North Lanarkshire has been placing its primary teachers in secondary schools and vice versa, to increase their understanding of transition problems, says Douglas Blane
Some of the most effective professional development occurs when teachers are taken out of familiar surroundings and into unknown territory.
North Lanarkshire has been placing primary teachers in secondary schools and secondary teachers in primary schools, and providing both groups with the skills needed to survive in the new environment.
"It's all about tackling the primary to secondary transition and improving attainment in the first two years of secondary school," says Mary Devine, quality improvement officer.
Despite the existence of good English and maths teachers in secondary schools, the underachievement of S1 and S2 pupils throughout the country is a cause for concern.
"We realised there were two groups of people who could help: primary teachers working in the secondary sector and secondary teachers looking in detail at the needs of youngsters before they come up. We are also improving pupil to teacher ratios," says Ms Devine.
"But what we don't want is good individuals working for just two years in a handful of schools. We want to effect a change in philosophy through these people."
The structure of the project (a combination of two Scottish Executive-funded projects with common goals) should help to deliver and sustain this desired shift in attitude, says Ms Devine.
Concentrated and extensive professional development plays a key role. "If these teachers are going to influence their colleagues, they have to be highly skilled themselves," she says.
Numeracy and literacy form the core of the projects, so some training specific to English and maths has been provided, says Ms Devine. "But it really wasn't about improving teachers' skills in specific subjects. We were trying to develop and improve generic skills, and we took a decision right at the start that the primary and secondary teachers would be trained together."
The core of this generic CPD is co-operative learning, formative assessment, behaviour management, thinking skills and learning styles, all of which are equally valuable to teachers in the primary and secondary sectors and those who operate across the two.
Over 25 per cent of North Lanarkshire teachers, including all those taking part in the transitions projects, have been trained in the approach known as co-operative learning, says Ms Devine.
"It's an authority-wide initiative and our teachers have had a lot of CPD in a very short time. Some of it they will use now; some they will come back to in future.
"Probably the most important aspect of all this CPD is what they have learnt about teachers and teaching in the other sector. They have seen what it is really like. They have discovered there are more similarities than differences between primary and secondary teaching."
With funding for two years from August 2004 from the Scottish Executive's Future Learning and Teaching programme, North Lanarkshire has seconded six primary teachers as transition teachers and six secondary teachers as literacy or numeracy development officers.
The aims of the projects are to smooth the primary to secondary transition and to improve attainment at S1 and S2. Seven secondary schools and their associated primaries are currently involved.
Yvonne Santi, an English teacher with 29 years' experience, has been seconded as a literacy development officer, working from Primary 6 to Secondary 2, in Cumbernauld High and its associated primaries.
"I've now taught all the P6s from our feeder schools and worked with all the P7s," she says. "Going into the primary schools and observing their classroom management skills and methodology is very valuable.
"We are trying to take that good practice and integrate it into the secondary, so that when kids come up, they feel more comfortable with the styles of teaching and learning. We don't want them to be struggling to adapt to a totally new environment.
"We want to give them continuity and stability, so that they don't see everything as a big change."
An example of good practice from the primary sector, she says, is children working in threes, with the emphasis on shared learning, peer support and peer assessment.
"It's a challenge to transfer this methodology from the primary, where the children are used to working in groups every day, to the secondary school, where they move around so much. But we are making a start."
Ms Santi has been working with senior primary pupils in their own schools and helping to deliver lessons to them at secondary school in classrooms set up in similar ways to those of the primary.
"Already they feel quite comfortable in the secondary school, so it's not going to be a strange environment for them when they come here," she says.
English teachers on the project have attended courses on good practice at North Lanarkshire's literacy base, says Ms Santi. "We have also had courses on motivation, objective setting and attunement, a valuable way of helping children who have difficulty in focusing on targets and keeping on track.
"It's about helping kids to ask themselves particular questions before each lesson. What do I want to get out of this? Have I experienced this before? How did I deal with this last time?
"Over a period of time, they get into the way of looking at strategies to deal with their problems. I have now brought that attunement strategy back to my secondary colleagues, and we are going to use it with particular groups of kids."
Perhaps the most useful CPD for any teacher with a professional interest in the primary-secondary transition is experiencing at first hand the problems faced by colleagues in a different sector, and seeing the solutions developed to deal with them, says Ms Santi.
"I am now arranging for each of my English department colleagues to go out to the primary schools and work with the teachers there on reading and writing lessons. For some, it will be their first time in a primary school since student days.
"It will be a very valuable training experience for them."
Helen Connor is a primary teacher with 25 years' experience. She has been seconded to the project as a transition teacher, based in the maths department at Coatbridge High.
"Working in the secondary sector has been a learning experience for me, a big culture change. It has let me see a different way of teaching.
"I feel in one sense quite narrowed by teaching just one subject. But the intensity of it has amazed me. It has made me realise how much we can learn from each other."
As a long-time critic of the slow pace of learning in S1 and S2, Ms Connor welcomed the opportunity to take part in the project. "I felt I should get in there and do something about it.
"I haven't entirely changed my mind, but I do see things differently now. I am more aware of the time and behaviour management problems in the secondary."
From a professional point of view, she says, the course on attunement was one of the best. "It was all about helping pupils to keep on track and understanding how children's minds work."
Ms Connor firmly believes that better contact with parents is critical in order to improve the transition from primary to secondary.
"When children go to secondary schools, the informal contact with parents that you get in the primary is usually lost. But parents want it and it is good for the children's education. We organised a parents' workshop recently to explain what we were doing and how they could help, and the feedback was excellent.
"At the primary you have no qualms about lifting the phone to a parent, but at secondary the sheer number of teachers removes that direct contact with parents. I feel it is very important to get it back."
Co-operative learning is immensely valuable, she says. "I have first and second year children delivering lessons. Working in groups to plan, prepare visual aids and deliver a lesson is a great way to consolidate what they have been taught. The kids have tremendous enthusiasm for it."
The failure of large numbers of youngsters to progress in their first two years at secondary school highlights the importance of the primary to secondary transition, says Ms Connor. "The post of transition teacher can have a tremendous effect on children. I would like to see it mainlined by the Executive."