AS EDUCATION ministers reassemble after the summer holidays, the three spotty new bugs (Malcolm Wicks, Jacquie Smith and Michael Wills) must be relieved that they are unlikely to get their heads pushed down the lavatories at Sanctuary Buildings. All the same, transition - bringing with it new opportunities for both success and failure - will be on their minds. An important focus this year for the Education Department is going to be key stage 3 - that no man's land between the high-stakes tests which conclude Year 6, and GCSE.
Ministers have been anxious for some time about the fall-off in achievement which seems to occur during the first two years in secondary school - and now research by Maurice Galton of Cambridge University suggests they are right to be concerned (see page 4). Up to 40 per cent of 11-year-olds fail to make satisfactory progress during Year 7, and one in 14 actually "unlearns" basic skills which seemed secure at the end of primary school.
Secondary schools, to their credit, have for some years made strenuous efforts to smooth this transition by making sure that the new recruits feel less lost in their new surroundings. But, according to Professor Galton, they have not paid enough attention to academic progress - too often failing to build on the foundations laid in the primary school, or on the high motivation which nearly every child exhibits in the early months of Year 7.
Failure to capitalise on this sense of challenge and excitement, by spending the first term revising or repeating what has been covered at an earlier stage, can result in a catastrophic drop in interest and achievement.
This autumn, secondary schools must ask themselves if they are getting it right. Do they make best use of the information coming from the primary school?
Are they geared up to build on the experience of the literacy hour? Is their transfer strategy exclusively top-down, giving advice and information to their feeder schools and arranging for pupils and teachers to visit the "big school"?
Or do secondary teachers also visit primaries, to learn and to listen?
Above all, they need to focus on the learning experience in that first crucial year. Teachers of this age group should be some of the best in the school, demonstrating high expectations, an imaginative approach and first-rate teaching skills.