Teaching: A plea for understanding across the transitions

My first (and for a long time, only) full blown argument on Twitter was with Andrew Old, a secondary teacher. Andrew had generalised about the behaviour of Year 7 and questioned the impact of primary education. I replied that primary teachers found it surprising that pupils who behaved well and worked hard up to the end of year 6 were excluded in Year 7. He replied that primary teachers’ standards must be lower and I countered that primary teachers had a broader range of skills. It was a pointless spat that achieved nothing other than illustrate our ignorance of each other’s experiences. On reflection, I vowed not to enter into such pointless arguments in the future. 

Recently I have struggled to keep my vow and remain out of discussions due to the growing weight of statements from secondary writers that are applied to education as a whole when the content bears little relation to what is commonly found in primary schools. Part of the reason for the current nature of debate is that, since 2010, a major focus of policy change has been about secondary examinations. The message in schools has been about the GCSE readiness of pupils from the first day of Year 7.  A number of secondary school staff have expressed frustration to me that, in this new climate, primary education does not prepare pupils to be “Y7 ready” and therefore undermines the efforts of teachers in the next age phase. An assessment co-ordinator invited to meet primary NQTs this year, told them that in her school teachers agreed that primary schools were incapable of assessing work accurately. OfSTED’s report “Below the Radar”, and, to an extent, the appointment of Tom Bennett to lead a behaviour consultation reflect a secondary view of pupil behaviour in the narrow context of teachers spending two lessons a week with a class of teenagers. The difference between a secondary teacher’s relationship with a class and a primary teacher who is with children all day long needs to be acknowledged and discussed. For the same reason, the different approaches of early years settings need to be understood and reflected upon. 

The danger of generalising policy from one age group is that ineffective strategies may be promoted and the relationships at the heart of learning are undermined. To achieve a better understanding, those “outriders” who influence policy through blogs/books etc need to acknowledge the limitations, rooted in a lack of experiences, of their own ideas. We would all benefit in seeking understanding through widened networks that include teachers from age phases beyond our own. 

In Birmingham’s inner city we are seeing two fascinating all-through schools developing next door to each other. Waverley Secondary School has a fantastic new build including a primary phase which opened with Reception and is increasing each year by one cohort. At the same time Starbank School (formerly a primary school) has added a Year 7 and will again increase by a cohort each year until completion. Both schools are facing up to the challenge of expansion by seeking the common ground between age-related pedagogy and experience. By acknowledging and valuing the different starting points and approaches of teachers,  developing through schools can impact positively on pupils’ experiences and learning. 

This is hardly anything new. All-through schools and middle schools have existed in different parts of the country for many years. As we consider the continuing large scale educational reform,  we need to avoid driving change from the centre and from only one perspective and learn from the successes of the past and the experiences of the present across all age phases.  

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