Lost in the maze of the new

20th November 1998 at 00:00
How do pupils cope with a new school? Jean Rudduck, Maurice Galton and John Gray want to find out

President de Gaulle is reputed to have asked: "How can you govern a country which produces 246 different kinds of cheese?" We might also ask: "How can you manage an education system where pupils can transfer at so many different ages?" Children can move from one school to another or, within the same institution, from one "stage" to another (such as lower to upper school) at any age between four and 18.

The transfer from primary to secondary school has probably had most attention: many Year 6 pupils visit their new schools before the start of the school year, their form teachers try to learn their names before they arrive, they usually move with some of their friends, sometimes they start a project at the end of Year 6 that they will complete in secondary school.

We are not claiming that transition in the 1990s is anxiety-free - merely that the prospect of joining "the big school" is not now as daunting as it once was. Indeed, in some settings it is the ultimate user-friendly experience. But while teachers do everything they can to make new pupils feel at home, older pupils still operate traditional rites of passage designed to make the new pupils know that they are novitiates.

At the new school pupils are often worried about managing unfamiliar regimes - for instance, the responsibility of moving from classroom to classroom and getting to lessons on time ("I was in PE once and I never got there until the end of the lesson - I couldn't find my way"), or the painful embarrassment of turning up in the wrong place ("I stood there, white as a sheet").

And then there are the new rules: "You can't take your coat or bag into the dining room at lunchtime - unless you're sandwiches, then you can take your bag in but not your coat, so you have to leave your coat somewhere."

But there is also the exhilaration of embarking on a fresh stage of the school career and the excitement of being in different spaces, meeting a greater variety of teachers, starting on unfamiliar subjects and having access to new resources - be it hot-drinks machines or sports equipment.

We are interested in transfer not only because we want to understand more about how students cope with the turbulence of change but also because such transfers often precede a downturn in achievement.

This may be because schools are giving priority to the exits and entrances (Years 6, 7 and 11) and letting the in-between bits look after themselves. It may be because continuities in learning in our system - despite the framework supplied by the national curriculum - are difficult to manage. Or, it may be because at points of transfer schools are giving so much attention to helping children cope with the social and organisational differences of their new school that they are not highlighting the differences in academic content and new ways of learning.

We are carrying out a small-scale study for the Department for Education and Employment which is looking at aspects of transfer. So far we have identified five ways in which schools structure their transfer arrangements, particularly in the move from first to secondary school. Each approach highlights a different aspect of the process and experience of transfer and schools may be combining two or more of them: Administrative approaches which prioritise exchange of information, usually at the level of the individual teacher or which bring pyramid schools together in a working relationship; Pupil-centred approaches which concentrate on preparing pupils for the social upheaval of transfer and help them to cope with the organisational and social novelties of the new school; Curriculum continuity approaches which involve exchanges of material and teachers or which may involve pupils in projects that start in Year 6 and are completed in Year 7 in the new school; Pedagogic approaches which seek to engage pupils by involving them in new ways of teaching and learning; Approaches which give priority to exploring and explaining the purpose and structure of learning in the new setting and which recognise pupils' need - and capacity - to develop a language for thinking about learning and about themselves as learners.

The first two are fairly well-documented - although we don't always know how effective the investment of teachers' time and effort is in terms of pupils' progress and commitment to learning. We would welcome comment on this. We are also looking for examples of distinctive and potentially effective strategies in relation to the last three approaches.

We would like to hear from schools which have given thought to these issues and have found effective ways - whatever the age of transfer - of inducting pupils into the learning agenda of the new stage of schooling.

Responses to Professors Jean Rudduck (01223 507289) and John Gray (01223 507293), Homerton College, Cambridge, or to Professor Maurice Galton (0116 252 5794), School of Education, University of Leicester.

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