Specialists in small steps

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Last month, we looked at the ways local authority schools are improving pupils' transition from primary to secondary school. This month, Raymond Ross looks at the independent sector's models of 'transitus'

With the Scottish Executive's pledge to improve the transition between primary and secondary school, put more specialist teachers into P6 and P7 and tackle the lack of pupil progress in S1 and S2, are there lessons to be learned from the independent sector, where different models of transition - or transitus - have long been established?

One of the most radical of these is the High School of Glasgow's. It houses P7 pupils in the secondary building, exposing them to specialist subject teachers from the start of their last primary year and moving them on to a secondary curriculum within the first term.

The school has a split campus, with most pupils spending seven years at the junior campus in Bearsden (376 pupils, kindergarden to P6) and seven years at the senior site in Jordanhill (673 pupils, P7 to S6).

It was more for logistical than pedagogical reasons that P7 pupils were first placed in the senior environment shortly after the High School was re-established as an independent school in 1976. There just wasn't enough room at the junior site. However, what began as expediency seems to have turned out to be an example of good practice.

The High School's rector, Robin Easton, says the transitus year has proved very successful and receives very positive feedback from parents. "This year, parents have been saying universally how well it has worked out," he says.

"An indication of its success over the years is that parents who send their first child here in S1 will often bring the next one in a year earlier for the transitus class. There's been a steadily growing demand."

The secondary school's S1 intake of around 100 pupils is fairly evenly split between those coming up from the junior school, where the range of ability can be quite wide, and those coming from outside schools, who have to sit entrance exams. Of this year's 78 transitus pupils, 24 are new to the school, having also passed a competitive entrance test and interview.

They are split into three classes of 26, with smaller classes for practical subjects.

"We're conscious that these are P7 pupils and are quite young to be in a secondary environment," says Dr Easton, "but we believe they are ready for the move away from the single teacher to different subject teachers and they are really quite excited about getting into real science labs and so on.

"We have form teachers who see them every day for eight minutes during registration and who spend a personal and social education period each week with them, talking about how to organise themselves in their new environment, talking about relationships, bullying and so on."

The school has a buddy system where transitus pupils meet with their S6 buddy at least once a week until they find their feet. S6 prefects are also assigned to transitus form classes and are there at 8.30am each day to chat to the pupils, get to know them and to act as big brothers or sisters.

"The transitus pupils have generally moved on to the S1 curriculum by January," says Dr Easton. "Pupils with learning difficulties get extra support and all teachers are alert to the slower learners. We don't go galloping ahead and leave them floundering."

The curriculum broadly follows that of 5-14, although national testing stops in P6.

"We did try national testing in P7 but it didn't tell us anything we didn't already know from our own testing, which in S1 and S2 is drawn from the Standard grade assessments modified," says Dr Easton.

In maths, principal teacher Peter Edmond explains, the staff review the 5-14 curriculum every two years to keep up with the guidelines but they do not stick to it.

"We did national testing for four years but found that by Easter in S1, 90 per cent had achieved level E, so we decided it wasn't telling us anything new," he says. "Transitus examines pupils twice in maths, plus other testing. I believe exam practice is necessary for maths from P7 on, so we examine twice a year."

S1 work starts in transitus at about the end of the first term. The pupils accelerate fairly rapidly so that by S2 they are beginning Standard grade work and by February in S4 they are beginning "suitable Higher work", he says.

"I think transitus works better because the P7 pupils are taught by maths specialists and they respond better. I've never known them object to the pace or style of learning. By S1 they are well into the secondary approach."

While transitus and S1 maths classes are mixed ability, pupils are set in S2. Similarly, pupils are broad-banded in English in S2 and set in S3. This allows for the outside S1 intake to be taken into consideration.

"Transitus pupils are usually further ahead on grammar than new S1 intake pupils but they catch up quickly," says English teacher Paul Toner. "We certainly push them and expectations are quite high but they enjoy it."

There is also a special transitusS1 French class to help new pupils in both years to catch up with the junior pupils who began French in P3.

There is strong liaison between the junior and secondary schools, with regular staff meetings. P6 teachers sit in on transitus classes to see how they are working and senior teachers visit the junior school to observe as well.

"There's a lot of liaison, especially regarding core subjects. It's crucial that children aren't bewildered by the different approaches," says Dr Easton.

"Our transitus pupils are well into the secondary curriculum by the end of P7. It means they are challenged. They are always doing new things.

"I also think that with male subject teachers, it's an advantage for the boys to have male role models they might not otherwise get at the P7 stage.

Hopefully, it prevents them regarding subjects as sissy or not macho.

"Conversely, it's good for P7 girls to get female role models in subjects, such as science, which are often regarded as male domains," he says.

The school last year had 100 per cent of its Standard grade candidates achieving Credit awards across the board and 90 per cent of pupils gaining five or more Highers in S5. There are, of course, many social and educational factors which could account for this, but could the transitus system be one of them?

"We haven't done any hard research but I think the transitus experience is to the pupils' advantage, yes," says Dr Easton. "What I am sure of is that it does not do them any harm. The response from both parents and pupils suggests that by P7 they are ready for specialist subject teachers.

"It does seem that the introduction of subject specialists into the state sector upper primary will bear fruit. After all, it is a huge challenge to any P7 teacher to cover the whole gamut of subjects and levels and I'm sure most would appreciate the support of specialists.

"All I can say for certain is that it works for us."


St Leonards School, St Andrews, Fife Pupil roll 295 aged 3-19

Early years are housed in one building, with the middle school (P4-P7) in one part of the senior building and years 8-11 in another part. From September, P7 pupils will move to join the secondary school.

The school follows the English curriculum. P1 and P2 pupils are tested in key stage 1 and P6s in key stage 2. The middle school introduces specialist teachers in French, art, drama, physical education (in P4) and Latin and science (P6). In P7 all subjects are taught by specialist teachers. From September, P7 pupils will start the secondary curriculum on the first day of term.

The average class size is 12 and the maximum is 15.

St Leonards' director of studies, Ann Scott, says:

"As the P7s were getting specialist teachers anyway, we decided to move on from this half-way house and go the whole hog. Rather than being taught in their own classroom, they will now change classes, like other secondary years. In England, they would be going into secondary at this stage anyway.

"We do believe the early introduction of specialist teachers and entry into the full secondary curriculum at this stage gives them a clear path to their (GCSE) choices year (S2).

"I think it does help with results. We get good results at GCE and GCSE and in raising achievement.

"The early introduction of subject teachers is good because they know what's ahead, what they're aiming for.

"The small classes help in pastoral and guidance terms as well. There's a class teacher allocated to pupil groups of seven or eight maximum and we have a house system too.

"It's a matter of giving the pupils what they are capable of but not overpowering them."

St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh Pupil roll 1,000 aged 2-18

St George's splits its pupils into three buildings: early years and juniors (P1-P5) in one, P6-S1 in another in what is called the "lower school" and S2-S6 in a third.

The school follows 5-14 as the basis of its curriculum until P6, with national testing in English and maths up to P7. Specialists in physical education, music, French and information and communications technology are introduced from P1 and in art from P5.

The average class size is about 20.

P7 pupils follow the secondary curriculum with specialist teachers in all subjects but retain a form tutor. P6 and P7 class teachers share a staffroom with secondary specialists and P6 teachers also teach in secondary to aid the primary-secondary transition and break down barriers.

Headteacher Judith McClure says:

"I still think we have a long way to go, breaking down barriers and aiding transition from primary to secondary.

"It's not just about introducing primary pupils to specialist teachers but also about promoting the holistic approach that primary teachers have among the secondary teachers.

"We need always to be encouraging more interface between them because primary teachers look at the child in a holistic way, which is, I feel, the proper way to educate.

"You need specialists but the transition has to be as seamless as possible.

We need to encourage this," she says.

Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire Pupil roll 1,180 aged 5-18

A single campus with the prep school (P1-P5) in one building and the junior school (P6-P7) and secondary school in a second building.

The curriculum follows 5-14 with national testing up to P7.

From S1 a modified Standard grade syllabus is followed in all subjects.

From P6 on, classes have secondary specialist teachers in modern languages, technology, home economics, art, science and physical education, and in P7 a specialist for word processing.

The school has its own P6-S1 combined science programme produced and delivered by both junior school staff and secondary specialists. From S2 science subjects are taught separately.

Dollar Academy's director of communications, Richard Vanstone, says:

"We are very close to the secondary curriculum in P7. P7 classes have their own register teacher, who covers the core curriculum subjects of English and maths as well as subjects such as history and geography, though specialists may help out too.

"It's a question of balance between subject specialists and providing the pupils with pastoral care and personal attention through their form teacher.

"Altogether it helps the pace of learning and we wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it helped to raise achievement.

"They say themselves they like the wide range of teachers. Parents also like their children being taught by specialists. It's been going for about 10 years.

"Maths and English specialists sometimes teach a period a week in the junior school, alongside junior colleagues."

Kay Robertson, head of the prep and junior school, says there is a lot of co-operative work throughout the school.

"All levels of teachers work with other teachers and with pupils from prep to senior, in both curricular and extra-curricular activities.

"Our senior pupils do paired work with prep and junior pupils in core and other subjects, as well as helping the wee ones at games.

"It all helps with achievement."High School of Dundee Pupil roll 1,096 aged 5-18

The school is housed in a complex of buildings on adjacent sites, with P1-P7 in one building and the senior school spread across several buildings.

A gradual increase of secondary specialists into primary classes begins in P1 with music and physical education. By P7 specialists are teaching art, home economics, French, religious education, drama and information and communications technology.

From P1, pupils go to the senior school building for PE and from P3 for ICT. By P6 they also go for other specialist subjects.

Maggie Woodman, head of the junior school, says:

"It's like a drip feed. They don't see a great gulf between primary and secondary so there's no apprehension about the big school. Going into S1 is just like going into another class.

"The secondary curriculum begins with French in P6 and in P7 they are moving towards a full secondary curriculum.

"We follow 5-14 and our own structured programme. National testing is done up to P7 alongside our own unit assessments and yearly standardised testing.

"This transitus model very definitely helps raise achievement," she says.

"Senior pupils also help in junior classes, with paired reading, playing word games with P1 classes and helping set up experiments with P7 classes, for example. They act as good role models. Altogether I think it's of great benefit to the children."

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