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Look before they leap

There is still plenty of room to improve transfer from primary to secondary, says chief inspector David Bell.

I can still remember my first day at Knightswood secondary school, Glasgow. There was that heady mixture of fear and anticipation. Actually, the rather mundane task of finding my way around proved to be the most memorable aspect of day one.

This week the Office for Standards in Education published a report on the process of transfer from primary to secondary school. I hope it is a good time to do it because this always becomes a hot issue in the summer term. Our report paints a mixed picture from the viewpoint of the pupil. Yes, most pupils learn about their new school at first hand through visits in the summer term. Yes, pupils have the opportunity to meet some of the teachers, ask questions, and find out about the work they will be doing in September. All of these are important and actually very reassuring before the summer break.

But when youngsters begin at their new schools in the autumn, perhaps transition does not always seem quite as smooth. The work they do in some subjects will not always be challenging enough. Their teachers will not all know enough about what they achieved in their primary schools or what they are capable of doing now.

So what, some of you might ask. Isn't this is all part of becoming a teenager and most children get over the hump and settle down at secondary school? Well, it is wasted time as a lot of pupils are not making the progress they should in Year 7 and building on what they have learned in Year 6. That is a big issue given that there have been substantial improvements in standards at the end of key stage 2.

This wasted time is most vividly illustrated when we look at the performance of 14-year-olds. Despite the improvements in standards of English and mathematics at the age of 11 since 1996, the trend line for the number of 14-year-olds achieving level 5 is either flat or climbing very slowly. So, something must be going wrong.

Her Majesty's Inspectors observed pupils in their primary schools in the summer term and watched the same pupils again in the autumn term of Year 7. There was less good teaching in Year 7 than in Year 6 and more teaching in Year 7 that was unsatisfactory.

Unsurprisingly, there was a clear link between the unsatisfactory teaching in Year 7 and poor behaviour and lack of interest shown by pupils. It only reinforces the point that for pupils at risk of exclusion, discontinuity between primary and secondary school can be the final straw. And bluntly, one of the key reasons for the low level of challenge in such classes was the lack of knowledge by the teachers of what their pupils knew and could do.

Despite my relative youth, I am old enough to remember the halcyon days of the introduction of the national curriculum. Weren't all these problems going to become a thing of the past, as secondary teachers no longer wiped the slate clean? So, it is a bit depressing that we still have not got this continuity right nearly 15 years later.

But it is not all doom and gloom. There are encouraging early signs that the key stage 3 strategy is having a positive impact on transfer. Year 7 teachers are getting to know much more about teaching and achievement in Year 6. Schools are talking to each other about the common transfer form and what additional information should be attached to it, such as pupils'

targets for improvement.

But more can be done and our report offers three ideas that might occupy the minds of teachers as they too look forward to a new school year in September.

First, build on the continuity of the curriculum and teaching between Year 6 and Year 7. There are now frameworks for English and mathematics to focus on what teachers can expect their pupils to cover and achieve.

Second, look at ways of getting better information about the progress that pupils are making and what attitudes they bring to school. Don't assume too that just because your arrangements have always worked in the past (or so you think!) that they are still working today. The OFSTED report will help you evaluate your own practice.

And third, there is an opportunity here for local education authorities to support schools in the efficient use of the common transfer file and in the dissemination of good transfer practice. Learn from what else is happening in your area.

So, happy holidays when they arrive. But spare a thought for the big step that is "big school" for thousands of youngsters.

David Bell is Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools in England

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