Primary colours

14th July 2000 at 01:00
The Government is concerned about cross-phase education. Could primary teaching methods provide the key to success in secondary schools? Elaine Williams reports

After a year in her first teaching job, secondary science teacher Wendy Daly is already up for promotion. And her effectiveness, she believes, is largely due to her experience of working in primary schools during her teacher training.

From September she will become second in the department at Hillside high, an 11-16 school in Bootle, Liverpool. She will also be responsible for co-ordinating key stage 3, a task some might balk at, but which she is looking forward to. When it comes to improving the education of 11 to 14-year-olds - an issue very much on the Government's agenda - Wendy Daly looks back to the strategies and methods she learned during her teaching practice in primary school.

"As secondary teachers, we must appreciate what children have been doing in key stage 2," she says. "Key stage 3 teachers do not give pupils enough credit for what they can do and already know. Instead of thinking 'you lot are with us and this is the way we do science here', they should make science more attractive by building on the way things are done at key stage 2."

For some time now, the Government has been concerned by the poor standards reached by many 11 to 14-year-olds. According to figures from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, nearly one in 10 pupils who left primary school with the required standard in English in 1995 made no progress by the time they took national tests at 14. Some researchers have expressed anxiety at the rise in disaffection and emotional and behavioural difficulties in the early secondary years, and the House of Commons education committee has commented on how pupil enthusiasm declines after key stage 2. It has suggested that secondary teachers look at how primary staff organise their work and how they could create a friendlier environment.

More recently, ministers have taken a keen interest in radical reforms being piloted in Australia in an attempt to boost the performance of nine to 14-year-olds. These include creating a new class of teacher specialising in working across this age group with a more pupil-focused approach - one less driven by the imperative to cover curriculum content.

But teacher trainers in England are irritated that ministers seem to have ignored initiatives already in place, in particular the postgraduate and degree courses offered in 18 colleges and universities, first set up in 1995, to train student teachers across the two key stages.

Wendy Daly studied at John Moores university, Liverpool, which offers a three-year degree course to create specialists across key stage 2 and 3 in English, maths, science or design technology. The aim is to train teachers to tackle these important and vexed issues of continuity and progression. Students undertake teaching practice in both secondary and primary schools, getting to grips with the whole primary curriculum as well as their specialist subject.

Wendy Daly, who was 34 when she started the course, had worked for a children's clothing wholesaler while raising her two children. Initially she contemplated taking a science degree, but was attracted by an advertisement for the John Moores course. "I wanted to teach and I was drawn by the idea of gaining practical experience across the two sectors. It was excellent. I learnt a great deal. When I was working in key stage 3, I knew what pupils had done before; when working in primary I knew what skills secondary school required.

"If I hadn't done the course I wouldn't now be giving a thought to what my Year 7 pupils would have been doing in Year 6. Like most key stage 3 teachers, I would have thoughtthat we had to start again.

"There are huge differences in methods of teaching between the two key stages. At key stage 3 you have a 40 to 50-minute lesson, and that's it. Once the bell's gone they move on. At key stage 2 they can have a whole afternoon and, if they haven't finished, they can pick it up the following day.

"Teachers in primary schools have a more hands-on approach; they have a better appreciation of what gets children going. In the same way, I think secondary teachers could do a lot more to make the work more relevant to young teenagers. At primary school, children are always bringing things to show you - they are so keen. My pupils still do that. We have to encourage them to do that. We have to hang on to that enthusiasm in secondary school, to carry on the good practice."

Displaying more of the children's work could be one step forward, she believes. "My display is a standing joke, but actually the head is keen on it. I can see that pupils are so proud when their stuff goes on the wall. They don't suddenly lose that enjoyment when they reach secondary school.

"We also have to be far more imaginative in the work we set. These children have so much enthusiasm when they come here that if we tap into that and keep them going we will get far more out of them than if we straitjacket them into a secondary science lesson.

"For example, when pupils come up to show you things at the end of a lesson, carrying on like they did in primary school, you have to make time for that."

Susan Edwards, 35, a maths teacher in her first year at Prenton high school, an 11 to 16 girls' secondary in Birkenhead, also took the John Moores cross-phase degree. She says it is proving invaluable. "I have three lower ability groups and they struggle with many concepts, but I am able to take them back and use strategies I used in primary school. For example, they go into a state of panic over algebra, but I take them right back to work they would have done in key stage 1 to explain the concepts. I know how they learn."

As a secondary teacher with primary experience, she believes she has the advantage of being able to draw on different questioning methods. "I have a tendency to be fairly one-to-one and relaxed," she says. "I like them to talk and ask questions, to use the kind of investigation they are used to in primary, for us to ask together 'is there another way round this?', rather than the usual 'here's the exercise get on with it' approach at key stages 3 and 4."

Wendy Daly is excited by the challenges of teaching 11 to 14-year-olds and believes this stage has suffered by being viewed as a means to an end, a difficult phase to be got through on the way to key stage 4. For pupils themselves, the period between the beginning of Year 7 and the end of Year 9 is a time of turmoil when they develop from children into young adults. She believes it is a crucial period that requires energy and imagination from teachers. "People are realising now that unless key stage 3 improves, key stage 4 isnot going to improve.We have to find new waysof approaching ourteaching. In that respect,my training has proved invaluable."

But Wendy Daly is lucky that she is working in a local authority, Sefton, where these issues are on the agenda. After key stage 2 pupils have completed their Sats, they are given a new science book and exercise book which they bring with them to secondary school. "They are so proud of that book, so keen to show what they have done," she says.

Still, there is a lot more she wants to do, such as getting Year 9 pupils to work in primaries after their Sats, and for their teachers to go with them. "I think a lot of those teachers would be surprised at the quality of work at key stage 2."

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