Moving on up from primary to secondary can be frightening. Hannah Frankel looks at the ways schools are tackling the problem
Making the leap from primary to secondary school can be scary - and that's just for the parents. For their children, it can be a frightening and intimidating experience. Used to the security of a primary and the familiarity of just one or two teachers, "big" school is not always a happy place to be, or an easy environment in which to learn.
Transfer schemes are going some way to address the issue, but improvements remain sporadic. There is little continuity of learning between almost half of primaries and secondaries, according to Ofsted, while data sharing is inadequate in nearly a quarter. This has a knock-on effect on results. The dip in attainment at key stage 3 is well documented and remains significant, suggests research done by Cambridge University and the National Foundation for Educational Research in 2003. It says that 40 per cent of pupils lose motivation and make no progress at all after transferring to secondary school.
However, the same research acknowledges a concerted push during Year 6, with 82 per cent of primary schools using practice testing and 74 per cent employing booster classes in preparation for the Sats. After such focused revision, these pupils can find Year 7 unchallenging. By the end of their first year in secondary school, enjoyment and achievement starts to lag.
"The new intake children make not one but several transfers in the first few days, and then multiple daily transitions between differing environments and ethoses," says Dr Linda Hargreaves, a researcher on the Cambridge study. "Everything from room layout to behaviour regimes and teaching styles is different. Most survive and adapt, but a significant minority go under or adopt work-avoidance strategies."
Monks' Dyke Technology College in Louth, Lincolnshire, has come up with a new way to tackle the problem.
Four years ago, the school discovered that new intakes were still racked with worries two months into their secondary education. This was despite its induction programme to welcome new pupils - including an activities evening in June and three days spent at the college in July.
"Our research consistently revealed we still hadn't got it right," says Steve Armstrong, the head of Year 7 at the college. "They were worried about the big kids, using the buses, getting lost, keeping up with their work and relationships in general. We realised we had to do more to relieve the tension."
Aware that most young people prefer to get information from their peers rather than adults, Steve has established an e-buddies scheme between primary and secondary pupils. After Christmas each year, about 20 per cent of the Year 7 cohort are selected as e-buddies.
They go through vigorous training with a counsellor before they are allocated a feeder primary school, which they visit for a day with Steve in May. Once the Monks' Dyke pupils have answered and reassured pupils at the primary, the younger pupils can then send questions to their new friends via a dedicated email address.
"Most of the Year 7s want to be a part of this group and we have to turn a lot of them away," says Steve. "This year, we have 43 e-buddies spread across 35 feeder primaries. It works out at about one to every four or five Year 6s, but even if there is only one pupil coming from a primary, we will provide an e-buddy."
The school does not monitor emails, but all e-buddies must file correspondence in a log book and report any offensive material. The questions asked may range from, "Is it true you have to dissect rats?" to "Is it all right to have my belly button pierced?", but the reassurance they receive gives them much-needed confidence in their first few months at Monks' Dyke.
Steve says: "It's become a uniformly positive relationship. Many of the e-buddies maintain their skills and go on to become senior mentors or peer mentors as they go through the school. It gives the buddies a sense of responsibility and identity, and gets the message to younger pupils that there is nothing to worry about."
Another approach is to make secondary schools more like primaries. At St Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic High School in Chorlton, Manchester, 11 to 14-year-olds are to be taught by the same teacher for every lesson, every day, just as they are at primary. To help deliver the changes, it is even introducing a local primary head, Luke Dillon, as its new headteacher this September.
"The teacher will have a shepherding role," explains Luke, who is currently head of St John's Roman Catholic Primary School in Chorlton. "They will have intimate knowledge of the class, from their circumstances at home to what their special needs are - a bit like a form tutor, but with first-hand knowledge of their academic performance as well."
Specialists will join the regular teacher for certain subjects, including the sciences, languages, design and PE, so there will be two teachers in the classroom for 60 per cent of the curriculum.
Such a move demands extra staff and the school is advertising in The TES for 10 new teachers. Luke insists that such an approach will provide pupils with the best of both worlds: a personal primary setting with the specialism and expertise of a secondary school.
The departing headteacher, Ed Wyllie, agrees. "This is a pioneering project. We've had to make a lot of adjustments, but it'll be worth it.
There's national recognition that there is a problem at key stage 3 and we're prepared to look at new ways of managing that."
But what if there are no transfer problems because there is no cut off between primary and secondary school? At England's first state school for the 3-16 age range, pupils at Hinde House in Sheffield can enter part-time in the nursery and leave once they have taken their GCSEs.
There are approximately 30 such comprehensive schools in the country today, but in 2003 it was a bold move and involved merging a failing primary school, Bracken Hill, with its neighbouring secondary, Hinde House.
The schools are still on separate sites, although there's only 300 yards between them, and many of the teachers deliver lessons across both sectors.
A modern foreign languages teacher, for instance, splits her time 60:40 between the secondary and primary phase, while the senior management team move freely between sites.
"There are benefits to having a structure like this," says Chris French, principal of the whole school. "We have such strong links with the primary that we know the pupils very well as they move up, and can discuss their needs in great detail. There's a continuity with the parents as well. They already know and trust us."
Such an approach will not be appropriate for every school, but transfer has to be a priority if standards are to be maintained throughout the early years of key stage 3. So important is the issue in Wales that each secondary school and its feeder primaries will have to produce a joint transition plan for pupils from this September.
Pontarddulais Comprehensive in Swansea is one step ahead. It already holds a successful transition week when all its incoming pupils attend the school and work together on a key skills project, such as numeracy, which is then continued once they properly start at the school.
Their primary teacher remains with the pupils throughout, helping them produce a portfolio of work alongside the secondary teachers.
"We wanted our curriculum links to be just as strong as our pastoral ones,"
says Jan Waldron, deputy head at Pontarddulais and head of transition.
"This allows them to get used to being on the buses and finding their way round, as well as providing them with a common approach to learning.
"Since introducing this, we haven't seen a dip in performance in either Year 7 or Year 8. In fact, we've seen an increase in attainment year on year."
TIPS FOR A SMOOTH TRANSFER
Ensure secondary teachers make regular visits to the primary school to meet pupils, observe lessons and adopt common teaching styles.
Share information about pupils' achievements, attendance and behaviour.
Use bridging units - schemes of work which are taught at the end of Year 6 and continued into Year 7.
Video conferencing is a good way of helping pupils feel comfortable with new teachers.
CD-Roms, e-buddies or dedicated websites can all prove useful for incoming pupils.
Friendship groups can provide much-needed support in Year 7, so allow friends to sit or work together if need be.
Intervene early if pupils are showing anti-work identities. Support needs to be sustained and involve at least one adult recognising their strengths and small successes.
Don't forget the importance of the in-between years. If pupils think Year 8 is unimportant, they are unlikely to work for it.