Transition shouldn't be the end for primaries

31st October 2014 at 00:00
The deep knowledge that early teachers have of their pupils could be invaluable, if only secondary schools would get in touch

What's the most important thing a secondary school can do to ease the transition from primary? Open evenings for parents and students to look at the facilities? An open day to show the school in full swing? Taster sessions for pupils to meet their new peers and teachers?

Schools increasingly pride themselves on making myriad arrangements for supporting children in the months (even years, in some cases) leading up to the move. But then what? There is a risk that, as we put so much focus on the months leading up to transition, we forget this isn't the end of the process. After all, even a rehomed dog gets a follow-up visit from the RSPCA to check that everything is OK. How many schools offer that support to their students?

Transition leaders are now often responsible for promoting their schools to primaries, the relationship stretching ever further downwards into the lower years in an effort to boost applications and fill spaces. Open evenings have become day-long events, or even series of events. Summer schools pop up to support students in getting used to their new environments. But for all the help these provide - and they undoubtedly do - elements are still missing.

The most obvious challenge of transition is the change from a single classroom teacher to the plethora of experts that fill the halls of secondary schools. Again, this model has unquestionable benefits, and for most children the time is ripe for the change. But for a vulnerable few, the loss of that focused relationship can be crippling.

It can be hard for secondary teachers to understand the bond that is formed between primary teachers and their students. Of course, by the time they hit Year 11 when they are 15 or 16, many students will have developed close connections with their teachers. But this cannot compare to spending five or six hours together each day. It's not an overstatement to say that many primary teachers know and love their students in a way that is simply not possible to achieve in secondaries.

Just as Year 11 teachers' emotions rise and fall on GCSE results day, so a Year 6 teacher's heart leaps with each key stage 2 test result. Just as tears are shed at the secondary leavers' ball, so primary teachers share a moment's pause as their students head out the door that final summer. Just as secondary teachers speculate on the future successes and failures of their students at 16 or 18, so we fret about how ours will settle when they reach the hallowed halls of secondary education. For a Year 6 teacher, that group of 10- and 11-year-olds has been a key part of his or her life for the best part of a year; we certainly don't wash our hands of them just because summer has arrived.

History lessons

For a secondary school form tutor or head of year, the knowledge gathered by their predecessors can be a gold mine. A primary teacher will often have at their fingertips the details of a child's family life, their siblings, their previous successes and the best ways to handle their idiosyncrasies. It's the sort of knowledge that can take months, if not years, to build up in a secondary school yet it us a woefully untapped resource. It is madness that much of this knowledge goes to waste.

Take Gemma. She had a reputation in our primary school for being attention-seeking. She could be loud and brash and seemed to be at the centre of every playground brouhaha. During her last year with us, we realised why. Life at home was tough: her mum had been widowed young and now had a young baby to take care of after remarrying. Gemma was struggling for attention because family existence was hectic. It wasn't neglect or even a lack of love - it was just life. With that knowledge, we supported her, challenged her when necessary and she began to make a real success of her schooling.

Three terms later, her secondary school experience had undone much of that work. She had become loud and brash once more but this time it had become her character; it was what was expected of her and she lived up to it. It wasn't the school's fault and it certainly wasn't Gemma's. But the system hadn't worked. The transition notes made clear the progress she had made and a single phone call to her primary teacher could have made a world of difference. It just didn't happen.

I'm not blaming primaries or secondaries - I spent too long in middle schools dealing with complaints from both sides. But we have a clear opportunity here for making the most of our shared knowledge to provide the best support for children.

So I make a plea to anyone dealing with new students this autumn: take a moment to think about that one who doesn't seem to be settling yet. Or the one who isn't getting their uniform sorted. Or maybe even the loud and brash student. Find 10 minutes to call their old teacher to get some insight. You never know, it might just help.

Michael Tidd is deputy headteacher at Edgewood Primary School in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire

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