After more than 20 years in the secondary sector, for the last two years I have been working voluntarily for a couple of hours a week with a group of more able Year 6 students at a primary school. To say that this has been an eye-opener is an understatement. I am astonished at what these students know – yes, they are the more able students but what is evident is just how much they have been taught, along with the rest of their class presumably, throughout the two key stages. Their enthusiasm for reading, their knowledge of literary techniques and their ability to write in an original and imaginative way has certainly taken me by surprise; they are so much more sophisticated than I expected. I didn’t expect them to tackle passages from Heart of Darkness or Shakespeare’s plays with quite such gusto and perception.
This experience has made me question the process of transition more than I ever have done before. I realise that we may well be covering a lot of ground with Year 7 (and perhaps Years 8 and 9) that they have already traversed. Is it possible that students don’t tell us that the skills we are teaching them are ‘old hat’? I remember vividly the unadulterated fear and trepidation with which I sat through my lessons during my first year at grammar school. Would I have dared to say, ‘ I know this already.’ Do we ask them? Do we audit their skills thoroughly enough or do we feel we must press on with the latest scheme of work regardless of its relevance? Do we re-teach texts they have already read? It is certainly true that more and more primary schools are ‘pinching’ texts we consider to be ‘ours’ at secondary – Skellig, Private Peaceful, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Holes are all examples which have sidled into the primary schools. This irritates KS3 teachers, but shouldn’t we see this as natural progression and one that reflects the increasingly sophisticated tastes of young readers and their teachers? Our irritation should be aimed at the lack of funding, which precludes us from buying exciting new texts and the excessive workload, which precludes us from exploring new authors. If schemes of work were more flexible and less prescriptive, they could accommodate new texts quite readily.
Why don’t we, the classroom teachers, know more about our students when they arrive in our lessons? Often, we don’t have examples of their work; we don’t see where they have excelled and where they have struggled and this is such a shame – it is as if we bin everything they have done in Year 6 and start again (afresh?). If you are the parent or teacher of a child in Year 6 who has done some fantastic work in Literacy, wouldn’t you want their Year 7 English teacher to be aware of it? We don’t see what they can produce in an environment where they feel confident and assured. Transition initiatives seem, for the most part, to be restricted to a handful of staff visiting feeder schools for a couple of hours during the summer term but visiting our feeder schools and using what we learn to inform our planning and teaching at KS3 and KS4 should be a vital part of CPD for all staff. Why can’t their Y6 books be passed on? Why can’t secondary staff be given access to a file of work produced by each student, so that we have real evidence of their capabilities rather than a figure in a column marked ‘KS2 Teacher Assessment’? Why can’t we be allocated time to scrutinise what a student can already do?
Equally, primary teachers could be coming into our lessons and exploring the skills required at GCSE so that they understand where the students are heading and how they can help them to get there. I have had several conversations with primary teachers where they have been surprised when I have said, “But they will never have to write a story at GCSE or even KS3. An opening to a story, maybe, or a description, but never a full blown story.” I have suggested that as early as KS1 they could be introduced to quoting from a text so it becomes second nature to analyse the effects of language and to use evidence from the text: ‘Humpty Dumpty had a great fall’ – which word in this line tells us that Humpty’s fall was really bad and why? We could learn so much from each other and I hope the time will come when primary and secondary staff are enabled to behave more like ‘members of one body’.
When I asked my son who is in Year 6 what he hoped to do in English at secondary school, he replied that he’d like to read more books ‘like that one you teach where the woman escapes from the horrible castle’ and ‘not do full stops because we do them in Year 2.’ So, The Bloody Chamber and semi-colons it is then…
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