The smooth transition between primary and secondary schools means a lot more than putting on a few parents' evenings, dishing out colour brochures and inviting children from local feeder primaries to experiment with Bunsen burners in the science labs.
An effective transfer is one in which the feeder school and the receiving secondary work together for the benefit of the pupil by sharing information and using it to plan for the future.
But there is a general acceptance that many transfer arrangements are not efficient enough. As Sir Ron Dearing recently recognised, there is "a loss of momentum in pupils' progress between the end of key stage 2 and the beginning of key stage 3", along with insufficient communication between the feeder primaries and secondary schools. The publication of Promoting Continuity Between Key Stage 2 and 3, a new booklet circulated by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is therefore timely.
Alix Beleschenko, author of the SCAA report, cites factors which work against communication and continuity between the two key stages. "In some areas, the traditional pathways between schools have been disappearing because of parental choice. In the metropolitan areas, for instance, it's not unusual to have 90 primaries feeding into a popular school. It's that 'white-knuckled competition' between schools that is breaking down the more traditional links."
What it means for children is a breaking up of peer groups going together to secondary school and the security that that brings. What it means for the schools - both primaries and secondaries - is less communication, less mutual understanding and ultimately for the pupils, less continuity.
Even without 90 feeder primaries, something of a credibility gap has appeared between the phases. More and more secondary schools have been carrying out their own baseline assessments at the beginning of Year 7. Often, this takes the form of a battery of cognitive and reading tests. As a recent study by the Scottish Council for Research in Education showed, secondary teachers in Scotland did not bother with primary assessments, preferring to look at their new pupils through their own eyes.
It would appear that you don't have to go as far as Scotland to find secondary schools and individual teachers who tend not to take the new key stage 2 tests very seriously. "Secondaries," says Ms Beleschenko, "aren't happy to rely on the key stage 2 tests because last year was the first year that everyone in the country had taken them. We need to work at establishing a climate of confidence in the test results and in the judgments made by primary teachers about their Year 6 pupils."
Although she admits that sometimes primary schools' records are cumbersome, she thinks it's "unhelpful" for secondaries to put them in the bin in favour of their own bought-in tests. "The best practice is primary and secondary schools agreeing on what depth of information is required."
For that, you need liaison, and the closer the better [see boxes]. While the statutory framework demands the minimum information on each pupil to be passed from primary to secondary, the SCAA booklet points to the additional material that many primary and secondary schools have agreed upon.
Such an agreement should be based on extra information being of genuine and clearly defined use. It should also be assessed in terms of how much extra work it will require, and of the level of detail that should be gone into. This may be supplemented, if it is considered useful, with curriculum plans for Years 5 and 6, including the amount of time spent on all national curriculum subjects.
But first and foremost, schools need to "reconcile what information primary teachers want to give with what information secondary teachers need to have".
The timing of when the information is made available to secondary schools has also become increasingly important. Since many secondaries require information on pupils' attainment either by the end of the spring term or the beginning of the summer term in order to plan the curriculum and group pupils, the SCAA booklet recommends a two-staged approach.
The first stage involves providing the secondary with provisional teacher assessments of each pupil in the core subjects and with information on their progress in the other, foundation subjects. This is followed by the key stage 2 test and task results and finalised assessments at the end of the summer term.
It is one thing to make sure that the correct information is passed on. It is quite another to ensure that the right information gets to the right teacher or department. SCAA recommends that a senior management team member take responsibility for overseeing the information from primary schools through liaising with them directly, distributing the information to the appropriate people and monitoring and analysing how it is used.
Achieving continuity involves more than moving papers between schools, however. Joint work between the phases, where staff from both schools collaborate on defining standards and expectations is also well within the realms of possibility, as is planning related areas of work across Years 6 and 7 to avoid replication and ensure progression, All of this requires organisation and time. These things don't necessarily fit neatly into the priorities of secondary schools in this, the most competitive educational climate the country has experienced for many generations. With money being spent on glossy prospectuses and high profile open days, curriculum continuity is not at the top of many secondary school agendas.
Where some schools have begun developing sophisticated electronic systems for the transfer of records about a pupil to the relevant secondary teachers and departments, others are starting assessment at square one.
According to SCAA, liaison between the two phases should provide Year 7 teachers with a fuller picture of who the child is, what their achievements have been, what level of work will be challenging for them and what arrangements will be necessary for bilingual pupils or those with special needs. Unless this information is passed on, it raises the basic question: what's the point of all the record-keeping, all the assessments, all the testing at primary level?
Curricular continuity and the development of professional links between schools to support it are the underpinnings for a smooth, productive transition from primary to secondary school. This must go hand in hand with parents' support to ensure that their children feel secure during what is potentially a disruptive time.
Whoever is involved, however many feeder primaries are pouring their children into the secondaries, whatever the competition and the pressures, there is an increasingly strong argument for schools to put energy into making the transition a smooth and productive one.
Examples of the level best
Willow Bank junior school in Berkshire is part of a cluster which accepts, in the words of headteacher Geoff Forster, that "if we're to make progress, we have to make secondary schools confident in our assessment - by working together with them." To this end, all of the schools in the cluster, near Reading, are encouraged to produce portfolios with examples of each level for assessment in English and science. Working collectively between schools and phases, they have come up with an agreed level for the scripts. "The idea is that the final portfolio will contain children's work illustrating examples of Levels 3 to 6, all annotated by teachers."
How the team reaches consensus on aims
BYLINE:Stanley comprehensive in Durham is part of a consortium that includes five feeder primaries working to promote continuity and progress.
The steering group of heads is targeting the core subjects. Together with an LEA assessment and achievement co-ordinator who works as an external assessor to the group, they have reached a consensus on standards on annotated pieces of work. They have also been looking at curriculum development and joint planning.
"We're blurring the edges between key stages 2 and 3," says deputy head Alan Lee. "There have always been good pastoral links between the feeders and the comprehensive. But we felt there was a gap in terms of academic continuity. " He laughingly suggests that part of the motivation for moving into this area might be "fear", but, more seriously, points to OFSTED's developmental focus on the key stages, and to accountability.
"It's long overdue," he says. But he admits that this close collaborative work has its pitfalls. Two meetings per term attended by seven to ten members of staff during school time is expensive.
"Ten teachers in one session could cost Pounds 700 if you had to bring in outside cover. This has to be costed as part of the development. We want to extend this network and keep it going. But the cost will militate against us extending our brief to cover foundation subjects."