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'Fresh start' goes against advice

Willis Pickard explains why secondary schools' habit of ignoring primary teachers' pupil reports may be short-sighted

Primary teachers in Scotland were disappointed but probably not surprised to be told recently that their secondary colleagues prefer to give new pupils a fresh start, and therefore disregard the reports coming from primary schools.

The evidence - contrary to the intentions of the Government's 5-14 programme - comes in a study by the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE). Secondary teachers said that they liked to make up their own minds.

But what does this say about the value of the complex recording of pupils' achievements made by primary teachers? David Paterson, headteacher of Dunnikier Primary in Kirkcaldy, Fife, and president of the primary heads' association in Scotland, said he was not surprised by the findings. He thought that the effectiveness of primary-secondary liaison varied greatly, and improvements would take time.

At Shortlees Primary in Kilmarnock, head Lilian Maclean said that some ex-pupils still reported life in secondary as "a bit boring". The old complaint of making little progress beyond primary-level work still existed, she claimed.

But Mrs Maclean did not blame secondary teachers. She said that primary-secondary liaison was easier at senior level than between class teachers. "Getting together is still difficult. Secondary teachers need time to spend in primary schools learning about how we work, what we mean by group work, for example."

Mrs Maclean pointed out that the challenge will become harder as wider areas of the curriculum in both primary and lower secondary come within the 5-14 programme. Many schools are about to embark on 5-14 environmental studies to add to the mathematics and language areas with which they started the programme. Since environmental studies cover history, geography, science and technology, the Primary 7 teacher would need to liaise with and prepare pupil reports for a range of secondary subject specialists.

John Muir, primary adviser in Caithness and Sutherland, believes that the will is there to improve links. It is the mechanics which cause problems. Secondary schools may have to deal with 200 or more pupils joining a range of subject departments from a variety of primary schools. Mr Muir believed that a large group of children could suffer if a "fresh start" meant ignoring folios of work and class-teacher reports coming up from primary. Dividing the Secondary 1 intake into three groups, he said that the least able were identified quickly by guidance teachers and received learning support. The ablest pupils would make progress anyway (provided they were not left repeating primary work). But he isolated a group who in Primary 7 struggled to cope at the average levels for their age (levels C and D in 5-14 terminology). "They are helped by their class teacher in primary but they can be shortchanged when they get to secondary," he claimed.

The inspectorate has been asked by the Secretary of State for Scotland to look at streaming and setting in secondary classes. Mr Muir said that HM Inspectorate should pick up on the SCRE research findings and consider the challenge set by the vulnerable group of pupils.

In the new Midlothian education authority being formed from part of the existing Lothian Region, the head of schools, Norman Henderson, pointed out that the 5-14 programme had developed since the SCRE research was conducted, but the embargo on fresh initiatives by teachers which the main union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, had imposed had slowed progress.

Mr Henderson, a former primary adviser, admitted that he was worried about the secondary curriculum. "Even in schools which take liaison with their primaries seriously, I do not detect changes to Secondary 1 and 2 courses. To what extent have science teachers altered the content of their teaching to take account of the science now being taught in primaries?"

Wynne Harlen, director of SCRE and principal author of the research, wrote: "Considerably more time and ingenuity will be required to change attitudes and practices which favour a 'fresh start' at the individual pupil level."

Primary heads believe that liaison has much improved, but the research suggests arrangements for Primary 7 pupils to sample secondary life and for subject teachers to find out how primary classes operate are not enough.

The 5-14 programme demands curricular continuity and provides detailed evidence on individuals' strengths and weaknesses. If the evidence is not used, primary teachers will come to see it as an affront and a disservice to pupils.

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