Principal of Bede Academy in Blyth, Gwyneth Evans, said the inaugural event provided “a unique opportunity” for professionals to come together to share best practice and to start building a sector network.
Delegates came to Northumberland from as far away as Kent, Wales, London and Nottingham for the conference.
Miss Evans, who spent some time last year visiting other all-through schools around the country, said no national forum or network existed for teachers and governors working in 3-18 education and Bede Academy was keen to lead the way in its development.
She explained: “The aim of this inaugural conference was to bring colleagues together to share their experiences, to reflect on where we are on the journey of all-through, to challenge one another and to consider how we can all push through the barriers.
“Our experience at Bede Academy has been exciting and enjoyable but also challenging as we seek to ensure a seamless transition through key stages and provide the highest quality education for all our students.
“This conference is just the start of what we want to develop for colleagues and the questions and issues they raised during the day will help us formulate the agenda going forward, whether that continues to be here at Bede or elsewhere.”
Former MP and Minister for Schools David Laws praised the academy for organising the conference.
Now executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute, he acknowledged the challenges of growing the all-through sector but also highlighted its potential for opportunities.
He said: “Quality of leadership and governance is going to be critical and is necessarily in short supply. All-throughness has some benefits in concentrating the effectiveness of really outstanding leadership and in spreading their influence to smaller institutions.
“The aspiration for more all-throughness also seems potentially to offer a solution to the disadvantage gap of early years, and we know that interventions in early years really do have an impact.
“You have the potential to better manage and join-up curriculum, and manage transition points and avoid the setbacks.”
Adding that he would reflect on it being a possible area of further investigation by the Education Policy Institute, he said: “It’s an extremely important debate and very timely and I’m delighted it’s been stimulated by leaders in this sector rather than by government on high.”
There are 165 registered all-through schools in England compared with 17,000 primaries and 3,600 secondary schools. In Scandinavia countries, all-through is the norm.
Helen Price, executive headteacher of the Hampton Academies Trust in Peterborough who is carrying out doctoral research into the sector, said: “You may be in the position of being an all-through headteacher but when you look for research and information that addresses it there is nothing.”
Her survey of headteachers has revealed that they consider the principal opportunities of all-through being easing transition from key stage 2 to 3, continuity of learning, deepening relationships with families and communities and sharing effective practice across educational phases.
The challenges include funding and resources, leadership and a lack of appreciation of the challenges by external bodies.
Bede Academy vice principal Julie Roberts and head of primary years Bethan Harding explained the practical systems and arrangements embedded at Bede to support all-through, from core values to a single tracking system, from curriculum that builds through the key stages to weekly joint staff meetings between primary and secondary colleagues.
Mrs Harding said: “We want to eradicate a primary-secondary mindset among staff. There are risks in all-through that can lead to working in isolation but there are huge benefits of collective and collaborative working. The vision is to aspire to excellence for all and that doesn’t change whether you’re in nursery or sixth form.”
Professor John Macbeath OBE, from the University of Cambridge, addressed how the ‘traditional’ transition challenge from primary to secondary is embedded in long-held assumptions of ability, academic and non-academic, hierarchies of subjects, systematic factors like streaming and setting, and in language such as ‘value added’, ‘performance’ and ‘targets’.
He said university research highlighted the case for maintaining a focus on learning, creating an environment for learning, sharing leadership and reframing accountability.
Professor David Leat from Newcastle University promoted the concept of project based curriculum.
He said: “Curriculum is much more than subjects, courses and programmes of study. It’s our vision of the future, of what we want our citizens to be like and what we want them to become.”