery.

Nonetheless, initiatives such as VELS, PoLT, MYRAD, and MYPRAD have obviously promoted discussion and planning across the P-12 spectrum in many schools and clusters.

In developing a learning continuum in all subject areas and in students’ learning skills, all teachers would need to see themselves as part of a P-12 system with a clear view of where students have come from and where they are going (Stringer, 1993).

Showing the potential for this as well as the challenges ahead, the P-12 research project found:

  • There was a need for a much more detailed, evidence-based understanding of what a P-12 curriculum approach is or could be
  • Little central and regional support for P-12 schools in developing a plan for ‘seamlessness’ or identifying the elements of a ‘seamless’ curriculum across the P-12 spectrum
  • Middle Years initiatives, nonetheless, have resulted in P-12 curriculum planning and pooling of staff expertise across the Year 5 to Year 8/9 spectrum, but this can also create three ‘mini’ schools rather than a P-12 learning continuum
  • Little evidence of P-12 schools developing different ways of assessing and monitoring students to take account of the P-12 potential.

An impediment to continuity and coherence (and improving learning outcomes) is the difference between the two major schooling structures - primary and secondary schools - and their cultures and pedagogies. As Stringer noted:

“Two cultures dominate schooling: a primary culture and a secondary culture... Both have sound ideas about the ways for thinking about curriculum and learning in their schools but, when placed together, they make nonsense of the learning continuum with which each of their students is involved.” (Stringer, 1998: 6)

While this is not true with many schools (that have long worked to blend primary and secondary school cultures and teaching methods), a continuum of learning and development from kindergarten through to university and college is the next big thing.

The old divide obviously holds back the development of a unified, 21st century model of teaching and learning. Thus, as the P-12 education research project noted:

“The training of teachers based on the primary and secondary sectors seems to be at odds with recent developments in curriculum, pedagogy and school organization which are becoming more focused on the stages of learning”.

Yet there are new P-12 curriculum models such as the Wisconsin Organising the Social Studies Curriculum, which affirm that articulation between P-12 levels is critical to increasing student achievement.

Likewise, a P-12 school may study the concept of ‘organism’ in science at years 1, 7, and 11, but the examples of study might be ‘life cycles of organisms’ at grade 1, ‘diversity and adaptation of organisms’ at year 7, and ‘evolution, behaviour, and interdependence of organisms’ at year 11 (Erickson, 1998: 62).

Such concepts can unify the curriculum and these learning pathways (via spiraling concepts) help students to think ahead and navigate the educational journey. Students can thus be supported to become more strategic learners.

Learning pathways and student progress

Discussion in relation to student pathways often focuses on the post-compulsory years (e.g., careers counselling, course advice, orientation programs, further study options, etc.).

P-12ness raises the issue of students’ learning pathways throughout the lifespan, beginning in the early years! As the P-12 research project noted:

“Little attention has been given by education systems to developing student pathways across the P-12 spectrum. The advantages for doing so would seem to be compelling - developing students’ capacity from an early age to question and identify their own strengths and weaknesses; identifying the types of activities that they enjoy or seek out; and investigating the various opportunities that exist in the worlds of work and study”.

P-12 schools can support staff communication across the P-12 spectrum, thus enabling the development of long-term, personalised learning pathways for all students.

The maths department at Apollo Bay P-12, for example, has developed a spreadsheet for staff to use in mapping individual student progress through the progression points of the VELS. This program enables staff to track the progress of individual students and also enables the school as a whole to monitor student progress in maths across the P-10 spectrum. The program also enables staff members to develop appropriate activities to assist students in achieving each of the progression points across P-10.

The use of ‘throughlines’ is another approach that can support the development of a curriculum across the P-12 spectrum. Gardner and others at Project Zero emphasise the importance of throughlines as a strategy to ensure that essential ideas and conceptual understandings are developed consistently.

But only a small number of P-12 schools are systematically using some throughlines to explore continuity and consistency across several years.

In this regard, a key issue highlighted in the P-12 project is that the current student performance data is not linked across the P-12 spectrum. This makes it difficult for P-12 schools to gain an accurate picture of students’ progress over the total P-12 spectrum.

Teacher education and training

The project also examined teacher training. It recommended that the Victorian Institute of Teaching and Deans of Education support a review of the provision of teacher education and training, with a view to structuring teacher training courses around the stages of learning (Prep to Year 4; Year 5 to Year 8/9; Year 9/10 to Year 12).

It further recommended that, as part of this review, the Institute and Deans of Education ensure that teacher trainees have teaching experience in a minimum of two stages of learning during their training and are fully prepared to teach in at least two of these three stages.

Universities are showing a growing interest in providing P-12 teacher training programs. Victoria University, for example, organises a placement for students undertaking their Bachelor of Education (P-12) course with the Tyrell cluster of schools. This enables the students to experience a P-12 cluster of schools and to work across year levels.

Further, according to the Victorian Institute of Teaching (2007), there are five universities offering programs enabling graduates to teach both primary and secondary students (P-12).

3. P-12 organisation and partnerships

In this part, professional interaction of staff, school community relations, student support services, cross-age learning and learning communities are explored.

Staff PD and interaction

P-12 schools have a distinct advantage over other school configurations that may also combine both primary and secondary schooling (e.g., P-9 and P-10 schools) due to their ability to attract expert teachers in areas such as Mathematics and Science.

The advantages for schools in having such expert teachers are obvious. Some teachers are reluctant to take up positions in schools that do not provide the opportunity to teach at the VCE level.

In a P-12 school, their expertise can be utilised across the school, including in the early years. At Werrimull P-12 College, for example, every staff member teaches at both the primary and secondary year levels.

P-12 structures are better placed to ensure that communication occurs between staff across all year levels and all stages of learning.

Informal professional development and interaction occur in P-12 schools through co-location of staff work spaces; the use of common staff rooms; and the provision of whole of school staff meetings.

Such arrangements promote the sharing of information, the generation of a P-12 dialogue and the development of P-12 pedagogy and curriculum initiatives.

Lake Bolac P-12 College, for example, has introduced a practice whereby staff meet once a term to participate in mediated discussion about teaching and learning policy at the school.

For these discussions, staff are deliberately grouped in mixed groups containing staff from across a range of KLAs and sectors. The results of these discussions are then published for the wider school community to access.

Cultural differences between primary and secondary schooling, however, can reduce staff co-operation, collaboration and professional development across the primary/secondary years. These differences stem from:

  • The different pedagogies and educational language used by both sectors
  • Teacher education institutions providing teacher training via a primary and secondary approach. Primary teachers undertake a course that focuses on education. Secondary teachers, by and large, complete an undergraduate course in their chosen discipline and then an additional qualification in teaching
  • The different industrial awards applied to the two sectors. This requires principals to negotiate local agreements about any variations.

Another factor identified by principals and staff as perhaps impeding further use of staff expertise across the primary/secondary divide was that multi-campus schools could make it difficult to for teachers to teach across the year levels.

School community relationships

Students and teachers are obviously able to develop relationships over a longer period of time within a P-12 school. As well, of course, in a P-12 school or cluster, peer relationships are able to be maintained for the total P-12 years for a student.

Another advantage of a P-12 model is that parents can be more aware of what is happening in the other areas of the school, as this communication is provided on a P-12 basis. Finally, P-12 schools can develop strong links with community organisations, industry and the local community.

As P-12ness can enable education providers to support young people through their entire schooling, P-12 schools are well placed to achieve greater student connectedness. Above all, students, teachers and parents are able to develop and maintain links over a longer period of time.

But further research is required into this area to investigate the potential for student connectedness and parent participation within a P-12 setting. At least one P-12 school principal, however, observed that:

“The P-12 model is better for encouraging strong links with families because it provides a natural and supportive environment for families.”

Student support services

P-12 schools have the potential to better coordinate various support services and make them available across the P-12 spectrum, thus allowing for a more holistic approach to student support and a more strategic approach to engaging with families.

However, the majority of schools indicated that their support services were provided on a year level basis or in a split primary/secondary way.

Many P-12 schools in their responses distinguish the different services available to the primary and secondary sectors as a result of the way in which such services are funded. Nonetheless, Goroke P-12 College, for example, is developing a comprehensive, P-12 student support service model.

P-12 schools expressed a desire for education systems to review how support services are resourced, with consideration being given to the development of funding on a P-12 basis rather than in a split primary and secondary way.

This would allow P-12 schools to allocate these services in a manner consistent with their other P-12 planning processes.

Cross-age learning

P-12 schools are well placed to promote student leadership and learning through cross-age and mentoring activities, which can develop self-esteem and responsibility in older students and provide younger students with positive role modeling and leadership examples. However, such programs are under-utilised in P-12 schools, although P-12 schools often acknowledge this potential.

Rushworth P-12 College, for example, is developing programs in years 9 or 10 that would allow students working with younger students through an established and assessed elective program.

This has led to an increase in the responsibility shown by year 9 students - they play an important role in the junior classrooms and the primary students respond well to their presence.

Toward a learning community

The research report observes that alignment between primary and secondary schooling can springboard schools into investigating and developing collaborative relationships with other ‘sectors’ such as adult and community education, TAFE and higher education. The report goes on to say:

“Such relationships have the potential to reduce the amount of competition between sectors (and sometimes schools), increase the potential for cooperation and collaboration and the reallocation of resources to developing and further enhancing school programs, and in the long term, delivery of better outcomes for our students”.

Thus, two key issues are that P-12 schooling offers the prospect of better preparing students for tertiary study and, further, that a P-12 school or cluster can comprise a strong community hub for building a broader K-16 learning community.

4. P-12 resources and facilities

Most schools have become P-12 schools as a result of re-organisation and there has been little or no change to facilities. However, some smaller, rural schools have, over time, created more P-12 friendly facilities and environments.

Schools also report how the facilities schedule (divided into two components - primary and secondary) did not enable P-12 schools to adequately respond to student needs and plan for appropriate facilities.

A key question posed by the P-12 project is: how can a building’s design be used to maximise the learning opportunities in a P-12 schooling framework?

Some P-12 schools highlight the need to still provide two or more workspaces to accommodate the needs of different student age groups (e.g., art and science spaces). However, schools also report that many specialist learning areas can cater for both primary and secondary school age students.

But overall as the research project points out:

“The current planning for school facilities tends to indicate that it occurs with a focus on primary and secondary components thus making planning of facilities reflective of a P-12 curriculum approach more difficult”.

P-12 schools are mentioned only once in 69 pages in the DEECD Facilities and Infrastructure: Operations and Responsibilities of the School Resources Division (July 2006).

It observes that “at present, facilities provision is broadly segmented into primary school (P–6) and secondary college (7–12) configurations”. Nonetheless, this document acknowledges that:

“Ongoing curriculum discussions and developments may further affect the structure of schools. The development of “early years” (P–4) and “middle years” (5–9) programs, together with the increased emphasis on “senior secondary” (VCE) program expansion, may lead to alternative configurations for school structures in the future.”

In this respect, the research report lists some of the key issues raised by P-12 schools:

  • Design of facilities - there is limited capacity to share facilities between primary and secondary sectors. Factors that influence this include the layout of facilities, design, size of areas and fittings and furniture
  • Rooms/facilities – for example, the balance between specialist rooms and General Purpose Classrooms
  • School grounds that need to provide facilities for young people of all ages
  • Specialist areas - an advantage of the P-12 school is that primary students can have access to such areas
  • Facilities – P-12 design versus traditional design.

Conclusion

To significantly improve student learning outcomes and reduce the achievement gap, educators and school community members may need to give priority to four things:

  1. Building P-12 and K-16 system leadership and governance that enables shared ownership of learning outcomes by educators, parents and communities
  2. Developing a unified, P-12 model of pedagogy and a seamless curriculum with P-12 spiral learning, which would also further promote a common educational language
  3. Creating organisational structures and partnerships that provide for continuity of learning across the P-12 spectrum and can morph into learning communities
  4. Building new facilities and securing new resources consistent with these three points.

 P-12 clusters of schools - a note

P-12 schooling does not have to be a P-12 school per se. It may also involve five or so primary and secondary schools in a learning community or cluster that integrate their practices and work toward a shared pedagogy and seamless curriculum. To support such efforts, these clusters may over time develop joint governance, shared principalships, and common goals, strategies and resources.

A practical example

For example, some years ago, when I was the president of the Macleod P-12 College and Kingsbury Primary School school councils, I had the opportunity to see how P-12 schooling could evolve across several schools. Macleod P-12 College and three primary schools (including Kingsbury PS) initiated what was called the Gresswell Cluster.

The Cluster was a catalyst for conversations about how to plan and integrate the curriculum from a P-10 and even a P-12 perspective. Consideration was given to throughlines, spiral learning and increased in-depth coverage of fewer topics, ideas and concepts in the curriculum (to also enable the development of deeper understandings of concepts and principles across the early, middle and later years).

The Gresswell Cluster was a splendid initiative! Unfortunately, it came to an end - in part because the focus on networks could make it more difficult for schools to sustain these collaborative P-12 clusters.

Insights into the future

Over a short period of time, the great work of the principals, teachers, parents and students at these schools in the Gresswell Cluster provided many insights into how P-12 schooling that is (a) organised on a cluster basis and (b) focused on a small number of curriculum and community themes could:

  1. Begin to more systematically pool principals’ and teachers’ expertise and skills across the primary and secondary sectors, raise the community profile of principals’ and teachers’ leadership and professionalism, and support educators' professional autonomy
  2. Support educators in their creative efforts to more systematically link (in students' learning) theory and ‘real world’ application; deep academic knowledge and practical, hands-on skills; and strong guided instruction and students’ independent inquiry-based learning
  3. Build stronger partnerships with community organisations and businesses and start to develop shared goals (in this case, between the schools and the La Trobe University Wildlife Sanctuary Learning Centre, Banyule City Council and Melbourne Water)
  4. Promote home-school partnerships and parent participation in community-based activities and learning, school leadership and educational planning and policy development (with the cluster profiling families as partners in learning and parents as community leaders)
  5. Support the engagement of students in purposeful, authentic activities which are valued by the students and have broader community value as well as involve many more students in school and community leadership, with the potential to mainstream student leadership
  6. Begin a process of developing a deeply shared pedagogy (i.e., not only teaching practices per se but broader pedagogical questions about the future of education and schooling and how best to significantly improve learning outcomes) and a coherent P-12 curriculum
  7. Show how the big shift to P-12 schooling and shaping a shared pedagogy and a seamless learning continuum was a continuation of current good practices and could be converted into manageable, bite-size pieces (e.g., a focus on one key learning area such as science).

P-12 schooling is relevant to all schools and learning communities; indeed, the very future of education and public education in particular may pivot on the development of collaborative P-12 clusters.

Nicholas Abbey