On the strength of recommendations made last fall by the Central Council for Education, the education ministry is set to submit to the Diet relevant bills to legally institutionalize unified schools that encompass grades one through nine (elementary and junior high) as part of the nation’s compulsory education system.

Both the national and local governments concerned should make efforts to maximize the merits and minimize the disadvantages of such schools when they are launched.

Currently such unified schools are established only as an exception to the system. The council proposes officially introducing two types of unified schools. In the first type, teachers who have licenses for both elementary and junior high school education will teach on the basis of an integrated curriculum. Each school will have just one principal and may have school buildings in the same compounds or on separate sites. In the second type, an independent elementary school and an independent junior high school will provide education using an integrated curriculum.

According to a survey by the education ministry, 211 municipalities, or 12 percent of the nation’s total, were providing integrated education from the first to ninth grade as of last May, including ones provided by separate elementary and junior high schools working together.

One big problem in the nation’s compulsory school education is that some students cannot adjust well to changes in the environment when they advance from elementary school to junior high school. As a result, some of them even stop attending classes.

In the survey, 48 percent of the municipalities said integrated education did much to resolve this problem.

The education ministry envisages the institutionalization of unified schools in fiscal 2016. One strong point of such schools would be flexibility in teaching in accordance with the progress of students’ academic achievements. Currently the nine years of compulsory education is divided into six years in elementary school and three years in junior high.

Unified schools will be able to divide the nine years into various segments to provide education that would best fit the students. However, the new system will require municipalities and teachers to make necessary adjustment in such matters as selecting and developing teaching methods and materials. The burden on teachers may increase. Some municipalities may face financial difficulties even if they want to open schools that provide integrated education.

The education ministry and municipalities should pay attention to the possible demerits of integrated schools. One potential problem would be that relationships among students at such schools could become fixed for the entire nine years because of few opportunities to meet new classmates when they advance to junior high. In the worst-case scenario, bullying could continue over a long period of time.

Also, a gap may develop in the quality of education between integrated and ordinary schools. Students who change to a unified school from an ordinary school, or vice versa, may face difficulties because the education content changes.

Under the education ministry’s plan, it will be left up to each municipality whether to establish integrated education schools. The municipalities need to carefully monitor the situation at existing schools before making a decision. If they opt to introduce unified schools, they should set down clear goals for such schools.

Municipal governments should solicit opinions from members of local boards of education, teachers, other education experts and local residents so that the new unified schools offer attractive and meaningful education.

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