Victims of the 'fresh start';Platform

26th January 1996 at 00:00
John Muir warns that the gap between P7 and S1 remains too wide for many pupils

Primary teachers must be disturbed to read (TESS, December 22) that research on the 5-14 programme indicates that "secondary teachers' preference for a 'fresh start' for their S1 pupils is undermining the programme". To be fair, the Scottish Office's Interchange No 35, which summarises the report, does highlight improvements in links, including the development of joint assessment and recording procedures in some regions. Nevertheless, Wynne Harlen, director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education, who led the research, is justifiably concerned about the "entrenched" position of many members of the profession when it comes to tackling progression and continuity. It is particularly worrying at a time when primary staff are beginning to be more satisfied with progress, despite the increased workload which the programme has engendered. Whereas national testing is accepted practice in primaries, secondaries are lagging behind.

The majority of primary schools are only now beginning to review environmental studies 5-14. They face the challenge of liaising with several departments, many of which have yet to identify a ready means of communicating with each other, never mind with P7 teachers. I need only mention the expectation that religious and moral education and the expressive arts will be taken on board towards 2000 and my primary colleagues shake their heads in despair. Parts of the SCRE's report only serve to underline their concerns.

In the early seventies, the gulf between primary and secondary schools seemed unbridgeable. I recall attending biannual wranglings with my secondary colleagues. We appeared to be caught in a web. The more we tried to move towards each other, the more enmeshed we seemed to become and the more we criticised each other for causing it. With the Primary Memorandum still the bible to observe at that time, we could but sigh in despair when our secondary colleagues naively insisted: "Just teach them to read, write and count and we'll pick up from there."

There seemed to be few areas where secondary courses dovetailed with the primary curriculum. Notwithstanding this seemingly insurmountable hurdle, we soldiered on to achieve what can best be described as "meaningful dialogue". At least this meant that mutual respect was being fostered, even if pupils continued to be viewed as "clean slates" in S1.

When I moved north I was interested to visit a number of combined primary-secondary schools in rural communities where pupils had an opportunity to move easily within the same building from age five to 14. I anticipated regular communication and examples of curricular continuity. Teachers did talk to each other more readily and the transition socially for pupils was much easier; however, the gulf in the curriculum existed just as surely as if primary and secondary had been miles apart.

When the then Scottish Education Department launched the discussions that led to the report on Education 10-14 in Scotland in the early eighties, it was hoped that nettles, previously avoided, would be grasped. During this time I had the opportunity to visit Finland, where a strictly applied national curriculum from age seven to 16 had been in place for a number of years. With such a seamless curricular robe within which pupils were expected to progress, almost literally, from book five at the end of primary to book six at S1, I was convinced that I would witness primary-secondary liaison at its finest.

I had visited only a couple of secondary schools and some associated primaries when I realised that pupils experienced a discontinuity uncannily similar to that which prevailed in Scotland. As one would expect, Finnish children, like their Scottish counterparts, progress at different rates and no group of pupils are uniform in achievement at the transfer stage. Finnish secondary teachers "did not have the time" to find out where each pupil had reached in the continuum of the national curriculum, far less talk to their primary colleagues, who were "not under the same pressures to prepare for national examinations". (Now where had I heard that before?) The result was that most secondaries pitched their lessons somewhere about the middle; not quite a "clean slate" approach but something akin to it in Finnish parlance. It was accepted that a significant minority of children were being short-changed by the system but finance did not permit time to allow teachers to address concerns.

A strength of the ill-fated 10-14 report, which appeared in 1986, was that it referred to issues beyond the content of the curriculum and provided models that might facilitate change. It emphasised that bridging the gap required wide-ranging dialogue between the sectors to come up with imaginative solutions. Teacher training, reviews of classroom organisation and methodology were discussed along with course content. The document stressed the need for time to talk, to counter cross-sector assumptions about learning and teaching: "Primary and secondary teachers will not only have to reach decisions on what is taught, but will also have to agree on why, when and how. This approach . . . has implications for school staffing. For example, assistant headteachers in primaries and secondaries cannot have full-time class commitments."

Many of the report's proposals were rejected because of cost implications. However, while it cannot be denied that a considerable amount has been spent on introducing the 5-14 guidelines as a framework for curricular continuity, arguably not enough has been done to find ways to effectively bridge the P7-S1 gap. While primary teachers are bleary eyed reading through a growing pile of paper, secondary staff, trying to come to terms with Standard grades and Higher Still, point to their existing mountain of work as good reason to neglect 5-14.

HMIs have become more rigorous in their inspections of primaries as far as teachers' planning and assessment in terms of 5-14 are concerned, and the SCRE's report suggests that primaries are doing their best to put 5-14 in place. But while it might be argued that there will be positive spin-offs for the primary curriculum whatever happens in S1 and S2, it would be unfortunate if there is a failure to address harmful discontinuity. Not only will primary teachers feel that their secondary colleagues have been let off the 5-14 hook, their failure to respond will mean that many children will continue to be disadvantaged by the system.

The 5-14 programme and, more recently, a growing acknowledgement of the social and educational value of nursery provision have gone some way to counter the tendency within Scottish education to build the house from the roof down. No amount of money spent on Higher Still will meet the needs of pupils who find themselves in limbo at S1 and S2 because of the "fresh start" approach favoured by a significant number of secondary teachers.

John Muir is adviser in primary education for Caithness and Sutherland.

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