Liaisons might not stand cold light of day

7th July 2006 at 01:00
A recent front-page blurb in this august journal gave me a Nanook of the North moment. The blurb declared, "Primary and secondary teachers trade places," an announcement that I found disturbing. The East Ayrshire teachers who were working across sectors and sharing their planning, evaluation and impressions with one another are to be congratulated for their efforts in improving the experiences of the children in their schools. But it's not newsworthy, or it shouldn't be, because it's a long time since Nanook of the North.

Thirty years ago - 1976, year of a long, hot summer, droughts and Harold Wilson's mysterious resignation as Prime Minister - saw a secondary colleague and me experimenting with a common topic for our P7 and S1 classes. Even then it was obvious that the gulf between secondary and primary was crying out to be bridged, and our small steps took us into each other's classrooms to teach the lessons we had planned. The topic may have been "families", but my memory is shaky.

However, I do remember that Nanook of the North was the "stimulus" (note the period jargon) for our work. For younger readers, I should explain that Nanook of the North is a film, regarded as a classic and described on my Google search as "the first example of cinema verite".

It tells how Nanook, the hunter, and his eskimo family cope in their harsh living conditions. Since the film was made in 1922, it was in black and white and silent. Our 1976 12-year-olds first watched television in black and white, regarded the cassette tape as cutting-edge technology and the Bay City Rollers as the height of sophistication. So a scratchy, soundless film, projected on to a classroom wall, was within the limits of tolerance.

By coincidence, our faltering approach to primary-secondary curricular liaison took place in what is now East Ayrshire's "capital", the sun-kissed city of Kilmarnock. Later, primary-secondary liaison became fashionable and now there are many schemes running across the country to smooth children's paths into the new world of secondary school.

Some schemes are year-long but many run during the summer term only, when secondary schools are short of their own pupils. Their aim is mainly pastoral. Familiarisation with complicated buildings and different teachers can help reassure children, even if we are in danger of over-emphasising "worries", thereby encouraging them to invent some in their desire to co-operate.

So all's fine, then? Well, we've come a long way in three decades but if you look at curriculum continuity - the "Nanook" area - there's no cause for satisfaction. The soft, pastoral aspects of liaison are easy compared to curriculum continuity, with its suspicions, rivalries and professional demarcations. The importance of curriculum continuity to children's learning is recognised and public money has been invested to improve it.

The 10-14 report of 20 years ago was dumped swiftly on the realisation of its costs and was replaced with 5-14, the core curriculum for a couple of generations of children. There were successes for 5-14, most notably in bringing structure to the previously fuzzy primary curriculum. But there is no evidence that it improved learning between P7 and S1 - not when there are schools still operating a stealthy "fresh start" approach at S1 or when children who achieved Level E reading in P7 are doing no better two years later.

The newest contribution to transition is a How Good Is Our School? booklet, which may point the way forward.

In themselves, books are not enough. Effective curriculum continuity arises from well-founded trust and respect among teachers - just what the East Ayrshire teachers are doing. But it's hard and it's an issue which is still to be faced, nationally. Until it is, I shall still have "Nanook" moments - the feeling that we've not improved much in 30 years.

Brian Toner is a former primary headteacher.

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