Ready for secondary?

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The government’s insistence that a key part of primary education is to ensure pupils are ‘secondary-ready’ has caused much debate. Gerald Haigh argues that transition is a joint responsibility.

In line with the latest curriculum changes, the Department for Education (DfE) requires primary schools to aim at producing pupils who are “secondary ready”, defined by measured “floor standards” in numeracy and literacy.

The concept itself is hardly new. In the half of my career that was spent in primary education, we would worry whether our oldest children were ready for secondary school. Invariably, though, most doubts -- including, incidentally, those of the parents -- were about emotional maturity and resilience. 

So far as basic subjects were concerned, we knew we had done our best, and we assumed that secondary colleagues would do the same. Did they not, after all, have inclusion, SEN, differentiation and learning mentoring?

Now, though, teachers are wondering whether the government is suggesting that the sole aim of primary education is to prepare children, in the most basic and measurable of ways, for the next stage of schooling.

If so, it is a notion with which many primary colleagues are very unhappy. John Coe, information officer for the National Association of Primary Education, puts it like this on their website: “It is the professional duty of every teacher to meet the needs of their pupils as they find them. This duty is shared by secondary and primary teachers alike and it is a poor teacher who says that the children aren’t ready for what I am going to teach them.”

There is also, however, a more pragmatic view, as put by year 6 primary teacher Andrew Chadwick in his blog: “I imagine year 7s who can behave and listen in class, organise their resources ready for a lesson, complete and hand-in homework are all useful – but surely number one in the list is competent reading, writing and maths skills?

“Whether you call that ‘Level 4’, ‘a score of 100’ or ‘secondary-ready’ doesn’t really matter. It’s got to be crucial to fully engage and participate in the key stage 3 curriculum.”

In practice, I guess we will end up with a position where primary and secondary schools accept “floor standards” as necessary but not sufficient. It will be clear to teachers in both sectors that the well-educated primary school leaver should be equipped with considerably more than the basic competencies.

What ought not to be missed, though, is that while it’s one thing to judge a child “secondary-ready” in July of year 6, what really matters is whether he or she can demonstrate that readiness in the year 7 classroom and beyond. To that extent, secondary readiness becomes the responsibility of both sectors, in the sense that the child’s transition from primary to secondary needs to be accomplished as seamlessly as possible, avoiding the frequently observed drop in attainment. (“I have seen some bright faces dull half way through year 7 in my own school,” writes secondary teacher Pete Jones in his deeply felt blog Holiday of a Lifetime that’s worth reading in full.)

No-one would suggest that either secondary or primary colleagues are unaware of the challenge of transition. I’ve seen, over some 40 years, a great deal of time, worry and resources expended on it. Correctly directed, the aim is not so much to help children “settle down” (parents are always more stressed than their children), but to achieve continuity of learning. 

Strategies I have experienced from both sides of the divide, often as a participant, have included regular teacher meetings, passing on of detailed data, sending samples of work, extended teacher exchanges, extended secondary experience for year 6 children, moving some year 6 subjects (typically modern foreign languages) into the local secondary’s timetable, a “primary-style” lower secondary curriculum, recruitment of primary staff into secondary, cross-phase projects (started in year 6, completed in year 7), enhanced parent engagement, and many more. Some have survived and thrived. Where they have failed or rumbled on half-heartedly, however, it’s been because of one or more of these:

Flavour of the month: Enthusiasm for primary/secondary co-operation waxes and wanes, in line with other, short-term, priorities . Staff turnover often brings further disruption.

Data overkill: To be helpful, data must be comprehensive, which also makes it hard to absorb. Samples of work can be especially difficult to use meaningfully.

Subject structure: A primary class teacher may be asked to deal with leaders of several secondary departments, all with different ideas. 

Straightforward inter-stage mistrust: Primary teachers unwilling to spend time on transfer activities that they think will be undervalued, secondary teachers wanting to “make up our own minds, thank you”.

Multiple school partnerships: Some schools take children from, or send children to, several partner schools, making the transition logistics difficult to manage.

The best hope for achieving sustainability, I’d say, is to start with well-defined, workable, realistic transition strategies focused on learning. After that it’s a matter of supporting them from senior leadership team level determinedly, against all odds, over time. If that happens, and the links become secure, the notion of “secondary-ready” may begin to look more palatable to those who are currently unsure about it.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

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