More can be done to ease the transfer from primary to secondary. Ted Wragg explains.
It is September, first day back at school in a large comprehensive. Six weeks ago 11-year-old Stephen - one of 72 pupils in his three-teacher primary school - had waved goodbye to his headteacher, who took the class of nine to 11-year-olds for all their lessons.
Stephen is now sitting in a Year 7 maths class. There are 1,800 pupils in his new school, which is 25-times bigger than his primary school, and he has 10 different teachers. He does science in a laboratory, PE in a gymnasium and technology in a workshop. His teachers spent the whole of yesterday discussing key stage 3 results, GCSE targets and the relatively low performance of many boys, especially in languages.
He gets out of his chair to ask a primary school friend about a maths problem he is trying to solve. "You! What's your name?" the teacher asks, pointing at him. His voice is businesslike, slightly menacing. "Er, Stephen." "Stephen what?" "Stephen Carter." "Well sit down, Stephen. You don't leave your seat without permission in my class."
Contrary to warnings from his ghoulish elder brother, his head has not yet been flushed down the toilet. It is still quite a shock, however, moving from the intimacy of his small primary school to the friendly, but more structured formality of his new environment.
There was, of course, the one-day visit to the "big school" back in early July. They all did lots of lessons with flashing explosions of colour in science, television cameras in the drama studio, finishing up with five-a-side football in the upper gym and a swim in the nice warm pool.
Today's lessons are more routine, not so exciting. He will do some maths work again, even though he covered the topics in primary school. Later he will be part of the school's customary Year 7 and 8 "dip", when teachers fret and tut-tut about children sliding back.
I have done various research projects studying those early days in the school year when some children make a stuttering start. Professor Maurice Galton and his colleagues at Homerton have also shown that, although the social side of transition is often handled well, it is the continuity of the curriculum that appears to suffer.
So are we doing enough to link the primary and secondary phases of education? Do primary teachers really know hat their children will be doing in key stages 3 and 4; what the organisational changes are like for pupils; which topics are most likely to be revisited in Year 7? Do secondary teachers fully understand what their primary colleagues were trying to achieve?
There are many shared concerns about the voluntary teaching of "citizenship", for example, or teaching a foreign language in the primary school and how this might link with later compulsory phases. There is also the issue of setting and meeting targets; the lower performance of many boys; behaviour problems; forms of assessment; out-of-school learning and study support; the use of information and communication technologies.
It is too easy for secondary teachers simply to gripe about how children cannot spell when they arrive and never learnt anything in primary school; and for primary teachers to complain that all their sterling maths work is merely repeated over and over again in secondary schools, as children irrevocably slide backwards.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University
TEN TANTALISING QUESTIONS
1. Is the best use made of preliminary visits to secondary schools or is it just a day out?
2. Are children prepared for the significant changes in teaching style and school organisation?
3. Are parents fully briefed about the transition: homework, specialist teaching, the differences between key stage 2 and key stage 3 work?
4. Do primary and secondary teachers ever do "job swaps", for a week or even a day, to see how the other half lives?
5. When primary teachers do go to secondary schools and vice versa, what do they do?
6. "Curriculum continuity" is a nice idea, but what does it mean in practice, does it even exist and how can we know?
7. Is there a telephone hot line for teachers to contact each other in the different phases (for example, one primary school has the number of the head of science in the local secondary, so teachers can ring up for answers to tricky questions that pupils have asked)?
8. Are there joint primary and secondary in-service days?
9. Are they used to enable teachers to share views and experiences of classroom teaching and learning?
10. Does anyone show videos of maths, science or English being taught in a Year 6 and a Year 7 class, so staff can discuss similarities and differences?