It has long been known that pupils lose ground in the move from primary to secondary. Now the Scottish Executive says easing this rite of passage must be a priority. Douglas Blane reports
Crossing the primary-secondary divide has been identified as one of the most significant challenges by the Scottish Executive. Its blueprint for action following the national education debate highlights the need for teachers to work across primary and secondary schools to improve pupil motivation and attainment.
Evidence shows children join the big school with a blend of anticipation and anxiety, only to find that many of their hopes are disappointed and their fears confirmed.
The HMI report Achieving Success in S1 and S2 (1997) admitted that there had been a continuing failure to give these crucial years the priority they require and that the time had come for "clear and sustained action".
The failure to make progress reflected secondary schools' lack of urgency in implementing the 5-14 curriculum programme and a fresh start approach ignored attainment evidence from primary schools.
Six years later, the problem remains.
"There is an academic discontinuity between primary and secondary school, the steady progress of pupils in their primary schools being checked and in some cases reversed after the transition to secondary," says former Alloa Academy teacher and education researcher Shelley Fouracre, who has studied the issue since the early 1990s.
The problem is not confined to Scotland. A study published in 1999 for the Department for Education and Skills reported that 40 per cent of pupils in England and Wales failed to make progress in maths, use of language or reading - some even regressed - during their first year at secondary school.
Ms Fouracre's investigation in and around Alloa Academy (Pupils'
Expectations of the Transition from Primary to Secondary School, published by the Scottish Council for Research in Education, 1993) reports: "Many pupils mentioned that they found secondary work was rather like revision, with certain parts of their work repeated in an almost identical fashion."
She proposed that there should be greater contact between primary and secondary teachers, to allow them to share teaching methods and information about pupils.
The Scottish Executive highlights the need for continuity in its action plan, stating: "Children do not change dramatically at age 12 so that teaching environments or methods used in Primary 7 classes somehow become irrelevant in Secondary 1, or that secondary environments and methods are inappropriate in Primary 7."
The idea that primary and secondary teachers can learn from one another, to the benefit of both sets of pupils and with an easing of the transition from the former to the latter, underlies the growing trend for secondary schools and their associated primaries to work more closely together.
The terminology varies around the country - clusters, learning partnerships, learning communities, area groups - as does some of the practice. But common factors are regular meetings, joint curriculum development work, and teachers from one sector visiting the other and, increasingly, taking part in lessons.
Schools can expect much more of this on a national scale.
Tom Burnett, headteacher at St Mungo's Academy and principal of its learning community - one of two set up by Glasgow City in 1999 - talks of the benefits of "working in a collegiate fashion" with associated primary schools on staff and curriculum development. Initiatives have been undertaken in science - where a comprehensive set of lessons has been devised and demonstrated - maths, religious and moral education, citizenship, health, and modern languages.
"The aim," he says, "is to streamline the curriculum and make it a seamless garment from primary to secondary.
"Increasingly we are going to see a blurring of the edges of teaching in primary and secondary schools, and the sooner it happens more widely the better.
"St Mungo's Academy staff have been teaching in the primary schools and we now have primary teachers shadowing secondary teachers. They are not taking lessons yet, but that is the route I want to go.
"My own personal view is that the primaries have cracked it in terms of methodology and presentation. They really know what they're doing, with group work, themes running through subject areas, and the whole business of organising their space and making classrooms attractive learning environments.
"The way a classroom looks and the way a teacher organises space and time are enormously important to how children perform. These things are starting to feed through.
"I was in a maths classroom earlier today and noticed that they now have aide-memoires on nicely coloured laminated card hanging down from the ceiling. It was beginning to look like a primary classroom, in the nicest possible way. The more of that we can do the better."
In addition to the one at St Mungo's Academy, Glasgow has five learning communities, with a further three to be launched in the new financial year.
The intention is to roll the model out over the next few years to all the authority's schools, using new community schools funding. The obvious danger is that the clarity of aims will become blurred.
"It's a key issue," says acting depute director of education Richard Barron.
"We need to make sure that the focus of the learning communities is not lost. But if you look at the guidance from the Executive on new community schools - yes it's about education, social services and health all working together. But it's also all about raising attainment, which is the basic idea behind learning communities. So raising attainment and working together to get good transitions between primary and secondary will not get lost."
In Fife, the cluster model developed to encourage primary-secondary liaison and ease the transition is similar to Glasgow's in its emphasis on joint curriculum work and planned meetings between teachers. But one aspect of the area groups set up in Fife seems particularly to enthuse teachers and pupils - the summer camp that all Primary 7 pupils are invited to attend.
"We organise the children into groups corresponding to classes they'll belong to when they go up to secondary," says Lynn Epps, headteacher of Cellardyke Primary in Anstruther and current chair of the area group based around Waid Academy.
"Subject and guidance teachers from the secondary school come to camp, and there's a lot of talking about children to ensure that any problems are picked up. It's a big help in smoothing the transition."
Each day at camp children and teachers take part in outdoor pursuits, such as the flying fox, "an aerial ropeway extending 100 feet from the top of a tree to the ground". Classes are arranged with visiting specialists in music, drama and art, and recreational activities in the evening include sports, barbecues and a disco.
"There are several key aspects to smoothing the transition from primary to secondary," says Ms Epps. "The change in the curriculum should be less sudden - we are using liaison meetings and visits for that, and curriculum development focused on particular subjects each year.
"This term, for example, we have been running a science project where the Primary 7s have been working with the secondary specialist. This week they went up to the academy to do experiments in the science lab.
"The flow of information needs to be improved. Waid Academy now gets good first-hand information from the primaries about the children, and they in turn find out who will help them in the secondary if they have problems.
"And, of course, there's the social side. Before we began these camps, the kids used to be very anxious going up to secondary school, even just for a visit, but now they look forward to it and are very positive.
"The camps also build trust between staff in the two sectors, and it's much easier to operate on information from someone you know and trust.
"The fact that heads and staff from all the primaries go every year, as well as teachers from the secondary school, tells its own story. At first the secondary teachers were a bit doubtful, but now we can't take all the ones who want to go. It's not a holiday - it's hard work and means giving up a lot of our own time. But it is worth it, for the pupils and the teachers."
Educating for Excellence: Choice and Opportunity. The Executive's Response to the National Debate, at www.scotland.gov.uk
Pupils' Expectations of the Transition from Primary to Secondary School by Shelley Fouracre, www.scre.ac.uk