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From primary top dog to secondary plankton

Ted Wragg sympathises with both pupils and teachers over secondary transfer

Oi! Where do you think you're going?" It was early in the first lesson of the first day at secondary school, and the remark, which would have been regarded as rather rude even in the park or at the supermarket, was addressed to an 11-year-old newcomer by his teacher.

"Oi" is the loudest sound made by the human voice; "s" the softest. If you are a Year 7 pupil just starting secondary school, you may hear more of the former than the latter.

I was watching this lesson for a study of the beginning of the school year, and the lad was being told off for leaving his seat without permission.

Quite by chance I had seen the same boy seven weeks earlier during his last week at the small three-teacher rural school where he was top dog. The head taught the nine 11-year-olds. The climate was gentle and orderly. Of course it was OK to cross the room, without any formalities, to fetch a sheet of paper.

By September he was the smallest piece of plankton in a large comprehensive, one of more than 200 novices. As he wandered across the classroom for a sheet of paper, he was about to learn his first new rule: no leaving your seat unless the teacher says so. He would also form his first impression of his new school: that Year 7 sir spoke in a louder voice than his Year 6 teacher, had much bigger eyeballs, staring out of much bigger sockets, and would probably swallow whole any bits of plankton floating along without permission.

The primary-to-secondary transfer is better than it used to be, but not yet as effective as it might be. Most primary pupils spend an excited open day at their new school during their last summer term, returning to their younger mates with excited tales of magic castles: gyms and labs, studios and workshops. Whoopee! Can't wait for September.

So far, so good, on the surface at any rate, but underneath all is not well in some schools. Secondary teachers still lament the ignorance of their newcomers: "Oh yes, they're a bit better at numbers than they used to be, but dearie me, we have to teach them most things again."

At the same time, primary teachers complain that secondary schools don't really understand what they have done and how much the children know.

Former pupils, dying to move on, return to their Year 6 teachers to say they are still treading water, or even swimming backwards. Despite the open days, curriculum continuity, as it is known in the trade, is not always a reality.

In some areas, primary and secondary staff meet at joint courses, while in others they never encounter each other at all. As a result there is too little mutual understanding, not only of the subject matter covered, but of the ways of teaching and classroom conventions and climate that go with it.

In other areas Year 7 teachers take Year 6 classes and Year 6 teachers teach young secondary pupils. Result: greater illumination and a smoother transition.

In Jersey one of the successful features of the island's critical skills programme, now taught in all its primaries and secondaries, is that teachers from both sectors train together, so no elaborate explaining is needed of what each group will be doing back in their classrooms.

It is not difficult to set up such cross-phase training, where maths, science or English specialists can meet the co-ordinators responsible for their subject in feeder primaries. Moreover, important related matters such as special needs, school ethos and expectations can be discussed, and myths and misconceptions can be swept into the bin where they belong.

So are you listening? Oi! I said, are you listening? What's your name? Sit properly and look at me. And you don't doze off in my newspaper columns unless I say you can, so go and straighten out your liaison now. I said NOW!

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter university

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