A smoother transition

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Brian Boyd calls for revised guidelines and more dialogue to ease the transfer from primary to secondary schools.

Our son, Chris, and his classmates - as the first of the 5-14 generation - are now in Primary 7 and beginning to contemplate the transition to high school. There are six secondaries in our town, all of them good, and this is open-night season. It's interesting for me to look at schools from a parent's perspective - not to mention seeing familiar things through the eyes of a 10-year-old whose experience of learning to date has been almost entirely positive. What lies in store for him in secondary school? What subliminal signals are being given out by the schools as they work hard to present themselves to parents and prospective students? More important, what is the curriculum in S1 and S2, and will it build on the strengths of primary education?

In P7, Chris and his friends have already completed one mini-topic at home (on volcanoes) and are putting the finishing touches to a second major topic on ancient Egypt. In addition, the whole school is working on a year-long topic on Europe. All of this is above and beyond the work in class, and Chris, like others, is encouraged to work independently and use his investigative skills. He is undoubtedly being helped to become a fairly sophisticated learner, and the P7 curriculum is becoming more demanding.

But what will happen when he gets to S1? If the open nights are anything to go by, he'll get a widerange of experiences: up to 17 subjects and 17 teachers in a week. The open nights were great, with teachers and pupils giving up their time to make the P7s and their parents welcome. The teachers are clearly motivated and committed. But has the 5-14 curriculum helped them to deliver progression, continuity and coherence?

The problems of the secondary curriculum have been addressed recently. Of the the reports promised in July this year we have at last had this week the HMI review of the S1 and S2 curriculum. It sets out to tackle the problem of the fragmented curriculum but largely by suggesting a rotation in "minority" subjects. Most secondaries already timetable such subjects in rotation, and at best it would reduce the number of teachers from around 16 or 17 to 12 or 13. The fragmentation remains, but the number of individual teachers is reduced.

A big mystery is the the whereabouts of the new secondary curriculum guidelines from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC), promised before the summer and billed as a thorough review. The signals emanating from conferences and seminars have been that the SCCC revision has been fairly radical, and has challenged the hegemony of the subject-centred secondary curriculum. Its rationale has drawn on the recent theories of the "learning organisation", on researchers' notions of "multiple intelligences" and on the HMI phrase "an ethos of achievement".

The implications of such a line of argument are fairly obvious, namely that the present, fragmented S12 curriculum structure is no longer tenable and 5-14, if it is to deliver more effective learning and higher attainment, needs to ensure progression in learning across P6 to S2. This suggests that the structures of the curriculum in the upper stages of primary and the early years of secondary need to move closer, and it seemed that the SCCC group was going in that direction.

Surely the rationale for progression, continuity and coherence in the 5-14 programme implies that there should be increasing specialism in the upper stages of primary and more generalism in the lower stages of secondary? And why do balance and breadth have to happen every week rather than over a year or even two years? Why are secondary teachers still seen as teachers of subjects while their primary counterparts are teachers of children? As long as such structures and attitudes remain unchallenged, progression in learning across P6 to S2 is likely to remain difficult to achieve.

The SCCC revision has not yet appeared and it does not take a conspiracy theorist to conclude that it may never see the light of day. Scottish schools have become increasingly uniform over the past 10 years, homogenised by a centralised curriculum and a plethora of performance indicators. Anything which gives schools more autonomy to seek radical solutions to the problem of fragmentation of the S12 curriculum, such as those being pursued in Stranraer Academy (TESS, October 17), is perceived as a threat. The need to see learning in the round, to help pupils make connections and to break down artificial subject barriers, is unlikely to be acknowledged nationally. It seems that conservatism in terms of the curriculum has become a national habit.

Chris and his peers, like many before them, may repeat work they can already do because the issue of transferring information about individual learners to every department in the secondary is still a problem. From the start, 5-14 was never resourced adequately, and time for teachers to get together across sectors was never provided. Scottish kids are compliant in the main, but we need to be sure that the challenge they are used to in upper primary is maintained in S1.

What we need is a genuine debate about learning, building on the work done by SCCC ("Climate for Learning" and "Teaching for Effective Learning"). It would mean resourcing 5-14 so that cross-sectoral discussion could take place on a regular basis, visits between schools would go on throughout the year, and shared understandings would develop about learning and achievement. Since HMI moved on from 5-14 to Higher Still, the situation has deteriorated nationally, and the staffing restrictions imposed as a result of budget cuts have been the final straw. Teachers feel under pressure, undervalued and overstretched.

Paradoxically, the time is as propitious as it will ever be. A new Government, professional concerns about the P6 to S2 transition and the moratorium on Higher Still all provide a "window of opportunity". Already we have seen a welcome investment in early intervention, long overdue. So let us have the SCCC's revised secondary guidelines now, and begin a debate about achievement, the structure of the curriculum and the principles of continuity, coherence, progression, breadth and balance. Above all else, let us resource 5-14 properly, before Higher Still swallows up all of the curriculum budget, so that gains made by pupils as a result of 5-14 are maintained.

My abiding memory of the open nights is the maths principal who, at the tail end of the evening, when he might have been forgiven for wanting to pack up and go home, enthused about his subject, talked to Chris rather than to us and made a human contact. That's what we want: confident teachers able to exercise their "professional autonomy within guidelines", as the 10-14 Report proposed more than a decade ago.

Brian Boyd is associate director of the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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