A French perspective on the 10-14 divide

21st March 2003 at 00:00
A pilot bridging programme in the Vendee has paid dividends but the underlying problems remain, says John Muir

READ with great interest Douglas Blane's report (TESS, February 21) on the priority the Scottish Executive plans to give to easing the rite of passage from primary to secondary. I had just returned from an international Arion study visit to France to consider the similar challenge faced there.

In Scotland, many reasons, if not excuses, have been given for this discontinuity. In my experience over the past 30 years in education, the debate has raised as many questions as it has offered solutions. The Conservative government of the day hastily set aside the much publicised 1986 10-14 report. The ill-fated document proposed generic, in addition to curricular, solutions.

Instead, the Scottish Office pinned its hopes on the publication of national 5-14 guidelines, with their targets and related machinery for national testing. It is generally accepted that 5-12 has seen some success but ease of transition from 12-14 has eluded us.

The inspectorate in the Vendee painted a similarly bleak picture but believes that the example of one coll ge (lower secondary school) in the town of La Chataignerie is a notable exception. For four years, teachers in Coll ge Pierre Mend s-France have worked closely with colleagues in the associated primaries, which range from small rural schools to large establishments.

Secondary and primary class teachers meet in May and June to discuss a bridging programme for pupils in their final year in primary. Primary pupils, accompanied by their teachers, spend a day every fortnight in the coll ge, following a tailored timetable for each subject. Reviews are planned during the session, based on observation of pupils and progress is taken into account when planning for the following year.

Primary teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to visit the secondary school on a regular basis, to observe classroom practice and to become familiar with the post-primary curriculum. Secondary teachers were able to get to know the pupils more intimately, with a view to meeting their learning needs more effectively, as well as sharing with their primary colleagues. Pupils I spoke to clearly appreciated the opportunity to become acclimatised during their final year in primary.

Secondary staff were able to gauge levels of attainment by individual pupils and to note variations in different primary schools. During these introductory sessions they have the opportunity to arrange for appropriate differentiation, which must be helpful when the children eventually arrive.

Parents praised the programme and raised funds locally to facilitate joint activities.

However, members of the inspectorate were also quick to point out the truism that pilot projects invariably succeed. This is particularly so if they are in the spotlight and have the support of all concerned, not least the decision-makers and holders of the purse-strings.

Unfortunately, there has been no objective evaluation of the project in terms of raising attainment. The management team at Coll ge Pierre Mend s-France made no attempt to evade concerns raised about their project in a political climate where change is resisted as being painful and expensive.

Nor did they believe they had arrived at the ultimate solution to the problem of maintaining motivation and achievement between primary and secondary.

They also admitted that a significant minority of secondary staff were less enthusiastic about the programme than many of their colleagues. Some suggested that this was due to unrealistic expectations of progress with the less able pupils; others that they objected to the disruption to their "normal" timetable.

The cost of transporting and feeding the pupils was funded externally and there was no guarantee that funding would continue. In Scotland, there was a view in the 1980s that the cost of funding the 10-14 proposals sealed their fate.

Whether the Vendee project can be replicated to address the Scottish problem, it is certain that time and money will have to be set aside. The practice of spending a day or two at the end of the school year may help pupils find the toilets when they arrive in August but has little impact on curricular continuity.

In addition, we must grasp the nettle, which I noted also in France, and tackle the differences in training, methodology, teaching styles and the structure of timetables.

John Muir is a quality development officer with Highland Council. The Arion study visit to France was supported by the British Council.

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