Consistency is the key to an easier transition;Platform;Opinion

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
Secondary schools should look at how children have learnt in primary not just what they know, says Jim Doherty.

"WELL DONE, but could do better" seemed to be Brian Boyd's end-of-term report when he reviewed his son's first year at Duncanrig Secondary (TESS, July 9). On balance (and certainly in breadth), Chris appears to have benefited from the experience.

It is a bit strange, however, to encounter Dr Boyd in uncharacteristically moderate tone when he addresses the subjects of setting, restricting the curriculum and awards ceremonies. Perhaps he has chosen to report on their impact on Chris rather than comment on their efficacy.

Either way, those who know him well will be certain he is not endorsing a form of institutional elitism which gave out awards to "something like 50 per cent of S1 and S2" (did the other "something like 50 per cent" achieve nothing in two years?); nor, presumably, is he offering approbation for those who set pupils at Easter of S1 - or even earlier.

Turning to the issue of transition, Dr Boyd describes primary-secondary curricular continuity as a "pantomime horse" and suggests that the secondary curriculum structure makes it difficult to achieve continuity and progression. Rightly, he is at pains to point out that this problem is not restricted to Duncanrig and that his son seems to have come through the transition well.

The 5-14 programme does provide a structure of continuity and progression (of sorts), but does it actually meet the criteria laid out in widely accepted definitions of continuity and progression?

Does continuity ensure that learning builds on each child's previous experience and attainment; and does progression provide each child with a series of challenging but achievable goals. Both of these definitions are loaded with meaning and each word or phrase merits rigorous examination.

Increasingly, concerns are expressed about the S1-S2 curriculum structure and about the apparent regression which occurs among pupils of a wide range of abilities at this stage. In one education authority south of the border (Suffolk), research has been carried out across a range of subjects in an effort to look closely at the issue of transition.

The results are revealing, and alarming. Pupils whose standards of attainment suffered most were the top 25 per cent of the year group. In maths, in some schools pupil progress was set back by a year or more and some were working two levels below their prior attainment.

In science, children were stimulated by labs and equipment but more able pupils were the most disadvantaged as secondary teachers did not accept that they could do investigations. There was a dip in progress in reading. Progress in writing was better, but was uneven in speaking and listening.

Interestingly, while no one would argue that primary schools are educationally perfect, the same criticism which is levelled at S1 and S2 is not levelled at P6 and P7 (and earlier). Do people really think that all that happens in primary is that children have one teacher and learn only reading, writing and arithmetic?

Evidence emerging from work being undertaken in 19 schools in Newcastle and Gateshead suggests it is not the variety of curricular content but the inconsistency in approaches to children learning that is the real problem.

The focus in these schools has become not curriculum content but how children learn. Much is being learnt from the literacy and numeracy hours which have been introduced (although these are not free from criticism) in all primary schools.

Teachers across the sectoral divide are beginning to share good practice on equal terms - not only about differentiation by task and by outcome, but also by learning process.

Schools in England and Wales have a plethora of tests (PIPs, SATs, key stage tests). The results are assiduously passed on by primary schools but are rarely used as evidence of prior attainment in individual secondary classrooms.

How then, can we ensure the setting of challenging but achievable goals when receiving teachers do not make full enough use (if any) of how children have performed in the past? Indeed, where such results are used for setting across a range of secondary subjects, they are increasingly demonstrated as being totally unsuited for that task.

The real issues of learning in transition are not about subject delineations or the bewildering variety of teachers per se, but about how children learn in these subjects. If secondary schools are to accept the definitions of continuity and progression (and it is their responsibility to do so), then they must look much more comprehensively at how children have learnt in the previous seven years.

Issues of setting, group work and individual work are largely irrelevant in primary schools. Teachers use them variously and pragmatically to achieve their aim of ensuring pupil learning - a task which they perform with remarkable success.

Proper consideration of these issues will enable secondary schools to look much more purposefully at children's learning experiences in S1 in terms of the seamless learning continuum that they ought to be experiencing.

In these terms, their attainment will continue to rise, as it has done since their arrival in primary school. Their experience of arrival in secondary will still be exciting and new. It would also, however, be marked by a series of challenging but achievable outcomes which have characterised their primary school careers.

Secondary schools certainly try to do well. The truth is, however, that they can do better.

Jim Doherty was a secondary headteacher in Glasgow and is now an educational consultant. He is currently working on school improvement in 19 schools in Newcastle and Gateshead.

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