Beacon lights leap in the dark

James Williams

The transfer from primary to secondary education can be a source of fear and anxiety for children. With this in mind, teachers at the Beacon School set up their science day with the aim of easing the transition.

Staff realised there was no one better to allay children's fears and answer questions about secondary school than pupils coming to the end of their first year.

So as part of its commitment to improving liaison between primary and secondary schools, Beacon School invited local Year 5 pupils, who will start choosing schools this autumn, to meet up with its Year 7s. The Beacon children would then guide the Year 5s through a day of fun, science-based activities.

The main concerns of the younger children centered on the level of work, the chances of being bullied and what the teachers were like. One boy asked: "Do the teachers shout at you all the time?" His Year 7 companion reassured him: "Only if you do something really bad."

There were several activities on offer, each showing an aspect of secondary science. Practical sessions included some of the more spectacular activities, demonstrations of methane rockets, exploding hydrogen balloons, acids and alkalis and flame tests, for example.

The Year 5s were split into groups of eight, with 12 Year 7 pupils assigned to each group. A maximum group size of 20 for each activity allowed a reasonable amount of teacherpupil contact time, and was manageable.

For the practical sessions the Year 7 pupils, who were used to the school's laboratory code of conduct, could also help the Year 5s. They took the younger children to lunch and answered questions about life in a secondary school. Letters from the Year 5 pupils showed this was a great success. Abigail Singleton, from Banstead Junior School, wrote: "When I first saw the Year 7s I was nervous. But Emma and Sara were nice and I was soon put at ease."

A danger of such events is that activities can be made so non-representative, pupils go away with a distorted view of secondary science. To combat this, one activity used a practical session from the Year 7 scheme of work - kitchen sink indicators - using an extract from red cabbage as the indicator and acids and alkalis found in the home, such as vinegar, fruit juice and bicarbonate of soda.

While the chemicals were familiar, the equipment was not - test tubes, pipettes and spotting tiles. Mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar allowed staff to introduce a topic that could occupy a large part of an A-level syllabus in easy, friendly terms.

Experience with Year 7 has shown that familiarity with the chemicals or the equipment helps the pupils cope with what can be difficult work. Present the children with universal indicator, acetic and citric acid and sodium hydrogen carbonate as well as an abstract scale from 1-14 called pH and you will end up with bored, switched-off pupils who fail to grasp the fundamental concepts.

Year 5 pupil Daniel Eastoe wrote: "I thought it would be boring and the work would be too hard. But it was good fun." As any science teacher will tell you, making a difficult activity fun is not easy, but is one of the best ways to challenge pupils.

Taking a lead from Russell Stannard's Uncle Albert books, the final session of the day was called "Questions for Uncle Albert". Pupils quizzed teachers on science, or anything else they wanted an answer to.

This session produced a wealth of material and some difficult questions. Sometimes staff could give instant answers. But, some questions demanded thought and research from the teacher.

There were some common questions on death and why it happens. Others concerned dinosaurs and the existence of aliens. A compilation of the questions and answers (where possible) is being produced to send to Banstead Junior.

One of the greatest concerns facing primary pupils about to transfer to secondary school concerns the size of the school and whether or not they will be cared for. One of the most touching letters, from Sarah Andrews, expressed just that fear. "When I arrived I thought the Beacon School won't look after us. I found out that they did."

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