Thank heaven for the class teacher

OUR local newspaper is advertising a forthcoming supplement to celebrate the end of primary schooling for hundreds of 12-year-olds in the area. The supplement will be crammed with photographs and articles so lots of extra copies should fly off newsagents' counters into family archives.

Some of them will join the programme and leaving certificate from our end-of-year assembly which is held, traditionally, in the final hour of the final morning of the summer term and is attended by an increasing number of parents, relatives and former pupils who overflow from the hall into the nearby corridor. Add in the class musical performance, secondary induction days and the inevitable disco and outing and the move from primary 7 to S1 appears to assume the characteristics of a rite of passage: a secular bar mitzvah or confirmation, for a secular age.

At our assembly the faces in the newspaper supplement will sing Sydney Carter's words, "And it's from the old, I travel to the new", and we shall describe how moving on in the world brings the excitement of new experiences and new people. Around the country secondary teachers who have taken part in year-long programmes of liaison activities will reinforce the positive message but at the back of our minds will be the nagging doubt that all may not turn out as we hope.

HM Inspectorate of Education continually reminds us of concerns about serious weaknesses at S1 and other evidence agrees. Shelley Fouracre's Scottish work found secondary school staff underestimating children's abilities. In Transfer from the Primary Classroom: 20 Years On, the authors revisit the primary and secondary schools that hosted their original observations in the mid-1970s. Then they identified a decline in pupil attitudes, motivation and attainment after starting secondary school and attributed this to a lack of challenge in the secondary curriculum and a difference in teaching styles. After curriculum changes, better transfer procedures and the development of similar teaching styles at upper primary and lower secondary, the dip remains.

The unhelpful conclusion is that long-standing problems will only be solved by systematic reform of our education system. The book's title is a surprise. Instead of the expected "transfer from the primary school", the title is "primary classroom". The careful choice of words reminds me that of one of the essential factors is the loss of the class teacher.

The primary class teacher is the most influential adult in a pupil's school life and the most important factor in individual achievement. Her privileged position allows a profound knowledge of the abilities and personality of each child which cannot be matched by secondary teachers or primary management. She adjusts the rhythm of learning and exercises a wide range of strategies; she sets the tone of the class through her expectations of behaviour and attitude to work and to one another. She handles serious problems like bullying or a death in the family, or minor but important matters like the missing homework or the child who never has a pen. She can deliver the disciplinary rocket when required, knows when a look is enough, realises when a blind eye is best and appreciates the value of laughter. She leads through her detailed and ever-changing experience of her pupils.

Her position does not exclude other teachers from working with the class: when our older pupils meet five or six teachers in a normal week, the activity is within the context and ethos created by the class and the class teacher.

There is a serious case for part-time specialist teaching at P6 and P7. But might there also be a case for an all-seeing, all-knowing class, or "home", teacher in the first year of secondary? The faces in the primary 7 supplement will all have benefited from a class teacher whose authority and influence comes from knowing them intimately.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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