This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2016. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
Ofsted’s 2015 report KS3: The wasted years? claimed that key stage 3 is not a high priority for many secondary schools in timetabling, assessment and the monitoring of pupils’ progress – and that school leaders prioritise the pastoral over the academic needs of pupils during transition from primary school. The secret to an effective key stage 3, I believe, is a better transition process, a better curriculum, better homework and better assessment. In this next article in the series, we will examine why improving the transition between primary and secondary schools is so important…
Why do we need to improve transition?
According to Galton (1999), almost 40 per cent of children fail to make expected progress during the year immediately following a change of schools and Department for Education (DfE) data from 2011 shows that average progress drops between key stage 2 and 3 for reading, writing and maths. Moreover, the effects of transition are amplified by risk factors such as poverty and ethnicity.
Why should this be? Primarily, it’s because there is insufficient or ineffective communication between primary and secondary schools. This has a number of harmful consequences.
First, secondary school teachers have a weak understanding of the curriculum content that precedes that which they personally teach while primary school teachers have a weak understanding of the curriculum that succeeds their own. In practice, this means that the curriculum is not joined up and that pupils are taught content and skills more than once or are taught the same concepts in contradictory ways.
Second, there are inconsistent assessment practices between the two phases and therefore little correlation between year 6 and 7 data. This leads to a lack of trust on both sides of the “divide” in terms of the validity of assessment data and to pupils being re-tested at the start of year 7. It also generates confusion and even animosity among parents who perceive that their sons and daughters are regressing when in fact the data may mask progress or, at any rate, exaggerate decline.
Third, there is often a weak understanding in year 7 of what pupils can achieve and therefore insufficient challenge and engagement in the curriculum.
How can we improve transition?
There are five key realms of school life – sometimes referred to as transition “bridges” – in which the transition process can be improved:
- Social and personal.
- Managing learning.
The administrative bridge is concerned with the general management of the transition process, such as the formal liaison between secondary and primary, usually at a senior leadership level. In practice, this might take the form of the transfer of pupil records and achievement data, meetings with pupils and parents, and visits from headteachers, senior leaders and teachers.
The social and personal bridge is concerned with forging links between pupils/parents and their new school prior to and immediately after transfer. It is also concerned with the pupil induction process into their new school and might take the form of induction days, open evenings, school orientation activities, team-building days, taster classes, the production and issuing of prospectuses and booklets, and so on.
The curricular bridge is concerned with improving curriculum continuity between the primary and secondary phases of education by sharing plans that show what content is taught on either side of the transition. This involves teachers rather than senior leaders and might take the form of cross-phase teaching, the teaching of bridging units at the end of year 6 and start of year 7, summer schools, joint CPD networks and INSET days, the sharing of good practice and shared planning, and teacher exchanges.
The pedagogic bridge is concerned with establishing a shared understanding of how pupils are taught – as well as how they learn – in order to achieve a greater continuity in classroom practice and teaching. This is achieved by understanding differing teaching styles and skills, by engaging in shared CPD and teacher exchanges, and by primary and secondary teachers observing each other in practice.
The managing learning bridge is about ensuring that pupils are active participants, rather than passive observers, in the transition process. This is achieved by empowering pupils and their parents with information about achievement and empowering them with the confidence to articulate their learning needs in a new environment. This might take the form of giving information to parents/pupils, providing pupils with learning portfolios and samples of achievements, and raising pupils’ awareness of their needs and talents by sharing and explaining data.
What is our success criteria?
There are three measures of an effective transition process:
- Social adjustment.
- Institutional adjustment.
- Curriculum interest and continuity.
Social adjustment is about pupils successfully making new friends and reporting higher self-esteem. Institutional adjustment is about pupils settling in well at their new school and getting used to the routines, systems and structures.
Curriculum interest and continuity is about pupils being prepared for the level and style of work they encounter at secondary school, as well as being appropriately challenged and engaged, and building on the progress they made at primary school.
How can we achieve it?
In practice, we can improve the transition process and achieve social adjustment, institutional adjustment and curriculum interest and continuity by employing some or all of the following strategies:
First, we can actively engage year 7 pupils in group and pair work and use seating plans to help them make friends.
Second, we can take year 7 pupils out of school either during the summer or at the start of the autumn term for team-building activities and residential trips.
Third, we can have a staggered start to the year so that year 7 are alone in the school building for a day or so and can familiarise themselves with the geography and routines without being overwhelmed or frightened by the busy corridors. We can also have staggered breaks and lunches for a week or so to enable pupils to have quiet play with friends and to have a more leisurely lunch in a safe environment and without extensive queueing.
Fourth, we can arrange regular visits from secondary school teachers to year 6 to talk about life in “big school” and from year 7 pupils to share their experiences of the transition process and of life after transition. Pupils are more likely to listen to their peers than they are to their teachers and will be relieved to hear from pupils in the year above them that life in big school isn’t quite as daunting as they think.
Finally, feeder primary schools can operate an open door policy for parents to air any concerns and questions. Secondary schools, meanwhile, can hold a parents’ evening in the summer term of year 6 to welcome new parents and answer questions about the transition and induction process, and a further parents’ evening in the autumn term for “settling in” discussions and to talk to their child’s form tutor.
What might this look like in practice?
Let’s take a look at a transition process starting in year 5 and working through to year 7.
Transition should not begin in the summer term of year 6. It needs to begin much earlier in order to be effective. In year 5, for example, there might be specialist visits and workshops led by secondary teachers from various curriculum areas.
These not only provide pupils with a flavour of the subject specialisms, but also enable pupils to familiarise themselves with their future teachers and their teaching styles.
Also in year 5, the headteacher of the secondary school might provide a tour of their school during the day in order to provide pupils with the experience of “big school”.
Other senior leaders, particularly the leader responsible for transition and the SENCO, might pay regular visits to primary schools to talk to pupils and meet with parents. And there might be on-going close liaison between year 5 and 6 teachers within your school in order to identify children who might potentially experience issues around transition. Your school might then identify key opportunities within the year 6 curriculum to support the development of the requisite skills these vulnerable pupils will need.
Year 6: Autumn term
There might be forums in which the transition programme is shared with pupils, with an opportunity to ask questions. This could be followed by open days and information evenings at secondary school for prospective pupils and their parents. Parents may also request additional meetings with leaders and teachers from the secondary school such as the SENCO.
Year 6: Spring term
Secondary schools will receive a list of admissions. Transfer forms will be sent to primary schools to gather information on all pupils. Primary schools might gather permission from year 6 pupils in order to attach one-page profiles to their transfer forms. Your staff might then liaise with their secondary colleagues in order to discuss pupils’ strengths, interests and possible support needs. Secondary staff and year 7 pupils, as discussed above, might visit primary feeder schools in order to talk with year 6 pupils.
At this stage, staff will identify vulnerable pupils and put in place a raft of additional support with the transition process, including perhaps a dedicated teaching assistant for transition. A letter could be sent to parents/carers to inform them of their child’s inclusion in specialist transition work. Small groups of vulnerable pupils might begin meeting their transition worker regularly.
Year 6: Summer term
There might be a pupil and parent/carer consultation on transition procedures and a further open evening to provide parents with an opportunity to meet key staff such as their child’s head of year, form tutor, SENCO, the school nurse, the school’s caterers, the head boy and head girl, and so on. Parents might also be invited to make 15-minute appointments with their child’s form tutor for June/July and use the opportunity to visit their child’s new classroom.
Also, the secondary school SENCO and possibly an English as an additional language teacher might provide summaries on high needs children in the year 6 cohort for secondary colleagues alongside the one-page profiles which include information on “how best to support me” written by the child. The one-page profiles might then be reviewed and updated by pupils/their teachers. There will also be the standard year 6 pupil transfer/orientation days.
Secondary curriculum areas might begin planning transition projects to be taught in the autumn term. A letter of introduction might be written by the headteacher or senior leader responsible for transition and sent to all year 6 pupils.
A tutor meeting with parents and pupils might take place in which the home-school agreement is discussed and signed. And a prospectus and transition booklet might be given to the pupils.
The secondary school will welcome new pupils and this might involve a staggered start to the year in which only year 7 are present on the first day and in which breaks and lunches are staggered for the first week to allow new pupils some space and freedom to become familiar and comfortable with the buildings and routines.
There might also be an alternative timetable for the first week and a series of transition activities such as team-building events or cross-curricular projects to develop key skills. There might also be a parents’ evening in order to outline the transition arrangements and afford parents the opportunity to meet their chid’s form tutor and head of year, as well as to familiarise themselves with the new school.
Additional support for vulnerable children
In addition to the transition process outlined above, a school might decide to appoint a teaching assistant for transition (TAT) in order to support vulnerable pupils. Below I outline what they might do.
Year 6: Spring term
The teaching assistant for transition (TAT) might visit their feeder primary schools with a member of the senior leadership team to meet staff, pupils and parents and outline their role and responsibilities, how the vulnerable pupils have been identified, what support will be offered and why. They might also meet year 6 teachers to take suggestions for further referrals. They might then establish their groups and book dates for the summer term.
Year 6: Summer term
The TAT might meet individual pupils in their primary school setting and take groups of pupils (six to eight) on visits to their secondary school on a number of occasions over the course of the summer term. These groups and visits may be mixed with children from other primary schools in order to help pupils make new friends. The programme might be based around concerns and issues raised by the children and what practical strategies will support them in secondary school and may also include some generic coping strategies and soft skills. Practical skills for survival might include:
- What is a friend/a real friend/making friends?
- Packing a bag the night before.
- Anti-bullying work.
- What would I do if…? (Problem-solving.)
- What is homework club?
- Being a good listener.
- Using your leisure time.
- How do I make my work more successful?
Year 7: Autumn and spring terms
The TAT continues to work with their identified children, listening to them and being responsive to their concerns.
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