Primary sources of growth

1st July 2016 at 00:00
The traditional view of the transition from primary to secondary is that we need to adapt children to suit their new environment. Teacher Kate Townshend meets the people who want to upend that tradition in the name of nurturing children – and make secondary more like primary

When a new Year 7 student who’s due to start at Stanley Park High negotiates their way through a tightly packed Sutton housing estate and reaches the glass colossus of the school building for the first time, they have not yet actually arrived at their new home for the next five years of education. That moment comes later. For Stanley Park is actually made up of four mini-schools, each of which are discrete in their identity and geography (they have their own portion of the building). Each Year 7 student is placed into one of these mini-schools – called Horizon, Performance, Trade and World – and it’s there that the student can call home. The reason for this partitioning? Put simply: transition.

Negotiating the move between key stages 2 and 3 is a well-documented problem.

“There is research to show that for some children, transition is detrimental in terms of academic achievement and identity,” explains Dr Elizabeth McNess, research fellow at the graduate school of education at the University of Bristol and co-author of the publication Supporting learning in the transition from primary to secondary schools. “They can struggle with the bigger organisation, new friendship groups, the lack of regular contact that their parents have with the bigger secondary school, and teachers who do not know them and have no pastoral responsibility for them.”

Schools have tried myriad ways of lessening the impact of stepping up, but according to the UCL School Transition and Adjustment Research Study (Stars) – which followed 2,000 children in 2012 and 2013 as they moved from primary to secondary school – the concerns that students have at the start of Year 7 are largely still felt at the end of Year 7. The top concern was losing old friends, followed by “discipline and detentions” – while homework was another significant worry that remained (see

This failure to allay these key concerns – and, ultimately, the ongoing failure to eradicate issues around transition – has a simple cause, according to a growing cohort of schools and education professionals among which Stanley Park High would count themselves: we’ve got our approach transition the wrong way around.

The common strategy schools adopt is to bend children to the secondary way – programmes reach down from the senior school to prepare students and make them secondary-ready and in Year 7 the emphasis is on supporting children to adapt. But this group argues that it’s not the students that should be forced to change, it’s the secondary schools. Rather than students becoming more secondary, they say that the key to solving transition issues – indeed, the key to ultimately creating better citizens – is secondary becoming more like primary.

More students, more problems

Jennifer Symonds is a developmental psychologist, lecturer in education at University College Dublin’s School of Education and author of the book Understanding School Transition: what happens to children and how to help them. Over many years studying transition, the same issue always comes up: more students in a year group make for more problems.

“Students who are socialised in a large group at that age tend to revert to fundamental cognitive methods of adapting,” she explains. “They seek out others with similar interests to them, quickly forming gangs and cliques. The year group becomes socially stratified with the toughest kids on top. Children begin to turn off school, either to fit into this hierarchy or to escape from it.”

So what’s the solution to this? Symonds suggests having a number of teachers that know the students well, so the social interactions could then be structured accordingly. But, she adds, the current secondary model does not enable that: students have too many teachers for those closer relationships to happen.

What secondary schools need to do, she argues, is to mimic the primary set up of having fewer children in a group, and to have that group come into contact with as few teachers as possible.

One of the ways they can do that, she says, is blocking: organising first years into smaller subgroups – or mini-schools – with a fewer number of teachers.

“Researchers have found that blocking in the US and the UK is associated with fewer behavioural problems and less disengagement and dropout,” reveals Symonds.

It is a form of blocking that is in operation at Stanley Park High, last week crowned TES secondary school of the year at the TES Schools Awards (see pages 20-21). Executive headteacher David Taylor was on the hunt for a solution to transition issues and a better way of teaching and that led him and his team to a few different options.

“Initially, we visited Bishops Park School in Clacton, which had divided into smaller communities and they had a themed curriculum,” he says. “Schools in Boston and New York that had relationships at their core, such as Boston Arts Academy, also interested us because they sought to help identify, nurture and support each child’s passion.”

These initial forays led Taylor and his team to Hellerup Skole, an all-through school in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“The relationships between students and between students and staff were so strong at Hellerup, through flexible learning spaces and other measures, that we wanted to try and find a way of creating an environment to do the same thing in the UK,” says Taylor.

The team at Stanley Park’s solution was mini-schools. It is an idea that a limited number of English schools have experimented with to varying degrees, but which Stanley Park High has taken to the extreme end of the scale.

Downsizing your school

In Year 7, students are put into one of four schools and, aside from the specialist unit Horizon (providing provision for those with autism spectrum disorder), each school aims to have an equal mix of gender, and academic and sporting ability across its 70 students.

Students have all their lessons other than PE in this mini-school. In Year 8, it’s the same, but students make an extra visit out of their home school to go to design lessons (so that they can use the specially-built design workshop in the Trade mini-school).

This is facilitated by having a bespoke curriculum for Year 7 and 8: the Excellent Futures Curriculum (EFC). In each school, English, maths, science, PE, French and music are taught discretely, but in Years 7 and 8, everything else is rolled into mixed-ability project-based EFC lessons, taught over 12 lessons in Year 7 and 8 lessons in Year 8. Students have the same teacher for wall EFC lessons.

“This means that the tutor has the time get to know each of their tutees very well. You cannot teach a child unless their uniqueness is valued and we believe that effective induction takes much longer than a day or a week,” says Taylor.

In Years 9, 10 and 11, while core subject teaching remains in a student’s home school, options subjects increase the number of journeys that students take out to the other schools where those options reside (geography sits in World, for example).

To solidify the individuality of the individual schools further, they are physically separate, too. Stanley Park had the fortune to be in the process of designing a new building when the model was being developed. As a result, the four schools each have a wing of the building, with each opening out onto a central glass atrium with space for socialising and eating. Taylor likens the set up to a corporate headquarters, but there is a shopping centre feel about it, too. A nice shopping centre, obviously.

Each school operates its own leadership structures (each has a head of school, lead practitioner and other key roles, as well as teams of teachers) that report into a central leadership team that has Taylor, as executive headteacher, at the helm.

Does it work? The model has been in full operation since September 2012 (the EFC curriculum came before the mini-schools in, 2008) and Taylor says that it has proved to be a success.

“Our first cohort that went through the EFC achieved our best every GCSE results in 2013, and all the quantitative data on attendance, behaviour and so on indicates that the full model with the mini-schools in place has had a significant impact – we will see how substantial when the first cohort takes their exams next year,” say Taylor. “But just as important has been the qualitative feedback from Ofsted and visitors, as well as what we see ourselves – our children are more supportive of each other, they are happier and they are more engaged than they were.”

How replicable is it? Stanley Park has the advantage of designing the system from the ground up in a new building. In the age-old structures many schools reside in, the logistical challenges may be too great.

Also, while broadly supporting the mini-schools strategy – having seen it deployed in a few schools across his career – executive headteacher of Bromley Academy Trust Neil Miller says there are other concerns.

“There are real benefits in terms of pupils working with fewer staff and less movement around a large complex,” he says. “More personalisation is possible with the staff knowing the pupils’ academic ability and emotional wellbeing. But accountability needs to be mapped out from the very start. Without this, lines of responsibility can become blurred and subject areas can be fragmented, which is obviously counterproductive.”

Primary concerns

Mini-schools are just one way secondary schools are becoming more primary in focus, though. Another school joining the revolution with its own unique slant is Great Torrington School in Devon. Deputy headteacher John Stanier argues that it’s the way the curriculum is delivered that can help to avoid the dreaded transition dip.

“The research is clear that separate subjects don’t work in developing study skills,” he explains. “We realised that if we wanted better outcomes further up the school, we needed to teach our students to become better learners in Year 7.”

So Great Torrington ditched the traditional model of many different subjects and teachers in Year 7 in favour of a curriculum that would appear to have more in common with the primary school notion of topics. Children undertake cross-curricular challenges on everything from aviation to the slave trade and, in doing so, have the chance to build solid relationships with three or four teachers rather than a far more overwhelming 16.

“These teachers spend more time with the children, so they get to know them much more quickly. They can identify any problems – academic or otherwise – and intervene more quickly too,” says Stanier.

There’s something similar happening at Riddlesdown Collegiate in Surrey. The school wanted to address concerns about Year 7 performance and decided that a more primary-style approach to school was the answer.

Fortunately, for the school, they had an ex-primary teacher in vice-principal Katie Turner to work out what that primary approach to secondary education should look like.

“Ultimately, it seemed as though extended exposure to one teacher – someone with knowledge of them as a whole person – was important to students,” she explains.

So, she developed the Excellence Curriculum, a project-based unit taught for a third of a Year 7 student’s timetable that centres on the content and skills of humanities subjects. And she has gone one step further than even Stanley Park High – she has recruited primary teachers to teach it.

“They have one teacher to provide continuity, detailed and bespoke focused feedback and the sort of familiarity students were used to at primary schools,” she explains. “Students’ other lessons are secondary-style, forming a well-constructed transition year. Our Year 7s are now so settled, happy, confident and positive.”

These schools are far from alone – there are many more schools scattered across the country with their own slant on mini-schools or with bespoke approaches like that at Great Torrington and Riddlesdown. And they all claim that the shift in approach to a primary style has been successful. Yet the vast majority of secondary schools still persist with attempting to adapt the students, rather than themselves.

This is perhaps with good reason – not everyone is convinced that secondary schools becoming more like primary is desirable, or even workable.

For example, Professor Maurice Galton, associate director of research in the faculty of education at the University of Cambridge, sounds a note of caution.

“The move towards primary and secondary schools being partners in transition has been a hugely important and positive one,” he says. “But children still see transition as a status passage – if it’s too familiar, they won’t feel like they’ve arrived anywhere new. There’s a balance to be struck between making it recognisable and relatable, but new and exciting, too.”

And on a more practical level, mundane issues can also sometimes upset the best-laid plans – as Elizabeth McNess points out: “Despite schools’ efforts, the structural change from primary to secondary remains. Some schools have fewer resources to devote to transition activities, have many more primary schools that they need to relate to, or consider that they need to put their resources where exam results will determine the Ofsted rating of the school.”

There’s also the fact that primary schools can differ greatly, so telling secondary schools to be more primary can, in some circumstances, be rather an unspecific instruction for them to follow.

Meanwhile, critics point out that in becoming more primary, you are in effect solving the issue of transition by not really having a transition. As such, you are removing an important lesson in how to adapt to new environments, people and ways of working. In essence, you are failing to prepare students for adult life.

The supporters of a primary approach to secondary schooling are, however, resolute. Symonds says that the preparation for adulthood argument is flawed and the logistical argument is something that it is in our interests to overcome.

“What you learn in the workplace, in education, in society in general, is a requirement to socialise with people that are different to you,” she explains. “At primary, in smaller groups, students have to adapt and get on with diverse others, but suddenly they don’t have to do that anymore at secondary as it is easy to find others with similar interests. In a much larger peer group, this creates gangs and cliques who develop an in/out group mentality. So rather than being detrimental, keeping students in a smaller peer group may prevent large, anti-school gangs from forming and ruling the roost, and may bring all children long-term benefits in terms of communicating with, and accepting others.”

Taylor agrees. He says that we need to make a decision about what we want from education. In his view, a primary model across the phases makes sense – not just because of transition issues, but because primaries simply do relationships in education better.

“This primary system must be better than the mausoleum that secondary schools are under relentless pressure to become, by narrowing the curriculum and by testing, testing and testing again.

“The very best of our primary schools are world leaders in engaging, enthusing and engrossing students and giving students those skills and abilities that make for active and participative citizens – practices like self-management of learning, collaborative and consensual group practices, emphasising empathy and wellbeing, encouraging and giving opportunity for curiosity and creativity, entrepreneurship, using time, spaces and resources flexibly and so on. They allow the voice of each child to sing.”

Kate Townshend is a teacher in Gloucestershire @_KateTownshend

How to spot a child struggling with transition

Picture the scene – you’ve come from a tiny, rural primary – perhaps one with only a few classes, where literally everyone knows your name. And then suddenly, September of Year 7 hits and you find yourself one of more than 1,000 faceless students, wandering around a secondary school site bigger than some town centres.

This might be an example at one extreme end of the scale, but that initial plunge into the secondary school world can be a real shock for some children, as psychology and health professor Cary Cooper explains: “Some children are robust and resilient but many will find it overwhelming to move from a cosy class of 30 to a school of thousands. And this can do genuine damage, at least in the short term, as some children develop a classic stress response.

“The good news is that parents and schools can help to mitigate this, if they identify that a child is struggling.”

According to Professor Cooper, the signs to watch out for include:

Behavioural reactions, where a child becomes withdrawn when they would usually be outgoing, or presenting as angry or aggressive without an obvious cause.

Difficulty sleeping or early waking, which can be classic anxiety symptoms.

Refusal to attend school or persistent lateness.

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