Easing the transition from primary to secondary school can yield improved results. Nic Barnard reports
Sometimes the little details tell the story. Beth Soule says she usually spends the first two weeks of September patrolling the corridors between lessons and "picking up the tearfuls" who have got lost.
The head of Claydon high school, near Ipswich, still keeps an eye out for distressed Year 7s, but says: "We didn't have one last year and not this year either."
It is the result, she says, of taking a new approach to that difficult transition from primary to secondary school.
Last year, the school introduced a three-week Learning to Learn course for its new arrivals. It gives each tutor group a chance to bond, get used to having several different teachers and explore the school before plunging into the key stage 3 curriculum. It also teaches them useful skills for the years ahead.
Transition has long been an issue on the schools improvement agenda, usually measured in terms of the key stage 3 dip.
But the number of weeping kids looking for room 101 on the wrong corridor makes a pretty useful yardstick of success. "It's a minor detail, but when you're in that kind of state, you're not learning," Mrs Soule says.
Claydon is one of around three dozen schools taking part in a three-year research project to improve the transition from primary to secondary school. Funded by the Gatsby Trust and run by the Secondary Heads Association, it starts from a belief that transition is a more complex issue than widely recognised.
Terry Allcott, director of management and professional services at SHA, admits that he, like many school leaders, used to believe it was enough for schools to swap pupil data and arrange a summer term induction day.
"But it's actually far more complicated," he says. "Clearly some schools - more than a few - are doing very little other than just information exchange."
Dr Allcott thinks some schools fail to recognise "the social stuff" - the difficulty pupils face switching from having one teacher to perhaps a dozen, learning new school rules, and being in bigger buildings with strange faces, further from home.
Celia Moore, co-ordinating the programme, agrees. "It is quite scary, moving up to a school of more than 1,000," she says. "All those teachers, some of whom don't teach you but will still shout at you in the playground because you've broken a rule you didn't know existed."
All this after what can effectively be a long break in their education: after several months revising for Sats at the end of primary school, and a final few weeks filled with sports days and school trips, pupils have a six-week summer holiday.
Then suddenly they are in strange surroundings, expected to work from day one. "And just because they've been coached to level 4 doesn't mean they're reading at level 4," she adds.
The SHA programme brings together leaders from around a dozen secondary schools to discuss how they do transition, how they could handle it better, and devise programmes to try out at their own schools, all informed by existing research.
Some have focused on data, others on curriculum, some on the early weeks at the new school, others on close liaison with feeder schools going back as early as Year 5.
At Claydon, a rural school where most pupils arrive from six main feeders, Mrs Soule decided to introduce the Learning to Learn course after asking pupils how they felt about starting at "big school".
The message was that pupils did not know what was expected of them. "It dawned on us that some youngsters pick up what they're supposed to do, some flounder and eventually learn, and some maybe never do."
The course is cross-curricular and involves most subject tutors, but it is centrally organised, with common materials to introduce pupils to learning styles.
Children spend their first day with their form tutor, based in their form room, as they used to in primary; over the next two they gradually meet other teachers and explore the school.
For the rest of the three weeks, they work on projects with their different subject tutors; they take a trip to nearby Orford castle; and they end with a presentation of their work to their parents - a "deliberately unpolished" junior-school-style show and tell.
Feedback from teachers after last year's first run was extremely positive.
Pupils' motivation was "markedly different", Mrs Soule says: "They were up and running, they were committed, they had a good work ethic right the way through the year."
Claydon's behaviour code allows for disruptive pupils to be taken from the classroom. Last year, no Year 7 pupil was removed.
In Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales, Penydre high school has taken a different tack - an intensive collaboration with its feeder primaries that begins in the summer term of Year 5 when pupils come up for their first science lesson.
Over the next year they will return every half-term for two consecutive afternoons of science lessons, as well as coming in weekly for ICT lessons.
Penydre staff have also devised a literacy project to bridge the summer holidays. And there is an annual magazine about transition with contributions from Year 6 and Year 7. A summer drama production is also planned.
The programme is overseen by Penydre's transition manager, Jan Morgan, who visits feeder schools almost weekly. She says transition used to be haphazard, with a climate of misunderstanding and friction between schools.
Now they hold joint training days, deliver lessons together and have seen a marked improvement in KS2 results.
"Children will fuss," Miss Morgan says, "but they settle down and they know how to get on with their work because they know what's expected of them.
And it has also cemented our relationship with junior schools."
All this activity is funded by Penydre, helped by Gatsby. That takes pressure off the feeder schools. At St Aiden's Catholic school, in Sunderland, deputy head Patricia Small agrees a "them and us" culture used to exist between schools. A collaboration based around curriculum links has gradually built up between St Aiden's and its nine Catholic feeders.
But as a single-sex faith school, its new boys come from as many as 35 primaries. Mrs Small is developing a checklist of skills and knowledge pupils should acquire during KS2, which feeder schools will fill out for each boy transferring to St Aiden's.
Using a "traffic lights" system, teachers can see immediately which parts of the curriculum youngsters are struggling to follow and help them catch up.
Regular feeder schools would use it automatically, but Mrs Small says: "It would be great if I could email a spreadsheet to a primary colleague on the other side of town where we have only one youngster."
Ultimately, the onus is on the secondary school to win pupils' hearts and minds, Ms Moore says at SHA. That means involving everyone from the head of sixth form to the caretaker.
"It's an emotional time for children. You have to get them to relax and open up," she says.
Heads may have to adapt their first assembly. While they are telling children how lucky they are to be there, the pupils are wondering who their friends will be and where the toilets are.
Consistency, a good map of the school and a clear understanding of the rules will help. Because there are some things they do not tell you in primary school.