Gap year

There’s a yawning gulf between children’s academic performance
at primary school and their first year at secondary school. But the
government is on to it, writes Mark Hunter.

Somewhere between the teachers’ police check fiasco and her spat
with examinations supremo William Stubbs over the A-level results,
education secretary Estelle Morris took time out last month to
announce this year’s key stage 2 results.

Despite falling short of the government’s targets for 2004, the
results were the best on record, with 75 per cent of 11 year olds
reaching the standard expected of their age in English and 73 per
cent of pupils making the grade in maths; over 12 per cent and 11
per cent higher than the respective 1997 figures.

But while Morris was warmly congratulating teachers and their
pupils on their performance, a recent warning shot may still have
been ringing in her ears. After a damning Ofsted report published
in June David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, claimed that
the advances being made at primary school level were in danger of
being undermined by a significant dip in performance once children
move on to secondary school.

Unless schools took this problem more seriously, the government
targets for 14 year olds would remain forever out of reach,
predicted the Ofsted report. “The progress of schools towards these
demanding targets is likely to be restricted while the weaknesses
in continuity and progression between key stages 2 and 3 remain,”
it said.

One of the key problems highlighted was a significant breakdown
in communication between primary and secondary schools. “Little
detailed information was reaching secondary school English and
mathematics departments. As a result, time was wasted at the
beginning of year 7 (first year secondary) with further testing of
pupils to fill in the gaps. Few secondary schools were setting
targets for improving attainment, building on prior achievements in
primary school.”

Bell laid the blame at the door of secondary schools, many of
which he said had failed to respond to rising standards at primary
level. “It is vital that secondary schools fully recognise the
recent huge improvements in attainment at key stage 2 and help
their year 7 and year 8 pupils to build on them instead of marking
time, as too many of them do at present,” he said.

Unfortunately, this issue is nothing new. How to combat
“transfer dip” is a problem that has frustrated teachers for
decades. Indeed, research carried out in the 1970s suggested that
the performance of up to 40 per cent of children suffers on moving
to secondary school. The move has also been identified as a key
danger point for pupils with special needs, behavioural problems or
at risk of exclusion.

A number of reasons have been suggested to explain why children
find the move to secondary school so daunting. The new environment,
losing old friends and making new ones, coping with a variety of
teachers and the horrors of homework all serve to make the transfer
unsettling. However, these fears are usually short-lived and most
children adapt to the new school regime very well.

For instance, when the National Children’s Bureau carried out a
survey of 200 pupils before and after school transfer as part of
the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s Paths to Progress project,
they found that nearly 70 per cent preferred their secondary school
to their primary school.   

More recently it has been suggested that it is not so much
children’s social adaptation to their new school that is the
problem, it is the level of education they receive when they get
there. Coupled with the long summer break, during which children
may begin to forget newly learned skills and knowledge, moving to
secondary school too often means repeating work from the previous

The government has recognised the problem and earlier this year
launched a £500m middle years strategy designed to combat it.
The initiative includes:

  • An electronic data transfer system to ensure secondary schools
    receive pupil data swiftly.
  • “Transition units” in maths and English which bridge the gap
    between teaching in primary and secondary schools.
  • Training to enable teachers to build on pupils’ primary school
    progress and develop lessons to suit all abilities.
  • Better links between primary and secondary teachers.
  • The introduction of literacy and numeracy summer schools
  • Catch-up classes for pupils who need additional support.

At the sharp end of these initiatives are teachers like Pat
Hunter, deputy head of teaching and learning at Kettlethorpe High
School in Wakefield. Over the past few years Hunter has overseen a
raft of initiatives designed to ease the transition into secondary
education. All have required a lot of time and effort to change
procedures and attitudes that had become deeply entrenched in the

Hunter describes the latest initiative as a “a complete culture
shift. It will take a lot of negotiation to get things moving”, she
says. “Only six or seven years ago there was a view that secondary
schools should be seen as a clean slate and that we should start
from scratch with these kids.

“But now it is becoming a lot more positive, and secondary
schools are taking  more notice of what the primary schools say.
There’s also better recognition of the standard of work in primary
schools – I’ve seen primary school children doing work that I have
taught to year 9. So it does make you think.”

Hunter has brought in a number of measures designed to improve
communication between primary and secondary teachers. “During the
spring and summer term we have our teachers going into the primary
schools and taking lessons with the children they will be teaching
the following year. And next year we are going to have the primary
teachers coming in to our school so they can see what happens
during the transition. Then in the summer term we have children
from the primary schools coming in. This is not just for the
induction day but for things such as musical activities and a maths
road show. The idea is that they have fun but also meet the
teachers and older kids.”

The school runs summer schools on numeracy and literacy for
children identified by their primary schools as at risk of dipping
in performance over the summer. It uses sixteen year olds from year
11 who are trained as “peer counsellors” to go into primary schools
and offer a friendly ear to year six children. “It’s like a buddy
scheme or like having an older brother or sister at the school,”
says Hunter.

Some of the more recent government initiatives, however, have
met with mixed success. For instance, “bridging units” where work
is begun in primary school to be completed after the move, depend
on every child having reached a similar level at their primary
school. “But we’ve got 22 feeder schools. It only takes a couple of
kids not to have read the book and the whole idea crumbles,” says

Information technology is another area where reality does not
quite match the ideal. “In principle the idea of electronic
transfer [of information] is very good,” says Hunter. “But in
practice, at least in Wakefield, it doesn’t work.”

This is because two data management systems are in operation,
Wits (Wakefield Information Technology System) which is used by the
primary schools and Sims (Standard Information Management System)
which is used by the secondary schools. They are not

Hunter is also keen to ensure that impressive technology does
not become seen as a goal in its own right. “You can only get so
much information electronically,” she points out. “There’s no
substitute for talking face to face with the children’s primary
school teachers.” Nor is the information of any use unless it is
properly disseminated and acted upon. “It’s not so much about what
information you have as what you do with it,” says Hunter

“We are using key stage 2 data and Midyas (middle year
assessment) tests to set achievement targets for each child. We
then make sure that every teacher teaching that child is aware of
these targets. This means we can intervene if they dip.

“So it’s about getting the information out of the filing
cabinets and into the teacher’s mark books.”

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