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Not there yet, but on the way

Mary Simpson and Jonquil Goulder clarify the facts on primary-secondary liaison. How accurate are reports of the failure of secondary school teachers to respond to the requirements of the 5-14 programme with respect to primary-secondary liaison? ("Secondary staff ignore primary grounding", TESS, December 22; "Fresh start goes against advice", TESS, February 9).

While these articles did indeed report correctly the facts derived from research undertaken at Northern College, they presented only a partial and superficial picture. To evaluate the responses of the secondary teachers it is necessary to look more broadly at what has been achieved in response to the requirements of this complex and ambitious programme, and the factors that lie behind the failure of many to take account of information generated by their primary colleagues.

Secondary school staff have clearly responded positively to the requirement to communicate more effectively with their primary colleagues. Over the first four years of our evaluation of the implementation of the programme, liaison activities were reported to have increased and innovations such as link projects and extended visits to primary classrooms had been initiated. However, the most frequently applied strategies and those regarded as most successful by both primary and secondary staff were those developed prior to the introduction of 5-14 and which had almost certainly been introduced as a response to the recommendations of the 10-14 report of 1986.

By far the most popular and frequent form of liaison activity were the visits of the primary 7 pupils and their teachers to the secondary school and the informal discussions held with primary and learning support staff with respect to the characteristics of individual pupils. Considerable regret was expressed that while pupils continue to visit secondary schools to become familiar with their conditions and arrangements, their teachers, because of the pressures of development work, were becoming less available than previously to talk with their secondary colleagues.

Nevertheless, more structured contexts for professional discussions and exchanges in the form of joint in-service events and meetings of cluster or area groups also increased in frequency of occurrence over the period of our first study, from 1991-1994. Although many of these groups were then in the early settling-in stage, we expect to find that most have developed in effectiveness as cross-sector focal points for the planning and co-ordination of development work when we undertake our final national survey in August. Certainly enough progress had been made for 81 per cent of secondary headteachers to indicate that their relationship with all of their associated primary schools had developed in a positive way as a result of the 5-14 programme (Interchange No 37).

However, it must be conceded that while the opening up of additional lines of communication between these two professional groups could be regarded as a major achievement in itself, it is only of marginal educational significance if it does not serve one of its primary educational purposes, to promote improvement in the experience of continuity and progression for individual pupils. The key to the achievement of this is the passage of information across the primary-secondary transition and the use of that information in the selection and planning of the learning experiences offered in the secondary school subjects.

A requirement for the generation, communication and use of information on the attainments of individual pupils appears on the surface to be fairly reasonable and straightforward but has created difficulties for staff in both sectors. How do the secondary school staff interpret their difficulties? They point to inconsistencies between the reports they receive on different pupils in their class; many associated primary school groups have still to come to joint agreement about the form records should take and the information sent may not, in the view of the secondary recipients, be at a level of detail appropriate to their needs.

One learning support teacher commented: "We get no comment on pupil progress in individual strands, just an overall 'level B' for English language or whatever. But one or two of the schools sent up details about progress on every single outcome, and that was too much." Even when the content and level of detail of the reports are consistent and appropriate, concerns are expressed about comparability of standards. Hitherto, primary teachers had been accustomed to document, in general terms, what has been covered rather than what has been achieved by individual pupils with respect to common, specific descriptors of attainment.

As secondary teachers well know, considerable time and effort has to be devoted to moderation exercises to ensure that within schools and between schools there is common understanding of what descriptors of pupil attainments or grade levels mean with respect to pupils' work. The achievement of such a common understanding was a new requirement for primary teachers and it would have been surprising if they had been immediately able to demonstrate skill in the processes necessary for the moderation of assessment.

As the findings of the Scottish Council of Research in Education indicated, fewer than half the primary schools in their survey sample had undertaken national testing under the revised arrangements and only a minority of headteachers recognised that a primary purpose of these tests was to confirm teachers' judgments. At a recent in-service course a primary headteacher was heard to express the opinion that the work of level B pupils in her school is different from the work of level B pupils of another school because of the catchment area. It was clear that some of the concerns of secondary staff about the reliability of information they receive was perhaps well founded. It certainly suggests that there was no sound basis for secondary teachers to set pupils on the basis of the information they were receiving from the primary schools.

Despite all of these difficulties, and even without taking immediate account of primary records, the majority of teachers, particularly in mathematics and English, who have been interviewed in the second and current phase of our evaluation report that pupils are experiencing substantial improvements in the continuity and progression of their learning experiences within the secondary school as a result of review and revision of the secondary 1 and secondary 2 courses and improvements in assessment and differentiation practices.

However there is a growing awareness in secondary schools that the strongly subject-dominated curriculum of the first two years and the way in which timetables adversely influence its mode of delivery and the relationships between teachers and pupils are inimical to some of the aspirations of the 5-14 programme. It may well be that progress towards improved continuity in the experience of pupils between primary 7 and secondary 1 will depend on significant changes in the organisational structures of the secondary school.

What of the future use of primary records? The well established oral communications are informative and unthreatening to professionals in both sectors; the coded language transmitting key information on ability, behaviour, character, conformity and potential is commonly used and understood. The implementation of the 5-14 reporting requires nothing less than the learning of a new language, new codes, new understandings. Such cultural changes take time. Our surprise should be not at how little but at how much has been achieved since the beginning of the programme.

Professor Mary Simpson and Jonquil Goulder work in the Department of Educational Research at Northern College.

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