Drying the tears of tricky transition

1st August 2008 at 01:00
More play-based lessons instead of sitting still in class could help end bad experiences for Year 1 pupils and staff, writes Helen Ward

Moving into Year 1 can be a shock to children after the play and freedom they had in nursery and reception. Five-year-olds can often be turned off education by suddenly being made to sit still and listen to their teachers.

At Bedgrove Infant School in Aylesbury, Bucks, teachers were excited to introduce more play to its foundation stage in 2003.

But Judy Gurney, Year 1 teacher, said it had made the switch to the first year of the key stage curriculum more difficult for pupils.

"The first year that children came from that into Year 1, no one had thought about what was going to happen," she said. "There were children in tears, teachers in tears. It was a real culture shock because they came from one thing to another, alien world.

"At that point we had to rethink. The first year we didn't get it right; no one worked out the consequences - we had to work it out."

Bedgrove Infant School's experience was far from unique. An influential report by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 2005 highlighted how off-putting pupils found the transition. It quoted one boy who said being sat on the carpet while the teacher talked "wastes your life".

The urgency of improving this transition was underlined by a recent report from the Primary Review, the independent inquiry into primary education. It warned that having bad experiences moving into a new class could become a set pattern for some children, with the damage building each year.

Dr Pat Spungin, who runs the raisingkids website, described a pupil who had behaved well in nursery but lost interest in school in Year 1. After being suspended several times, he had told his mother: "Mummy, I wish I could start my life again."

Changes being developed for the key stage 1 curriculum are expected to address that first tricky transition and may lead Year 1 teachers to plan more play-based lessons.

Sir Jim Rose, who is conducting an official review of the primary curriculum, has been tasked with extending parts of the early years approach into key stage 1. But any changes to the curriculum which come about as a result of his recommendations will not affect schools until 2011.

So schools have been finding their own ways to smooth the transition - often by taking the opposite approach and bringing more formal learning into the foundation stage. This has been the approach taken by Bedgrove, which calls its foundation years "foundation 1" and "foundation 2", rather than nursery and reception.

But most of the foundation years remain highly play-based, and Barbara Capstick, the headteacher, and her team have put effort and imagination into three playgrounds.

The foundation stage classes share an area which has a huge wooden climbing frame and is surrounded by a path marked as a miniature road which children drive around in toy pedal cars.

There are also writing huts, reading corners, a garden and a role-play area which is currently a car wash, featuring buckets and sponges for the children to clean their cars as well as an office in a shed, with desks and chairs, health and safety notice and a real (though not working) phone and fax.

For most of their stay in foundation, children spend half their time inside and half outside. But once they reach the final term of foundation 2, the school puts children into three different streams.

It is a four-form entry school and one class continues as before, with most of their time spent choosing which activities to do. But children in two of the groups start having more adult-led activities, while one class is readied for a Year 1 curriculum.

In the first term of Year 1, the blurring of boundaries between traditional schooling and early years continues. In the morning all the children do literacy and numeracy at whatever level is appropriate. In the afternoon, around half the year group continues with a play-based curriculum, learning indoors and outdoors, albeit with less child- initiated activities. The rest will follow a more `sit-down' formal style curriculum.

The opportunities to play make Year 1 more attractive to some pupils. "Year 1 will be very nice," said five-year-old Lauren Bennett.

"Because we grow up, I'll be bigger and I'll be able to go down the side to the other playground. There's a little den we can go in."

Sam Garson-Pilban, five, added: "I am too big for F2 now. But I will miss my teacher because I've got used to her."

"THEY ARE HUNGRY FOR KNOWLEDGE. IT'S A LOVELY AGE TO BE"

Jemma Coxall, 25, teaches Year 1 at Newton Farm Nursery, First and Middle School in Harrow, north-west London. The school was graded outstanding in all categories by Ofsted in June. This year she had a class of 20 girls and 10 boys.

Would you like more foundation stage-style teaching in Year 1?

I think hands-on learning through play is really healthy. I think it would be a good idea to bring it in. But I would still want a structure.

In reception they do a lot of inquiry in science, but it is in Year 1 that an investigation is called an investigation and a results table is called a results table. They need that structure to further their learning. Life isn't free play. Being able to sit at a table and focus on their work is a skill children need to learn.

How do you balance teacher-initiated and child-initiated activities?

From day one, it is teacher led. But within the lessons they have a lot of opportunity to choose activities. I have a role-play corner which became an ice-cream shop when we were learning about money. I also have a challenge table, with games such as Guess Who? or Scrabble. I make time for the children to choose activities.

Subjects or topics?

I do literacy and numeracy every day. We do have a lot of cross-curricular links. For example, in literacy the children wrote a story about space, then that was acted out in drama. Then we listened to music which evoked space, and then they pictured themselves in their spaceship and enacted that in dance.

But although things are connected we don't do a week on castles.

Would you abolish Year 2 Sats?

I don't think I would abolish Sats. I've used Sats papers with my class to practise comprehension skills. I do gauge what level they find challenging, and would not give them something which is above their ability. But there is a lot of hype about them. Children enjoy being challenged at their own level and I don't see the harm.

What's the best thing about teaching Year 1?

I think it's the children's motivation and enthusiasm. They are hungry for knowledge. It's a lovely age to be.

Interview: Helen Ward

Photograph: Neil Turner.

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