No more sink or swim for the move to big school

10th December 2010 at 00:00
A transition project is using an island adventure to ease primary pupils into the secondary curriculum

Start with a scary experience looming in the future. Add plenty of preparation. Throw in a dash of imagination, and what you get is Douglas Ewart High's recipe for turning the transition from primary to secondary school into a big adventure.

"That's the word we use for it," says Alex Cowie, headteacher of the Dumfries and Galloway school. "Adventure Island is our way of bringing pupils from 11 primary schools together to ease the transition from primary to secondary. Some of them are very rural schools, with just three or four pupils coming up. Others have as many as 30.

"We put them together in groups with pupils from other schools, so they get to know each other. We set them a challenge: `Think about moving to an island community'."

This Adventure Island narrative is elaborated across the curriculum on a number of organised visits to the academy during their final primary year, explains depute head John Carroll. "We used to get them up here to do individual events, such as building buggies. The kids loved it, but it wasn't connected to anything they did in primary school.

"They came here, did the activity and enjoyed it immensely, but it didn't come from anywhere and it didn't go anywhere. So we got a cross-sectoral group together and batted about a number of ideas."

The Adventure Island concept that sprang from the consultation is about more than helping children from small schools to cope with unfamiliar faces and a big building, he says. "There is a pastoral aspect to it, but it's mainly about the learning. We are trying to build a curriculum and find links from P7 through to S1. We want them to see that even though it is a different building, it is still the same game."

This morning, the game is survival. "So we are all stuck on this island and we need to get water we can drink," Mr Carroll tells the youngsters who are propped attentively on stools around the secondary science lab.

"All we have is salt water - and it's dirty. So let's think about that first. How are we going to get the dirt out?"

"Filter it," suggest a couple of pupils simultaneously.

"What do I need for this?"

"A piece of paper that you fold in half, then in half again," one boy suggests.

"Well done. Then we unfold it, which gives us a wee hat," he says, matching the action to the words, and holding up a little white cone. "Now, do we put that on our heads?"

"No, in a funnel."

These Coral Island residents have remembered this part from their last visit, Mr Carroll explains, as pupils in pairs follow his instructions and prepare the experiment. "They came up for a whole day, and we put them in their island groups, based on what we knew about them from their teachers and from the application forms they had all filled in about their skills and interests.

"Those groups will largely become our first-year classes next year. You know how you usually have to swap them around in first-year? Well, we've done all that now by the time they get here. It gave us a much smoother start last session - which was the first time we had tried Adventure Island."

Mr Carroll moves around the groups to check the filtering, then prepares the class for the next phase: separating water and salt by evaporation. He introduces them to items of equipment - tripods, goggles, beakers, bunsen burners - that will become old friends in their secondary science careers. He demonstrates how to light the bunsen and adjust the flame.

"Young men and women like yourselves sometimes get frightened by this," he says, "but if you do it properly, it's like lighting a gas fire."

All around the room, gas taps are turned, bunsens begin to roar and little evaporating basins of salt water soon start to bubble.

Rebecca from Penninghame Primary enjoys these visits to Douglas Ewart, she says. "We did lots of things together last time, like science. Then they showed us how the lunch hour works. It's fun. You make new friends."

The Adventure Island logo and strapline, part of the welcome pack given to the primary pupils, gives you a good feeling, says Aron from Whithorn Primary. "It was a group from our school that thought them up. It says: `Our island is your island'. That means we all share in the Douglas Ewart High School."

It is a warm feeling that extends to teachers too, says Katie Macdonald, who has brought eight pupils along from Garlieston Primary today. "I had just moved to the area last year and it got me really familiar with the teachers here, where the departments are, what they do. For the children, it seemed to take away all their negative feelings about moving to the high school."

First contact came by email through Glow, from Mr Carroll to each pupil, she explains. "We have a Glow page dedicated to Adventure Island, where children can keep in touch, have discussions, download documents and photographs.

"Douglas Ewart provides all sorts of information about the islands through Glow: weather reports, animal life, plants pupils can eat or use for medicine, lists of equipment and clothes they might need.

"We primary teachers go to meetings and decide what to do back in our classes. I use a lot of the activities - such as deciding what equipment and clothes to take to the Adventure Island - as homework."

Back in the lab the lesson is coming to an end, with Mr Carroll connecting the science the youngsters have just learnt to the theory of the water cycle, as well as the practical business of staying alive on a small island.

"You've evaporated the water and are left with the salt. That's not what you want, though - unless you can make chips. What you really want is the water. Here's what you do."

He demonstrates how to modify the experiment, when they're on their little island, to make a solar still, using heat from the sun instead of a bunsen and clear plastic to condense the purified water and let it drip into a collecting dish.

"I would like you to set these stills up on your window-sills back at your primary school. We will give you a set of instructions, and then either myself or Mrs Phillips will come out to your school over the next few weeks to see how you're getting on. Then you will tell us what happened next time you come up here." (See panel.)

The children depart for their buses, which take them away to most points of the compass. They will be back in a few weeks for another session at the secondary school, says Mr Carroll. "They have already had one whole day here. They will have three more science sessions, spread over the year, another full day of island-building run by the art department, and then two full induction days."

In addition, Mr Carroll and the transition teacher will regularly visit the primary schools, he says. "The next stage is to take one or two of the tasks we set and assess them. Then get primary and secondary staff around the cluster to look at moderation.

"To create the curriculum you need teachers across the cluster working together. We have lost all those 5-14 levels, so we're now finding our way into Curriculum for Excellence moderation and assessment."

The focus on learning across the primary to secondary transition will continue in future years, says headteacher Alex Cowie - although details will change. "Adventure Island works well now, but in a few years' time we might be going into space. You have to keep it fresh.

"We will be building pupil profiles, so that we know what our children have achieved, in the widest sense. You can't plan a P6 to S3 curriculum in theory. You have to get out there and do it."


Being a transition teacher in a cluster of 11 far-flung primaries, while at the same time teaching your own P67 class, sounds tough, but Louise Phillips loves it, she says. "It's so beneficial to the children."

In the weeks following each Adventure Island visit to Douglas Ewart High, she and John Carroll (pictured) make the rounds of the primaries, gathering feedback from pupils and dispensing guidance on the tasks they've been set.

"The distance between our schools means we're hoping to use more technology in future, such as video-conferencing and Glow Meets. We have to look at that now, because money is tight and teaching time precious.

"I also have an invitation to visit most S1 classes now, and that has been a real step forward. Other primary colleagues will be visiting the secondary, as part of the transition project, and we've already had maths and English teachers from Douglas Ewart out to visit the primaries and see the learning environments."

A primary teacher's concern for pupil learning does not end the instant they move on, she points out. "It continues from one class to another within the primary, so it's the same thing really. We've been really buoyed up by how interested our primary class teachers are - when given the chance to find out - in how their pupils settle in to secondary."

It does take effort, planning and organisation to work coherently as a cluster, she says. "But for the sake of the pupils it's how we should be doing it. It means the secondary teachers have a body of children they understand far better than before - while we have more idea of the environment they're going to and can better prepare them for it.

"It wouldn't work without the enthusiasm of the secondary staff. That shared commitment to the children's learning is what makes the difference. You have to keep talking to each other. We are all in the same game - achievement and attainment of all the children."

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