Why transition is still muddled

14th May 2010 at 01:00

There is a muddle in the middle of our education system. It is the bit where primary schooling ends and secondary schooling begins: when pupils leave one type of school and head for a very different one.

Teachers are working hard to ensure the transition is as smooth and worry- free as possible for the children. Effective activities, including familiarisation visits and buddy systems are put in place to help pupils prepare for the move to their new schools.

While pastoral arrangements are generally sound, those for developing and progressing the curriculum are, in too many schools, less satisfactory. Instead of continuity and progression, there is muddle and repetition.

Some secondary teachers go for the dubious "fresh start" approach which is, basically, to dismiss what pupils have learned in primary and to start from scratch.

Part of the problem is that pupils arrive in secondary school having acquired different skills and knowledge, making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for their teachers to supply courses which provide continuity and build on previous strengths.

Collaboration between secondaries and primaries, or between the cluster primaries, isn't always as good as it should be. The result is an alphabet soup of different courses and topics. The recent decluttering of the curriculum provides even more scope for variation and, some would say, muddle.

I recently sat with a head of maths as she perused the information which had been sent from her school's six associated primaries. "As well as the variations in work covered, there are major differences in the way pupils have been taught key mathematical processes," she pointed out.

Other curricular leaders have questioned the accuracy of the information they receive from their primaries. Without national test data, this is derived from less reliable continuous assessment and teacher observation.

Too many parents are finding it necessary to complain that they had been informed, by the primary school, that their child had reached one level but then told, by the secondary, that the pupil was now working at a lower level. Another frequent complaint is that pupils in S1 are being asked to learn knowledge and skills which they already acquired in the primary classroom. In a recent letter to a newspaper, one parent asked why her daughter had to do a project on dinosaurs in S1 when she had completed a very similar one in P6.

Some research states that as much as nine months of education is lost, because of the repetition and disruption in learning which takes place after the completion of P7.

Although most pupils seem to settle well, initially, in their secondary schools, their expectations, over a longer period, are not always realised and some pupils become disaffected by the end of S1.

The muddle of our education system arises from the decision to forego a detailed national curriculum, like that used in England, Japan and Singapore, in which outcomes and experiences are clearly spelled out for all pupils to follow.

A detailed national curriculum has many advantages, including better articulation of primary and secondary school courses. In Singapore, for example, regular monitoring indicates that little learning time is lost when pupils move from primary to secondary. Some countries, like Denmark, are even more sensible and avoid a muddle by keeping pupils in the same school from age five to 15.

Scotland's less prescriptive curriculum provides teachers with much more choice on what to teach, but the downside is that it creates an unsatisfactory muddle in the middle which has yet to be properly resolved.

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.

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