Should primary pupils transition to secondary school earlier?

At one school in Glasgow, primary-aged children move up to secondary a year early, enabling greater subject choice and access to specialist teachers. So, as the debate ramps up over the narrowing of the curriculum in high school, should we be looking again at the age of transition? Emma Seith reports
28th June 2019, 12:03am
Should School Transitioning Start Earlier?
Emma Seith


Should primary pupils transition to secondary school earlier?

Learning to tell the time in French is plain sailing until you get beyond half past the hour when "it starts to get weird" as you have to do a bit of maths, says modern languages teacher Mairéad Cranie to her class. The French do not talk about "25 to six" or "quarter to six", she explains. If you translate the French literally, they say "six hours minus 25", or "six hours minus a quarter".

While this may be a strange concept for native English speakers to grasp, Cranie's class cottons on quickly.

It is mid-morning on a Thursday. Before French, these pupils had Latin, and before that, history. After break, they are all heading off to athletics.

So far, so normal, you might think - but this is a class of primary pupils. Technically, they should be in P7. But, instead, they have now been going to secondary for almost an entire academic year and have a timetable of more than a dozen subjects. And there is not a primary teacher in sight.

At the High School of Glasgow, an independent school, pupils join secondary a year early. This has been the model here for decades and, in truth, it was largely born of necessity: there wasn't enough room for the P7 year group on the primary campus housed in the original school building roughly three miles away. Therefore, since 1977, when the new secondary building opened its doors, they have been catered for here.

However, while the model may have been introduced for practical reasons, it turns on its head the accepted norm in Scottish education that children spend six years at secondary, starting at the age of 11 or 12. It also highlights that while the primary school starting age is a perennial hot topic, the secondary school starting age is, by comparison, given little thought.

Now, as the debate rages on in Scotland about whether or not the curriculum has narrowed in S4 as an unintended consequence of the new national qualifications (see box, page 22), it is clear that starting secondary early has at least one major benefit: the High School of Glasgow has been able to retain a broad curriculum for longer and does not have to race through it at breakneck pace.

So, while the majority of Scottish state schools now do six subjects in S4 - down from eight under the previous regime - here at the High School of Glasgow they continue to sit eight, which they do over two years.

The pupils get their three years of "broad general education" in P7, S1 and S2 and then, in S3, start working towards eight National 5s over two years, which they sit the exams for in S4; there is no early presentation.

'My reaction was one of horror'

When John O'Neill, the current rector (headteacher) joined the school more than a decade ago, he had his doubts about the presence of primary pupils in a secondary setting. He had opted to be a secondary teacher and admits that, when he found out he would essentially be taking a P7 class, he was less than impressed.

"I came here in 2004 as a senior deputy, and when I realised they had that, my initial reaction was one of horror," says O'Neill. "I thought, 'I don't want to teach primary children, I don't know if I'm cut out for this.' But I was fascinated by the concept and, by the October half-term, I had become a complete convert."

The reason? Because the children have an extra year in secondary when they are "chatty, inquisitive, curious and ravenous", before "the civil war of puberty" starts to hit in S2 and they go "quieter on things", then become "re-engaged later on" in their teens.

"My senior school experience before that of S1 and S2 had been the challenge of second year," O'Neill continues. "It's quite a standard challenge in terms of motivation, focus and engagement. What I noticed was that these children in P7 were intellectually - in terms of inquisitiveness and curiosity - benefiting hugely from the experienced subject specialist teachers.

"When they go to maths, when they go to geography, they have got people who enthuse and people who have done degrees in the subject. They are getting that expertise and that inspires them. They are ready and they engage significantly with that, and very effectively."

The other advantage, according to O'Neill, is that they start the potentially thorny transition to secondary school earlier than other children do. Nevertheless, some will undoubtedly baulk at the thought of 10- and 11-year-olds being let loose in a bustling secondary school of around 700 pupils.

The school is conscious of this. Each pupil has an S6 "buddy", and each of the four classes of 22 children is assigned a form teacher, who combines the role of secondary pastoral teacher and primary class teacher. Form teachers see their charges every morning for registration and then whole-school assembly, and deliver a 40-minute personal and social education (PSE) lesson every week.

I ask Cranie's French class what the most significant change has been for them since arriving at the high school, expecting to hear about the difficulties of dealing with myriad teachers or how intimidating it is to be towered over by everyone you meet. Instead, they discuss what a struggle it has been getting to grips with the one-way system in the school's corridors.

A clear benefit of what is known in the school as the "transitus year" is that teething problems, such as learning the layout of the school, will be a thing of the past by the time they start secondary proper.

Don't make it all about exams

However, the danger of bringing pupils into secondary a year early, says curriculum expert Mark Priestley, is that you might simply spend another year working towards the qualifications taken in the senior phase. So, instead of starting that process at the age of 11 or 12, you start it at the age of 10 or 11.

The reason this should be avoided, says Priestley, a professor of education at the University of Stirling, is that during the years of broad general education - which, under Curriculum for Excellence, are meant to run until the end of S3 - schools should be guided by the attributes, skills and knowledge they want pupils to acquire, instead of "the exam tail wagging the curriculum dog".

Priestley says that the early secondary school curriculum in the UK is often far from perfect. It tends to be fragmented, it is tough to make connections between subjects and gaps emerge. For example, he points out that political, social and economic knowledge tends to be lacking unless modern studies is offered - but not all schools run that subject. If the structure of Scottish schooling were to change, therefore, Priestley would opt for a middle or intermediate school phase, underpinned by its own curricular philosophy, running for three or four years from around the ages of 9 to 12.

At the High School of Glasgow, the curriculum that P7 pupils follow includes transitus studies. Some of the subjects rotated for this chime with what Priestley argues is often lacking in secondary. So, modern studies, business studies, mindfulness and research skills are taught for one period a week, on rotation.

There is also a clear emphasis on sport and being active. The target for primaries set by the government is to deliver two hours of PE each week. But at this school, they do almost double that through a mixture of games, PE and swimming. Transitus pupils also get two periods a week of drama and computing science.

While the curriculum is clearly broad and wide-ranging, there is also an obvious focus on the endpoint of exams, even at this early stage. At the same time as senior pupils are off on exam leave, transitus pupils also go through their own - albeit very short - exam diet, sitting papers of about 30 minutes in length in eight subjects over two and a half days.

Deputy rector Sharon Gibson, who joined the school three years ago from Edinburgh state school Craigmount High is the parent of a transitus pupil.

She says that P7 is often seen as "a treading water year" when pupils are already looking ahead to secondary and, in some cases, becoming "a bit too cool for school". Her own son has really blossomed as a transitus pupil, she says.

Learning the value of 'hard work'

Gibson admits to being unsure about whether her son should be sitting exams. But he was "so up for it" and "so excited". How the transitus pupils respond is "very much about how it is pitched", she says.

The school calls the papers the pupils sit "tests", but parents and pupils refer to them as "exams", says O'Neill. He describes the process as an "experiential exercise" and says it is not about results but about teaching revision and study skills, and also making the P7s feel part of the secondary school.

Now, Gibson says she is sold on the idea of pupils practising skills that are going to come in handy later on.

"We do it so they can see how they are getting on in terms of the feedback they get from the exams they sit. But the main thing is just to give them a wee bit of reassurance," Gibson explains. "It's about showing them, 'This is an exam, you need to practise, you need to not talk, you're going to have someone watching you.'

"So, you are taking their hand and leading them through something in a non-stressful way. My son didn't get stressed. He did do some revision but I think the earlier you can associate performance and outcome with hard work the better, because it doesn't just happen. I always say to the kids, if someone is doing well in exams and saying they are not revising, they are lying."

The exams clearly loomed large for the transitus pupils. Introduce the topic and there is talk of feeling "stressed" and "nervous" and "under so much pressure".

But there is also a sense that taking the tests all worked out in the end. And, as 12-year-old Erin wisely points out, "nobody is going to ask you when you go for a job what you got in your transitus exams, but you get used to [exams] and learn the study techniques".

Two of the other pupils I speak to joined the High School of Glasgow from state primaries so, while they have essentially started secondary, they have friends who are still in primary. Eleven-year-old Mya says she misses her best pal and is gutted she never got to wear the "leavers' jumper" selected by the P7 cohort every year. Leo, who is also 11, says he spent his primary career hearing about the big school trip to Amsterdam in P7, but never got to go himself.

Although the pupils do not talk about missing the primary school environment, Leo muses that it might be more relaxing to stay in the same classroom all the time. On the other hand, he likes that he now has teachers who are expert in their particular subject.

The school's teachers, meanwhile, tend to sum up the impact of the transitus year as "a head start".

When timetablers in other schools are trying to beg, borrow and steal 20 minutes here and there to give secondary teachers enough time to deliver courses, an extra year could make a big difference.

And, of course, there are obvious questions about why it is only independent school pupils, who arguably already have big advantages, who are benefiting from this head start.

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 28 June 2019 issue under the headline "Right place, right time?"

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