In many primary schools across the country, you’ll often hear teachers admit in hushed tones, usually with a shudder or a fleeting look of terror in their eyes, “I could never teach Year 6.” The words are followed by the sort of small headshake one would give when thinking about potential root canal work or recalling a particularly painful toe stub.
But for those who’ve taught in and got the Year 6 wings, they know how fabulous it is to fly with those pupils and how rewarding readying them to leave the primary nest can be.
I’ve been teaching for 21 years, and have spent eight of those (willingly) in Year 6. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what the lure was that kept me coming back for more, despite ever-moving goalposts, greater accountability and seemingly unreachable standards.
And it was this. It’s the anchor leg.
The sprint to Sats
When you watch the 4x100m relay, everyone is on the edge of their seats to see how well the athletes get out of the blocks. Early Years Foundation Stage colleagues will tell you that it is the privileged chance and position to get pupils off on the right foot and off to the best start that draws them to their specialist year group.
Then come the unsung heroes of the middle legs – the enginerooms of the race. This is where you can’t really see what’s going on as clearly. The bends of the track can distort the order and it’s harder to see how well the teams are doing. So much work is still going on though, legs powering and lungs burning to keep up the pace and ensure that the EYFS flying start is maintained. But then, as the third leg levels out, the handover to the anchor takes place.
The anchor-leg runner looks backwards, arm outstretched ready for the baton pass and, taking a few cautious steps forward in anticipation of continuing the leads that their all-important middle-leg teammates have accrued, they glance towards the finish line, which is flanked by two giants: external accountability measures and, on the other side, secondary readiness and wellbeing. In the crowds of the stands are the families, colleagues and stakeholders, all holding their breath and waiting for the anchor to start that final run. Much will have been monitored, moderated and analysed in preparation for this handover over the years, but no one ever truly knows if it will be slicker than a buttered otter or a complete car crash. So the school stadium holds its breath and waits for the baton to be passed. As it does, the weight of expectation can bow some but inspire others.
The Year 6 anchor tears down that final stretch. Flickers of support and smiles from families and colleagues in the stands remind them that this leg not only needs to build results but that it’s also the last chance to power resilience and positive memories of all their years at the school. This leg needs to facilitate the shift into the next arena. To ensure that the next handover is of a child who is motivated, confident and brave enough to stand up for what they believe in and cement the solid foundations upon which to build their secondary learning. To continue to foster kindness, independence, perseverance and a self-belief to resist the pull of future peer pressure. It is one which needs to make them laugh, to become a team, to ensure that they truly understand their unique and special talents.
It’s a tough race to run, and as you cross the academic finish line, unlike the real 4x100m relay, you’ll have to wait weeks to find out the results.
As soon as the discarding of the baton is complete, it’s on to the closing ceremonies. Transition days, end-of-term shows, leavers’ assemblies and visits from key stage 3 colleagues replace the sprinting, and so begins a period of reflection and preparation. Nostalgia sets in from that last Friday of Sats week and you are often hijacked by a lump of pride in your throat as you see how far your class have come.
Legs and arms are suddenly too long for uniform and the odd non-statutory uniform item creeps in, which makes you all the more aware that soon these long-limbed fledglings, whose knees crunch under slightly-too-small tables, will be gone. The memories of their joy as they sat on the benches for the first time in assembly or the trembling of their chin when they attempted to reach the top of the climbing wall on the residential will fade.
The last lap at primary school
They probably won’t remember the times you nagged them about their sentence construction or sighed, "Come on, you’re better than this!" when they’d misbehaved in a lengthy assembly. They won’t know how you fretted over every single one of them when you planned their learning for each and every subject across the curriculum.
They won’t know that your heart, too, was beating out of your chest as you held those plastic packets in May, smiled, took a deep breath, gave a last thumbs-up, tore open the packets and willed the question gods to be on your side.
They’ll be totally unaware of the mixture of pride and sorrow you felt as you walked them all up to the high school for their first taster session. And they’ll think you’re being a killjoy when you remind them that there are still five weeks to go and they’re not at high school yet when they return buoyant and giddy from their transition days.
You’ll cry by your laptop as you create the leavers’ PowerPoint. As you pour your heart into their final primary reports, you’ll hope you’re conveying exactly what they and their families need to hear from you in order to help carry them through those first weeks and know that they will always belong and have a family back here at their primary school.
It’s the final leg for these pupils, too. The one that will create and add to so many abiding memories. As they leave on that final day, shirts scrawled with felt-tipped well wishes, and bags overflowing with the papery detritus from their trays, you’ll look around that now quiet classroom and know that there is no greater leg of the race you’d rather run.
Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire