Easy does it

9th July 2010 at 01:00
The jump from primary to secondary has long been identified as a problem area. Meabh Ritchie visited one of only two transition schools in the country, where children feel protected and staff have the opportunity to bring pupils' academic skills up to scratch

At one end of the atrium, 12-year-old Casey is putting six of her fellow classmates through their paces. They have an assembly to prepare for and the group is performing an elegant-looking dance interpretation of the Black Death.

On the far side of the room, a group of Year 8 pupils is leafing through local papers with their teacher. The children are sitting on a specially carpeted area flooded with sunlight and separated from the rest of the space by a few bookshelves.

This is the main area of the new transition school at Oakmead College of Technology in Bournemouth, not far from the Dorset coastline. Only the second of its kind in the UK - the other being at Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London - the mini school-within-a-school was finally completed in May. There are a couple of standard classrooms as well as a few small offices for one-on-one tutoring or mediation, but the open space with its window-slanted roof is the pride and joy of teachers and pupils alike, embodying the cross-curricular multi-disciplinary ethos of Oakmead's transition school.

The physical building may only just be complete, but the transition school concept, complete with its own headteacher, has been in place since September. Years 7 and 8 at Oakmead now have about half of their classes in the transition building with the same teacher.

The exceptions are laboratory science, design and technology and ICT, where the pupils will have classes in different departments of the main school building. But in general, there are fewer opportunities to get lost and one teacher is responsible for each new pupil.

You wouldn't guess that 12-year-old Kirsty from the dance troupe had any concerns about starting secondary school. But as a Year 6 pupil, she had her doubts. "Before I came here I was really worried about maths and really worried about getting lost," she says. She settled in well though, and says the lessons and after-school clubs are "fun".

Her fears about coming to "big school" are the main reasons the transition school was set up in the first place. Coming to a large secondary school with 1,300 pupils, many of whom are much older, can be a daunting prospect for 11-year-old pupils. Pupils can also find the hurly-burly of secondary school, where pupils move around for every class and can have half-a-dozen different teachers a day, disconcerting after the relative calm of primary school.

Annetta Minard has been looking for ways to ease this transition since she arrived at Oakmead 10 years ago. She has already carried out changes to the timetable and curriculum, such as carrying over themed projects from primary school. The idea of a school for Years 7 and 8, physically separate from the rest of the college, seemed a natural next step.

The challenge was to make the building different to the rest of the school. "We didn't want a whole series of classrooms," Dr Minard says. "We wanted something that would really take learning forward and make it exciting. We spent a long time investigating spaces and how learning responds to space and environment, before coming up with this design."

Kirsty's fears about maths reflect those of many of her classmates. While the national average for numeracy is level 4, about 40 per cent of Year 7 pupils arrive at Oakmead below level three in numeracy and literacy. This has been a great cause of concern for Oakmead teachers and it has been a difficult problem to tackle.

"You try to catch up as soon as they arrive, but your focus is too often on getting qualifications for these youngsters at 16," says Dr Minard. "It seemed to me that we needed to be far more proactive and as soon as they arrive we need to be saying, 'let's have a really clear break-down of ability so that we know what needs to happen to get you to the level you should be at, at each particular age'."

Dr Minard has also recently become executive headteacher of Elmrise Primary, a principal feeder for Oakmead. It has been through a tough couple of years and was placed in special measures last October. Dr Minard hopes that a strengthened connection between the two schools will be one of the results of her intervention.

The dip in attainment in Year 7 has been a cause for concern for some time nationally. A report published in April by New Philanthropy Capital, a think tank, highlighted the drop in numeracy skills following the transfer from primary to secondary: 21 per cent of 11-year-olds fail to achieve the expected level in maths.

It is not only pupils who find the transition difficult. Parents can also be intimidated by the sheer size of secondary schools as well as the standards expected, especially if they did not have a positive experience at school themselves.

Parents who are used to talking to a single teacher about their child can feel uncomfortable when presented with several, potentially unsettling their youngster still further.

To try to become more approachable, Oakmead transition school has its own entrance and car park. From September, it will also run drop-in coffee mornings for parents during which transition and secondary teachers will be free to chat to them.

Having the same teacher for half the curriculum has already made a big difference. Pupils and parents build a relationship with one teacher who knows about each pupil's personal circumstances and their academic goals. This is a step further than the pastoral teacher employed by some secondary schools to help ease transition.

"By the transition teachers knowing the children so well, they have a much better idea of whether a booster class is working and what the impact is of a certain intervention in lessons," says Dr Minard. "The pupils make much better progress when adults know their potential. It is very much about saying, 'I know that child, I know what they can do and I want to help them achieve it'."

Over the past few years, both primary and secondary teachers have increasingly recognised the need to work together to allay the fears of primary pupils and to limit the scale of change in moving between the two institutions. However, a report commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2008, What Makes a Successful Transition from Primary to Secondary School?, based on research in six different local authorities, found that the way in which schools handled transition varied enormously.

The report revealed that some secondary schools did not trust the data provided by primary schools and carried out more tests to establish pupils' standard of attainment. These findings hint at the resentment that sometimes arises between primary and secondary, with each side feeling that the other could do more.

On the one hand, the report found, secondary teachers often feel too much is done for children at primary school and pupils are not sufficiently independent when they start Year 7. But primary teachers feel secondary peers could be more supportive and give Year 7s an extra helping hand.

"They are children and that doesn't mean our (pupils) are not independent," wrote a primary teacher on the TES forums. "(It is) just that they are still kids and maybe if more support was available as they got older there would be less in crisis."

As well as working in a middle school herself, Dr Minard's children were pupils at one. She says this has helped her see the advantage of both primary and secondary teachers at key stage 3. The headteacher has sought to employ primary teachers at the transition school and rejects suggestions that this could be seen as encroaching on secondary teachers' territory. "It is only a bone of contention if you stay in your own little world," she says.

Primary schools are good at looking after the whole child, while secondaries have better subject specialist knowledge, says Dr Minard. "The secondary teachers realised that it was a niche that primary teachers could fill," she says. "Primaries know children so well, they integrate their projects and good primary teaching brings out the generic skills in all subjects."

Staff meetings also benefit from having teachers with a different focus working together, with some concentrating on academic progress and others more concerned with the bigger picture.

There is much more to the transition school than the building and the staff, however. The curriculum itself is built around six-week skills-based projects, with similarities to the themed projects often used in primary schools.

One recent example saw pupils do a project on the Titanic in which they looked at local history through the ship's connection with the Bournemouth area, debunked the myths in the Hollywood film, debated who might be to blame for the tragedy and analysed the numbers and statistics behind the ship's construction and design. Their work covered literacy, maths, citizenship and media studies. Photo collages of staff and pupils dressed up in Edwardian costume for a re-enactment have been framed and hung on the atrium walls.

Jo Fish, headteacher of the transition school, finds it provides a good balance between primary and secondary. "I wouldn't go back to primary," she says. "I did think when I took the job that I might be making the biggest mistake of my life. But at primary schools there is the pressure of Sats all the time. Here, you can go off where the pupils want to go and spend more time on things. You can follow what they want to do."

This is how Kirsty and Casey have ended up working on their Black Death dance, and how the Year 8s are planning to create their own transition school newspaper for next year: their teachers have the freedom to mould the curriculum around their pupils' interests.

The hope is that the security of the transition school will give them more confidence and improve self-esteem while at the same time raising standards.

"By the time they leave transition school for Year 9, they should be at age-appropriate learning and attainment," says Dr Minard. "This is what the transition school is all about."

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