Sometimes it only takes a cup of coffee

7th March 2003 at 00:00
I AM optimistic by nature. Each autumn, when former pupils make their big complaint about secondary school, they say: "At playtime, nobody plays.

They just walk around, talking."

If that's all they complain about, secondary transfer must be going well.

When I read Douglas Blane's recent TES Scotland article about primary-secondary liaison, I applauded the progress being reported from around the country.

But hold on. Our former pupils may feel they are missing out on a game of cops and robbers but for two decades official reports have been telling us that their age group across the country is being denied a progressive curriculum as they begin secondary school.

Look again at the photograph accompanying the article. Two smiling teachers enjoy sharing an S1 maths class. But the same photograph could have included me and a secondary colleague if it had been an S1 English class in Kilmarnock in 1976. Yes, this type of photo has been news for more than a quarter of a century.

My optimism struggles. Our record of achievement in building strong bridges between P7 and S1 is poor. Our 1976 efforts did not convince others of the benefits of teachers working across the divide. Then, initiatives came from small groups of like-minded individuals who were fortunate in having supportive headteachers. Now there has to be commitment from all teachers in primary and secondary to make liaison work.

It is easy to organise induction days. It is easy for headteachers to be friendly. That's where the progress has been. We will see real liaison only when we achieve genuine trust and empathy between primary and secondary class teachers.

Research from England published in Transfer from the Primary Classroom includes a page-long list of liaison and induction activities of the kind familiar to all of us. The research schools have a high level of participation in meetings for parents, visits among management staff and transferring paper information. Only one secondary - out of five - has a teacher visiting a primary classroom and there are no instances of a primary teacher being in a secondary classroom.

Despite years of 5-14, some secondary schools still follow a "fresh start" approach at S1. Others follow the official line of continuity but with misgivings. Both groups would say they have good cause for concern because they cannot trust primary assessment. They may not even regard primary staff as proper teachers anyway. Primary teachers may be intimidated by this attitude. Or they may be so self-righteous and dogmatic that any sensible person flees from their company at the first opportunity.

The only way forward is to bring primary and secondary teachers together in classrooms. Whatever their attitudes to each other, they can agree that they want to do their best for the children. Offer the opportunity for cross-sectoral visits and you can begin work with teachers who are already interested. Others will follow. Prepare the context and contact the visitor in advance.

She just wants to watch? Fine. She will participate soon. No teacher can stand back in a classroom for long. It goes against the grain. Make time for discussion between visitor and class teacher, with a cup of coffee and without children. Discussing what was happening in the classroom is the first step to understanding.

The pick-up at S1 will happen but only when primary and secondary schools encourage class teachers to forge a relationship of mutual understanding through working together. As long as there is suspicion, and a curriculum based on mistrust, there will not be much progress over the next quarter century either.

As for the photograph, our 1976 version would have featured two male teachers. Today we have two ladies. Some things are changing fast.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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