Although I studied linguistics at university, I have a shameful admission. Frequently confused, I still have to look up what a fronted adverbial is (primary colleagues will instantly spot what I did there).
But I know that if I need clarification on matters of grammatical technicality, then the best place to go is to the true experts – children aged around 10. Because, for many of them, it’s what they’ve been drilled in, relentlessly.
The anguished parent of one Year 6 child told me the other day that his son hadn’t done any physical education in school for four months. Instead, those sessions were usurped by extra spelling, extra maths, extra anything but PE.
And all this at a time when we worry so much about the physical and mental health of our nation’s children.
Those key stage 2 tests really must be given less weight in our overbearing accountability system in order that teachers and leaders can focus on what really matters – a rich and rewarding primary curriculum that provides the solid foundations for a child’s future success in secondary school.
But as we know, too often, there’s a clunking gulf between the two phases, with a key stage 2 curriculum that’s heavy on teaching children to crack grammatical terminology, then a key stage 3 curriculum that feels as if it was stitched together on a different planet. After all, it was only in 2015 that Ofsted described key stage 3 as “the wasted years”.
That’s why I’ll be speaking in a masterclass at the Inspiring Leadership conference later this month about the importance of the transition from primary to secondary school, and about why partnership working by primary and secondary colleagues is of heightened significance.
But it can be hard to make effective transition work in practice, particularly in far-flung rural communities, and where secondary schools have a dozen or more primary partners.
Transition is also tough and destabilising for children. They feel a mixture of excitement and anxiety around the move to “big” school. For many, the security of their primary experience – with its deep sense of being known and nurtured – can unravel as they step into the unfamiliar territory of the secondary school.
That’s why we need to stop conceptualising Year 6 as being all about tests, Year 7 as benchmarking and Year 11 as some shining end-point. Instead, we should aim for a continuum of children learning, developing, gaining confidence and feeling the rewards of achievement, year on year.
Reading for reading’s sake
That will be helped by deciding, as school partnerships, what we focus on. Let me suggest two whole-school priority areas: reading, and speaking and listening.
Reading matters. As Daniel Rigney tells us in his book The Matthew Effect, “Good readers may choose friends who also read avidly while poor readers seek friends with whom they share other enjoyments.”
And it’s in the transition from primary to secondary where the habits of reading can recede from many children’s lives.
We need to do all we can to understand the reading provision for children in our partner primary schools – what they read, when they read, how they are taught the specific skills of skimming and scanning texts, the strategies they have been taught for decoding unfamiliar words, and the underpinning routines of reading for pleasure.
We will want these same approaches to continue into the secondary school, providing a bridge of literacy continuity that reassures, stretches and makes progress inevitable.
Then we need key stage 3 to be a place of rich, wider reading. My 32 years of experience as an English teacher make me wish I’d been less fixated on encouraging children to analyse texts so early. Instead, I wish I’d just immersed them more in reading for pleasure, talking about stories, characters and twisting plots.
I wish, too, that I’d heeded more the warning of academic Thomas Newkirk who, in his book Misreading Masculinity, says: “Too often the argument for reading is made by those who have spent their lives as insiders.” He goes on to quote a child who says, plaintively: “I guess people who read all the time must get something out of it that I haven’t experienced.”
So, a shared reading strategy across schools, then across subjects, could be one of the most transformational partnership projects we’ll ever work on.
Then there’s oracy – a word so ugly that I still prefer to talk of speaking and listening. Once again, many years on, we are coming to understand how a rich culture of formal and informal talk underpins everything else.
As Debra Myhill, pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter, puts it: “Spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress.”
It’s the same, too, with listening. Remember Sticht’s Law: “Reading ability in children cannot exceed their listening ability.”
Thus, shared planning around activities such as debates, conversations, lectures (given and listened to), group work, vocabulary, public speaking and interaction are likely to provide a rich basis for every child’s future success, irrespective of background.
All of this is literacy in action, pedagogy in action, shared curriculum planning in action. Even more than that, perhaps, it has the potential to be social mobility in action.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders