Monday, 13 September 2021

15 Years In Teaching

Sometimes it's a useful exercise just to think back and take stock. I did that recently as I was preparing to give a talk to some trainee secondary teachers. The talk was about what primary school is like, and how year 6 children feel about transition, but as part of the presentation I was asked to give an overview of my career in education. Here's what I shared with them:

After completing a 4 year course in teaching and art, focusing after the first year on KS1, I graduated and took a job at a primary school.

First school

At this school, although I applied for a job in year 2, I worked for three years in year 3 and for two years in year 5. I became the school's art leader from the second year onwards. In terms of teaching, my improvement was very gradual – I learned from strong, more experienced teachers and worked alongside them to develop both my classroom practice and my organisational and planning skills – I most certainly wasn’t ‘outstanding’ to begin with!

During my time at this school I applied for other leadership roles internally but the jobs went to other internal applicants. I was given small extra responsibilities such as School Council and Displays coordinator. Thankfully, I made the most of any responsibilities that I was given even though it wasn't exactly what I wanted to do; it's worth doing this as the experience can be called upon later, and you can show yourself to be a hard worker. It became clear there were not opportunities for progression and I felt like I was being overlooked and felt that the leadership was not what it could have been.

Second school

After feeling devalued by my first school, I was offered a teaching job with an incentive payment and the promise of progression opportunities. I discovered that sometimes moving school makes all the difference – in this case, the leaders saw potential in me where previous leaders hadn’t.

Here, I taught in year 4 for a year, then requested a move to year 6 where I taught for 2 years. The move to year 6 gave me the SATs experience – the pressure was on to maintain very high SATs scores. The first year saw some disappointments with regards to outcomes (partially to do with changes in expectations in the tests that year) but lessons were learnt and things improved the following year.

Whilst at this school I had the opportunity to lead on Communication (which involved Reading) and then on the implementation of the 2014 National Curriculum, as well as the roll out specifically of the new Computing curriculum. In fact, these roles were ones that I proposed to the leaders of school – in my proposal I showed why these roles would be necessary and how I would be suitable for the role. These roles gave me my first real taste of leadership.

It was at that point where I began to look at things happening across the school and thinking that I could do a good job of leading. At the same time, my observations from school leaders, school improvement partner and Ofsted inspectors were fairly consistently showing that I had made lots improvements in my practice since my first few years of teaching. This gave me the confidence to start to look for leadership roles – I never wanted to become a leader without having first become secure in my teaching as I wanted to be ready to lead by example in the classroom.

Third school

As I sat and read through the Ofsted report before applying, I was literally gasping out loud at some of what had been observed. Further internet searches turned up even more concerning things. There was no doubt, this was the school for me - a place where I could truly make a difference! Deep into Special Measures and about to become an academy, this city centre school appealed to me as a chance to really challenge myself. 

I became on of the year 6 teachers alongside my assistant vice principal role which saw me in charge of improving maths across the school and leading the UKS2 phase, amongst the other more general responsibilities of being part of a school's SLT. Here I taught in year 6 for three years navigating further sea changes in SATs, including the notorious 2016 SATs.

During this time I completed the Teaching Leaders course which was a game changer in terms of my leadership ability and enthusiasm.

PLP

After three years I became primary lead practitioner for the Dixons Trust which saw me working part time in all the Trust's primaries on various projects including developing coaching, curriculum, teaching as well as working with the brand new research school, presenting at CPD events and developing the research school's offer. This role came about partially due to my asking for further experiences and responsibilities - I knew that this was my career and that I needed to ask for the opportunities I wanted as well as working to prove that I deserved them.

During my time as PLP, one of the schools was left without a headteacher due to staffing changes. My role became focused on working at this school for two days per week, increasing the leadership capacity as the deputy head had taken on the acting head role. The other three days of my week were spent continuing to work at the third school, this time leading in LKS2 – a phase which hadn’t seen as much positive development as UKS2 had. 

It was during this year, just before Christmas, that I was called back from one of the other primary schools as my own school had had 'the call'. After a positive couple of days (which saw me praised by a cricket-loving inspector on my teaching of cricket skills during a lesson I covered for the head) we were given the verdict: 'Good'! I felt that my goal had been achieved and I was ready to move on.

Fourth school

My role as PLP led to me becoming the deputy head of primary in an all-through school. I had already begun developing the curriculum for year 5 – it was a growing school, the oldest children being in year 4 at the time – and I was excited at the prospect of setting up a brand new UKS2 phase. I was also interested in the opportunities that an all-through school brought, particularly in terms of year 6 to 7 transition.

In my second year I began working with secondary subject leaders to develop a year 7 and 8 curriculum that would support transition. This was done by looking at aspects of the primary curriculum and bringing them into the secondary curriculum. As well as rolling out this curriculum, I worked on ensuring that children from our primary, and the other primary schools in the area, had a successful transition, despite the fact that the last two years had been affected by Covid restrictions.

Extra Curricular Activity

Whilst working at my third school I began blogging about teaching and education. I also joined Twitter, first of all to get my writing out there, but also to learn more from others. Being part of a national – and international – learning network has taught me so much and exposed me to so much CPD. I’ve been able to have my writing published in magazines and books as well as various online outlets. Education became an interest of mine, and more than just a job, through doing this  I’ve found that writing about my experiences, and writing about the new things I learn, has really helped me as I reflect, process and clarify my thinking and understanding.

What's Next?

I will be working as deputy head in my current school until December. I am currently in the process of setting up my own educational consultancy and in January I will begin work as an educational consultant, using my knowledge and experience to work with schools on improving their offer, with a particular focus on the curriculum and on teaching and learning. Watch this space as well as the following for more information:

www.twitter.com/aidansevers

www.facebook.com/aidansevers

www.aidansevers.co.uk

www.aidansevers.com

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Forensic Assessment

As teachers we are all too familiar with the concept of assessment and its importance. We know that without assessment there is no teaching, only spewing random content into an abyss. We need to know what the children know before we tell them more things we think they should know.

I don’t need to tell you that it would be pointless trying to teach a child to multiply a 4 digit number using a written method when they don’t even know how to multiply two single digit numbers together. You’d need to know what they can’t do, not only so you don’t try to teach them something that is too difficult, but so that you can teach them exact right thing that they do need to know: in the above scenario, some basic times tables, for example.

Digging

But just knowing that a child needs to know their times tables isn’t enough. Which times tables? Because teaching them 144 different facts (if you’re aiming for all tables up to 12 x 12) is going to take some time. What if they actually already know their 1s, 2s, 5s and 10s? Well then you only have 64 facts left to teach them so you can focus on those. What if they also know the majority of their 3s, 4s and 11s and are really only struggling with the facts that follow the 6x6 mark. By my count that’s 17 times tables facts that they need to know (6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, 6x12, 7x7, 7x8, 7x9,7x12, 8x8, 8x9, 8x12, 9x9, 9x12, 11x11, 11x12, 12x12 e.g. if they know 6x7, they also know 7x6).

Digging Deeper

So which ones do they know of those? How would you find out? The obvious answer is to test them on those tables. What actually happens often though is that we test them on ALL the 6 times tables only to discover what we already knew: that they can do 1x6, 2x6, 3x6, 4x6, 5x6, 10x6 and 11x6. If you know this already, or once you have found it out, then only test them on 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, 6x12. If we want to find out specific information we can design specific assessment opportunities and focus time and energy (ours and the children’s) on exactly what we want to know.

We can then add in all those other more tricky times tables and assess exactly which times tables they don’t yet know. In doing this you may begin to benefit from the testing effect (in a nutshell: repeat exposure to the same questions with feedback means that next time they may remember more correct answers) and you can find out exactly what it is you need to explicitly teach that child.

In doing the above you are on the way to being forensic, digging down to a deeper level and discovering exactly what a child doesn’t know or can’t do so that you can teach them precisely what they need to know.

Digging Even Deeper

What if you’ve done the above and you find that a child just can’t get the hang of 6x9 and 7x8, for example. Why is it that those particular tables present a problem for them? Perhaps it’s just that they are trying to memorise them and they seem to have run out of capacity. Maybe they don’t have a good enough understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes when they multiply two numbers and don’t have any methods or techniques to be able to work it out quickly. Or they might just be getting the two answers mixed up: 54 and 56 are quite close. If you’ve got to this level then you’ve been just as forensic as you can get and you’ve dug right to the bottom and can begin to think about how to address the child’s needs.

The thing is, the thing that makes teaching so hard, is that you have to do the above for every child in every subject that you teach if you are going to be truly successful as a teacher, and if the children are going to be successful as learners. If we don’t dig deep and assess forensically, we are leaving far too much to chance.

That Sounds Like Too Much Work!

But this level of analysis risks jeopardising teacher wellbeing and that is a problem. What good is a teacher who has assessed forensically to within an inch of their lives to the point that they are barely even fit to use the information they’ve gained as they are just too worn out when it comes to planning and delivering solutions?

Deliberate Assessment Opportunities

And this is where the planning of assessment opportunities comes in again. It would be too overwhelming to hope to glean this level of information across the day, across the week. It is almost impossible to hope to discover that, through teaching lessons and being with them in class, one child doesn’t know 6x9, another doesn’t know 8x7 and another doesn’t know 9x12, without specifically asking the questions. The design of mini assessments is essential in finding information out at such a granular level. And please don’t misinterpret me here; by assessment I do not necessarily mean test.

Recording Information

Recording this information is essential too. I don’t know about you, but I know I can’t memorise which times tables each child doesn’t yet know. Again, this is beginning to sound time consuming. Some teachers would spend hours setting up tracking grids and excel files and the like but that isn’t necessary. A simple set of scribbles in a notebook will tell you everything you need to remember. For example, next to each of those tricky times tables put the initials of each child who needs to learn it.

Then, armed with said notebook, you can set about really honing the experiences you give to the children in your class. More often than not there will be a group of children needing the same things – design a quick task that allows them to practice exactly what they need to practice, tweak the task for another group of children (in the times tables example its as simple as changing a few digits).

Not Just Maths

It’s not just maths we can get forensic with – it’s almost anything.

English

Don’t just get them to write and then pick out which things they can and can’t do against a long list of objectives. Decide exactly what you want to find out about, design a task that specifically requires that skill and administer that. You could find out which word classes they don’t know? Or which punctuation marks they can use. Perhaps which poetic techniques they can use.

Science

In science we are more likely to assess within disciplines and within units, but even so we can get more forensic than just a whole unit test. Find out which of the classifications of animal they can name key features for. Ask them which of the states of matter they can draw a diagram of. Find out which of the planets can they name.

Art

If you’re going off the National Curriculum there are fewer objectives to bind you. However, if you’re teaching art well, you will be teaching a whole heap of procedural, substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Your school may have even set its own objectives to assess against. Design tasks that allow you to find out if they know how to use a paint brush in an impressionist style. Ask children to draw a 3D shape using one-point perspective. Provide a task that requires children to draw an anatomically plausible human body.

Not too much, not too little

I suppose I could go on and on. This should never be overdone to the point that every task a child ever completes is specifically designed to discover what a child can or cannot do, however, it should be a regular feature in your classroom. The fact that the tasks are designed to assess specific things means that they don’t have to last longer than 5 or 10 minutes, and then you can get on with revisiting old concepts, teaching new content and providing children with time to practice the things they have learnt.

Neglecting to gather information at this level, or only ever gathering information that barely scratches the surface, will mean that your teaching cannot be precise enough. In order for children to make the most progress possible it is necessary to really dig down deep, to get forensic and to truly find out what exactly they can and can’t do.

Monday, 7 June 2021

Walking in Someone Else's Shoes: Making An Empathy Resolution


Long time readers of my blog will know how much I believe in the power that books have to develop empathy in their readers. A scroll through my 'reading for empathy' tag reveals many posts and book reviews centring around the idea that reading books can change the way we understand the lives of others, and even to share in their experiences to some extent. In fact, so many of the children's books I choose to read are up to the task of developing empathy in their readers that I've even stopped using the tag, instead I've been adding them to my list on bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

As a teacher and a parent, I am particularly interested in how the books we provide for the children in our care can develop them into more empathetic human beings - I've even spoken at a conference about it! So when Empathy Lab and their Empathy Day came into being, I was really excited that this concept was being taken seriously.

This time Empathy Day on the 10th June is going to be bigger and better than ever, with activities for all to get involved in:

  • READ – Use empathy-rich books to deepen your understanding of other people. 
  • CONNECT – Go on an Empathy Walk and connect to the reality of your local community.
  • ACT – Use your increased understanding to help change things. Make an Empathy Resolution.
Rashmi Sirdeshpande, author of books such as How to Change The World, How to be Extraordinary and the excellent forthcoming Good News (Why the World is Not As Bad as You Think), has shared her Empathy Resolution to inspire us all in the run up to Empathy Day, and it is one that we could probably all do with making!


Thinking back on all the books I've read recently, there has definitely been a theme which has inspired my own Empathy Resolution. Books such as Wolfstongue by Sam Thompson, Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold, Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, Show Us Who You Are and A Kind of Spark, both by Elle McNicoll, have made me think about how well we listen to everyone's voices, especially those who are denied a platform or who are misunderstood and marginalised.

My Empathy Resolution is to seek out authentic own voices who share life experiences that are different to my own.

In order to get thinking about your own empathy resolution, Empathy Lab have put together several fantastic resources:
  1. First of all, I'd recommended a peruse of the latest Read for Empathy Collection (https://www.empathylab.uk/RFE) and even a browse of the previous iterations (there are now 4). These lists will give you more than enough ideas for what to read in order to get you started on your Reading for Empathy journey.
  2. Secondly, if you work in a school or early years setting, there are resource packs to download and use Schools and early years settings: free toolkits and wonderfully creative resources are now available. Just send an email headed ‘Toolkit’ to primary@empathylab.uk, secondary@empathylab.uk or earlyyears@empathylab.uk.
  3. Or, if you are a parent, you can download a free, powerful Family Activities Pack with ten empathy boosting activities.
  4. Books aren't the only source of reading material! Empathy Lab have commissioned twelve new empathy-boosting short stories from leading children’s writers! Click here to access the stories from authors such as Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Jenny Pearson and Sue Cheung.
  5. Last but certainly not least, you can tune into Empathy Day Live! on 19th June: https://www.empathylab.uk/empathy-day-live-2021. The day promises a packed line up featuring Cressida Cowell, Rob Biddulph, Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai,  Holly Bourne, Joseph Coelho, Jion Sheibani, Jacqueline Wilson, Patrice Lawrence, Jane Porter, Manjeet Mann, A. M. Dassu, Adisa, Michelle Robinson, Jay Hulme, Kwame Alexander, Eloise Williams, Michael Morpurgo, Nathan Bryon, Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Michael Rosen, David Baddiel, Catherine Johnson and Professor Robin Banerjee!

Saturday, 15 May 2021

From @TES: Is it time for a new name for SEND?

 

https://www.tes.com/news/it-time-new-term-send-special-educational-needs-disabilities-schools

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Children's Books Reading Round-Up: March - April 2021

 A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I've been a bit behind on this one as it has been around since June last year. In fact, I've had a copy sitting on my shelf for a while and my daughter had already read it and enjoyed it. Oh, and everyone else on Twitter had been raving about it and Elle McNicoll only went and won the 2021 Blue Peter award for best story with this amazing little book. It tells the story of Addie, an autistic girl who decides to campaign to have a memorial to women who were tried and executed as witches in her Scottish village. In the so-called witches she finds a kinship - perhaps they were just different and were persecuted for it? With lots of eye-opening moments, Elle McNicoll portrays what life can be like for several different neurodiverse children and young adults (one of Addie's big sisters is autistic too), celebrating what Addie is capable of because of how deeply she cares. On a personal note, I found Addie's parents to be inspirational - something for me to aspire to!

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (Pushkin Press)

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one as on the surface it looks like a story for very young children (KS1) - and it is, but it has depth and beauty that will have something to say to readers of all ages. It reminded me a lot of My Dad's A Birdman by David Almond - which is a very good thing in my books. Olive's mum, an adult reader will surmise from the outset, has passed away, and her dad is grieving. In fact, he is grieving so much that his grief is the size of an elephant - an elephant that Olive sees following her dad around everywhere he goes. Olive decides that she can and must help her dad to become happier again - a huge undertaking for a child - and thankfully her granddad steps in to help her to achieve this, pointing out that she can't manage the task alone. Together, they work to bring some moments of happiness in to her dad's life. No spoilers, but the ending is lovely and very satisfying as an adult who was concerned for Olive's wellbeing throughout the story.

The Elephant by Carnavas can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve (David Fickling Books)

I battled against myself with this one - with a publishing date of September I felt that I shouldn't read it until nearer the time. But, being a massive Philip Reeve fan, I couldn't leave it sitting on the shelf any longer. Was I disappointed? Why would I be? This is Philip Reeve and he is a master storyteller! Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep is very different to his previous series of books (Mortal Engines, Fever Crumb, Railhead etc) as it isn't futuristic/post-apocalyptic sci-fi - this time its folksy fantasy set possibly in Edwardian times, but on a remote island in a fictional archipelago of the United Kingdom. There are too, in this story, some aspects of horror, slightly reminiscent of some of H.P. Lovecraft's creations - not the racist bits but the mysterious submerged kingdoms, the strange beings that frequent the shores of the island, and the eerie sense of disquiet that surrounds so much of the action. Having said that, there is a great warmth to this story which is essentially an exploration of what it means to belong to a family as Reeve weaves his cast of richly developed characters into the plot. Given that Philip said himself that things have changed since the proof copy and that the final thing will include a map and chapter header illustrations, I might just have to read it again when everyone else can get their hands on it too.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark, Illustrated by Anna Höglund, Translated by Julia Marshall (Gecko Press)

Can You Whistle, Johanna? was chosen as a short read whilst in between books, not wanting to commit myself to anything longer, and I'm really glad I did. Apparently, this book is a bit of a hit in Sweden where a televised version is shown every year, and I think I can see why. Despite the deception (a boy is persuaded by his friend to find himself a grandfather at a local retirement home) this is such a heartwarming story of intergenerational friendship. Berra meets Old Ned and, along with Ulf, they become great friends, sharing experiences and memories, and essentially enriching one another's lives. With a refreshing openness and honesty, this book tackles aging and death alongside its message that fun, fulfilling life is for people of all ages but that we must enable one another to achieve it.

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list  on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Animal Farm by George Orwell, Illustrated by Chris Mould (Faber)

Obviously a book that's been around some time, and one I've read, or had read to me, before. This year it was republished by Faber, only this time chock-full of Chris Mould's lively illustrations. Is it a children's book? Apparently so, and of course it can be read entirely without any political interpretations, however, as an adult I certainly enjoyed it on a new level, trying to match events to my scant knowledge of the Russian Revolution but also pondering the UK's current political landscape too. Chris Mould's illustrations certainly bring this much closer to being a book that today's children might pick up and enjoy, particularly those who are familiar with his illustrations of, say, Matt Haig's books or his version of Ted Hughes' The Iron Man. Energetic in style, the images do a brilliant job of mirroring the descent of the farm's utopian veneer, with Mould particularly nailing the facial expressions and body language of the animal subjects. I'm really glad I re-read this this year, and I'm really thankful for the new version - Chris really makes this new version a visual treat. 

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to read this one before publishing this blog post - my reading of late has been taken up more with books about how to better parent an autistic child. However, a lovely rainy Saturday during which my children were miraculously entertained by magnetic balls and screens meant that I got the chance to read the second half of this in one go. And I have to say I was absolutely bowled over by this book. Cora, the main character, is autistic, and this fact is absolutely integral to the plot, this is not just a book about an autistic person. It's actually a sophisticated sci-fi, unnervingly oh-so-slightly dystopian story during which the reader will gain a whole load of insight into what being neurodiverse might be like. Not only is Cora autistic, but Adrien, her best friend, has ADHD. Show Us Who You Are is almost completely different to A Kind Of Spark (although there are some similarities, the main one being the MC's desire and ability to stand up for what is right), marking Elle McNicoll out as a superbly skilled writer, and if she wasn't already, one to watch as she continues to write and publish. In this book she achieves deeper depths and higher heights, smashing the mould of the growing trend for diverse, representative books which focus mostly on highlighting the plight of a marginalised group. Here we have a book that truly shows that diverse characters can and should be seen in any role in any genre and that actually the story is all the better for it. I actually can't praise this book enough.

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith, illustrated by Chris King (Barrington Stoke)

Pete, Krish and Nancy appear once more in another short but action-packed adventure from Dan Smith. This was another book I picked up knowing I had I would be able to take in the whole story in a short time. School residential stories have an evergreen appeal and they are ripe for a bit of spookiness. Very quickly Dan Smith evokes the necessary aura for a midnight exploration to go badly wrong. With nods this time to comic book capers (I'm thinking Captain America and The Incredible Hulk), The Beast of Harwood Forest taps into some WW2 vibes whilst ensuring that those Stranger Things vibes continue to resonate throughout. Without wanting to give too much away, this high interest/low level reader has a super-satisfying ending - it really is a marvel that a story can be told so well over so few pages. Helping with this are Chris King’s perfect illustrations which, as you can see from the cover, are spot on for the comic book vibes. Inside the pictures are greyscale and Chris works with tone so well that they suit the spooky content to a tee - I am so glad the publishers choose to have these books illustrated. Barrington Stoke books are a must-have for every library, and its books like these that showcase perfectly what they set out to achieve (which you can read more about here).

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith can be found on my Children's Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

The True Purpose of Year 6

What is the true purpose of year 6?

Whilst writing a blog post about how the true purpose of year 6 isn't preparing for year 7, I got to asking the the above question.

This year and last, due to Covid, year 6 children and teachers have had what has historically dominated their year taken from them: the year 6 SATs. Except that's not what they're called, is it? They're actually KS2 tests which take place in year 6 and therefore their tyranny over the final year of primary school is unjust.

And so, with no further discussion, we will write off preparing for and conducting SATs as being the true purpose of year 6.

If you've read my previous blog posts regarding transition to secondary school you'll also know that I also reject the notion of year 6's true purpose being a year of preparation for year 7.

So, if it isn't about SATs and it isn't about transition, what is the true purpose of year 6? Here are just a few thoughts to answer the question:

  1. Teaching new content - first and foremost let's not forget that year 6 has its own curriculum, and it isn't exactly light on content. The main focus of year 6 should be ensuring that their learning journey continues. The fact that there are no SATs this academic year means that this learning can be focused on the curriculum rather than the test content, and should ensure that the learning continues right to the end of the year and that there is no post-SATs slump.
  2. Consolidating previous content - and before new content can be taught, the reality for year 6 teachers is that previous content must be recapped, retaught and in some cases taught for the first time before they can teach the year 6 curriculum. Much of this content will be essential as they move forward beyond year 6 so it is an important part of the year.
  3. Closure - for children in primary schools (as opposed to middle or all-through schools) year 6 is their last year of a 6-8 year journey, often completed all within the same school. Year 6 is a good year for rounding off the primary experience on a high, not only consolidating curriculum content but some of the other 'soft' skills that they have been developing during their time in primary. It's a time when some children say goodbye to childhood friends as they go their separate ways and so some relationships need that closure too.
  4. Reaching the top - there is something about being the oldest in the school that is almost a rite of passage. And with great power comes great responsibility - children who have been part of school life for several years have an important role to play. Year 6 children of great use when it comes to showing people round, tidying away the nursery toys and being playground buddies to younger children, and this responsibility is good for them too, developing them into more than just arithmetic and grammar machines and providing them with some real life skills.
  5. Maturity - year 6 is a natural time for children to navigate their changing bodies, emotions and relationships whilst in a more familiar, safe setting. It's also a great time for children to be treated as those who are more mature - familiar adults who have seen them grow up are often able to have enhanced relationships with these children as they see them as who they really are: vastly developed human beings, as compared to how they were back in the early years.
  6. Being the best - this is similar to the last two points, but brings in the idea of independence and autonomy as well. As mentioned in point 2, children have already learned a lot during their time at primary school and year 6 is a great opportunity to use and apply all that they have learned, having the responsibility released to them as much as is possible. Year 6 is a great time for children to feel like they can give their all to every project, every piece of work and every opportunity - it is this spirit of independence that will set them in such good stead for secondary school (although they will need to learn to transfer this independence to other areas of school life once in year 7).
Finally, I am most interested in your views on the true purpose of year 6 - I would love to add to this blog post with ideas from others because I am certain there are more aspects of year 6 which could be considered as part of the year group's true purpose.

Put a comment below or send me a tweet on Twitter and I'll add some ideas below!

From @HWRK_Magazine: What Should I Do If a Child Has Finished Their Work?


https://hwrkmagazine.co.uk/archives/4182

A common question, but countless potential solutions. I explore how to use time effectively when a student has finished their work earlier than anticipated.

You all recognise the scene: a line of children stretching from your desk to the classroom door and then doubling back on itself, snaking its way between desks and chairs, children waiting patiently (alright, not always patiently) to have their work seen and to receive their next instruction. To be honest, many of you will have solved the problem of the eternal queue, but the question remains:

What should I do if a child has finished their work?

Read on here: https://hwrkmagazine.co.uk/archives/4182

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

True Transition Begins in September

Life begins at 40 (apparently) and transition begins in September.

In our first 40 years, we don't think to ourselves that we are preparing for the next 40 years. We get on with life and live in the moment (relatively speaking). This living, in most cases, does prepare us for the next years of life (most of us do plan ahead), however the sole purpose of the 40th year is not to ready oneself for the 41st year (although I'm sure there is some mental preparation to do in order to embrace 40). You don't become 40 until you complete your 40th year - I'm not sure anyone spends 39 pretending they are 40.

The above should be true for transition too.

Primary school, done right, should prepare children for secondary school, however it is not the sole purpose. Year 6 might require some mental adjustments in order to be ready for the concept of being in year 7 but it shouldn't be the year where all the actual changes take place. Year 6 should not be year 7 a year early - year 6 has its own purpose too (not SATs and perhaps the true purpose of year 6 is another blog post for another time).

As I've hinted at above, there are aspects of transition that can take place prior to the starting date - the day they walk through the door of their secondary school - and there is quite a lot of information out there already to help year 6 teachers and parents with this (see Emily Weston's blog post, Transition Talks magazine and Liz Stevenson's blog for good examples). After all, it is important that our year 6 children are mentally ready - optimistic, resilient, excited, ready for a challenge - before they arrive at 'big school'.

However, if you're with me so far, we surely must agree that actually the greatest part of transition work must happen once those year 7s are through our doors at the beginning of September (or the end of August for the keen ones).

When I asked both primary and secondary staff on Twitter What would you expect a new y7 child to be able to do independently when they arrive? the answers were many and various:

However, many answers from secondary staff appeared to me to be focused on the expectation that primary children should arrive knowing how to do some very secondary-specific things. Here are some examples:

  • Read and understand a timetable
  • Pack the correct books and equipment for each day
  • Transition between lessons in different rooms in different parts of the school 
  • Have the habit of checking the time themselves and being on time
  • Understanding how to access lunchtime arrangements
  • To know when and when not to ask for help
  • To know when and when not to ask for permission (e.g. to get out of their seat, to take off items of clothing, to go to the toilet)
  • Be used to a different number of break times and lessons
These expectations, focusing on children's ability to organise and manage the school day despite it being very different to what they are used to, were the focus of many answers. Such expectations will vary from school to school and will even vary from teacher to teacher within each secondary school -children go from learning one school's expectations, and one teacher's expectations, to having to learn a new school's expectations plus 15 different teachers' expectations of the above (even where schools have the most consistent approach to routines, systems and expectations there are bound to be personal differences - see some of the other answers in the Twitter thread for examples of this).

Many such expectations were mentioned seemingly as something which could be talked about at primary school during year 6 so that in year 7 they know exactly what to do.

The problems with this are several-fold:

  • A conversation, no matter how many times it is had, will never trump experience. The only real experience children will get of the above is once they arrive in year 7.
  • Year 6 teachers are often dealing with children heading off to multiple secondary schools - as a result they can only really speak generically about what their class might be facing come September. 
  • Often, or nearly always as is probably the case, year 6 teachers will not have specific knowledge of the routines, systems and expectations of even just one secondary school.
  • Conversations happen at a minimum 5/6 weeks prior to the children actually setting foot in their secondary school - there is a lot of time to forget during that time, especially since the information is highly theoretical and is attached to no true experience.

Of course, there is more that primary schools could do, beyond a conversation. For example:

  • Transition days provide a chance for children to experience a real day in a secondary school, however on those days very few of the above expectations are in place: they don't have to pack a bag full of particular books, or bring the right equipment, or wear the right uniform, or find their way around the school using a timetable and a map. Perhaps transition days could expect more of the above, however doing that may serve to deep anxieties around starting secondary schools rather than put minds at ease - which I do believe should be one of the main purposes of a transition day in the summer term of year 6.
  • The current trend seems to be that primary schools replicate as much of secondary school as possible during year 6: different teachers, different rooms, timetables, a change in pedagogy or classroom environment. However, with all the best will in the world there are many practical limitations to these efforts (building size, staffing etc) and the net result in reality is still this: they have not yet set foot in a secondary school and have not yet had to do full days, full weeks and full terms in what, to begin with, is an unfamiliar environment with potentially alien routines, systems and expectations. In a primary where children are given something intending to represent a year 7 experience, there are still many aspects of primary life that will not replicate secondary life completely (lunchtimes for example). Besides, I would still argue that this approach is the wrong way round, hence my previous blog post and the title and content of this one.
  • Covid seems to have brought about the production of video material which in some ways does away with the aforementioned issues of parents and year 6 teachers not knowing enough about the particular expectations of each secondary school. Video content available online means that children and parents can learn more about secondary life from the comfort of their own homes. This is a positive move, however, as before, does not replicate fully the lived experience that can only be gained by starting secondary school for real.

The fact is that whilst primary schools can go some way to help year 6 children to be secondary-ready, the real bulk of the transition work needs to be done by secondary schools once the children are in year 7. 

September is the time to introduce the new expectations, systems and routines and the key is to be supportive in how they are introduced, following a gradual release of responsibility model. Expecting the finished article in week 1 of year 7 is unrealistic, and kindness and empathy will be required in how new year 7 children become familiar with the new expectations, systems and routines.

And it won't just be a matter of weeks, either. In order to truly embed much of this new secondary-specific practice, children will need months to acclimatise. As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, schools must be aware of the cognitive load that all the newness will put on the brains of these 11- or just-12-year-olds. I know that even as an adult starting a new job in a new school it has taken me months - terms, even - to get to grips with new expectations, systems and routines, even as a deputy head. In fact, each different part of the year brings slight changes to some of the routines and throughout the year there can be constant subtle changes to get used to.

Those of us who work in secondary schools really need to see year 7 as an entire transition year, and we must treat the children with the necessary care and understanding as they learn the ropes. And, as I've also written before, if the expectations are lowered in terms of such practicalities, there is more chance that expectations can be raised when it comes to the all-important curriculum learning that needs to happen in year 7. Plus, if teachers are less stressed out about whether or not a child has read a timetable correctly, packed the right books or tied their tie correctly because they understand that embedding these things will take time, they will have a happier time of it too - no more annoying year 7s.

More from my blog on transition:

Making Secondary Schools Primary-Ready

Three Characteristics of a Supportive KS3 Curriculum

Working Towards a Middle Phase in an All-Through Academy: Potential Logistical Changes for Years 7 and 8

Click the image below to book free tickets for the TransitionEd conference, which I will be speaking at alongside many other wonderful people:


Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Friday, 2 April 2021

Middle Grade Reading Round-Up: February - March 2021

Murder on the Safari Star (Adventures on Trains #3) by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, Illustrations by Ellie Paganelli (Pan Macmillan)

The third in the series, and I was ready for everything this one had to give. Hal and Uncle Nat once again meet a cast of colourful characters (some of whom you might feel like you know already) in this (dare I say it) enjoyable whodunnit for children. I think it is a fairly brave move to have a murder in a children's book, and the events of the story should rightly raise some discussion points. The book, although an intriguing mystery in an exciting setting (complete with all the animals you'd want from a safari through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia), is a good starting point for discussing good and bad, right and wrong as well as how different people might respond to death. Leonard and Sedgman have really nailed the format in a child-friendly form and those who've kept up with the series will be beginning to be adept at picking up on the clues needed to be sleuthing as they read.

'Murder on the Safari Star' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Space Oddity by Christopher Edge, Illustrations by Ben Mantle (Chicken House)

A book about life and the things that matter, all rolled up in a story about a boy who discovers he is part-alien. The last book I read by Edge was The Longest Night of Charlie Noon which I felt was aimed at a slightly older age group than Space Oddity - this new one could easily be managed by 8 or 9-year-olds. Apart from being a twist on the classic abducted-by-aliens narrative from the old days of Sci-fi this book is actually a sweet ode to human creativity. Whilst acknowledging that people have done a lot of damage to our planet, it also celebrates the beautiful things that we have created. Of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' Jake's alien dad says: "...songs... tell us what it means to be alive. This was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard. And a human being had made it. I thought if they were capable of this, then maybe they weren't as primitive as we though they were." Every child who has ever felt embarrassment at how weird their parents can be will relate to this brilliantly-told story.

'Space Oddity' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Melt by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)

Two stories intertwine in the cold, unforgiving Arctic as a subtle message about climate change and human irresponsibility is passed on to the next generation. Bea is a city kid, tired of moving around with her dad's job and suffering bullying at yet another new school. Yutu lives in a remote Arctic village with his grandmother who holds to a simple, traditional way of life. After Yutu decides to try and prove himself as a hunter out on the tundra, and as Bea crash-lands a plane as she flees her father's attackers, they are brought together in the freezing environment and theirs becomes a race for survival. Those who have read and loved Bren MacDibble's books, or Nicola Penfold's 'Where The World Turns Wild' will love this, as will those who have read 'Viper's Daughter' by Michelle Paver ('Melt' is a like a modern-day version). In the mold of a classic adventure story, complete with bad guys but with a truth that must be uncovered rather than a treasure to be discovered, 'Melt' is a testament to friendship, determination and all-important know-how.

'Melt' will be published on 29th April 2021 and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

City of Rust by Gemma Fowler (Chicken House)

Sci-fi again, but set in what I assume to be a post-apocalyptic world, ruined by human wastefulness. So far have humans gone with their refusal to reduce, reuse and recyle, that they have taken to flinging their trash into space. However, the poor of the earth are resourceful, and there's plenty they can do with the rubbish, so long as the Junkers can get it down to them. We meet Railey and Atti, her bio-robotic gecko in Boxville, where they are star drone racers. What they don't know is that they have been training for years - training to save the world from the revenge of those who hate the way of life in the Glass City. Fowler's creations are a treat for the imagination and although Karl James Mountford's cover is absolutely stunning I'd also love to see some artistic representations of the world we are shown in 'City of Rust'. In an original adventure, perfect for fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines and Railhead books, Gemma Fowler spins a tale of loyalty, ingenuity and derring-do whilst making an important statement about the potential consequences of materialism.

'City of Rust' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson (Cranachan Publishing)

Historical fiction - probably my favourite genre. Even more so when it is medieval historical fiction. This, set in Norway, the Hebrides and the Orkney Islands in the 12th century, is a Norse tale after Henry Treece's Viking books for children. 'The Chessmen Thief', an imagined origin story for the famous Lewis Chessmen, paints much of the culture in a positive light, including the influence of Christianity. Henderson paints a vivid picture of life for slave boy Kylan as he pines for his mother whilst plotting and scheming to make his escape. The descriptions of people, place and actions great and small are so evocative of times gone by and it is easy to feel that one is there, among the people, able to smell the sea air and feel the excitement brought about by the creation of these innovative and exquisite pieces of craftsmanship. This book is a fantastic addition to the growing number of titles focused on the Viking age, this one made more rare by not focusing on activity post-1066.

'The Chessmen Thief' will be published on 29th April 2021 and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke by Kirsty Applebaum (Nosy Crow)

If M. Night Shyamalan wrote middle grade fiction, then he'd write something like 'The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke'. Kirsty Applebaum has already mastered the art of making a reader feel unsettled for the whole duration of a book, and in this one she does it again. Bringing folk tale aesthetics to the modern world, Applebaum spins a supernatural story of life and death. What makes this stand out from some other children's books that might be categorised similarly, is that very little suspension of disbelief is necessary: only does the reader need to allow themselves to accept that Lifelings, people who can prevent others from dying by giving up some of their own life, are indeed real. This brilliantly-spun yarn provokes many moral questions and is a great device to really get children thinking about self-sacrifice and serving others. And once they've read it, get them to think about how clever the title is.

'The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke' will be published on 6th May 2021

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Three Characteristics of a Supportive KS3 Curriculum

The curriculum in key stage three can be one of the aspects of the year 7 experience which most supports the transition from KS2 to KS3. In my all-through academy, the redevelopment of year 7 and 8 in order to better support transition has begun with a revamp of the curriculum. Here are some of the principles we considered as we carried out this work:

A Key Stage 3 Curriculum

  • Should be aspirational and supported in this by logistics
  • Should not focus solely on the learning of facts, but also on the organisation, use and application of facts
  • Provides another opportunity to extend aspects of the primary experience

Should be aspirational and supported in this by logistics

Year 6 children, despite being like rabbits caught in the headlights at times, are not devoid of knowledge, skills or ability. Year 7 is not their first educational experience and therefore it figures that they know stuff and can do stuff already. Sure, the primary and secondary curriculum don’t really join up that well – as acknowledged by its creators – but that’s not really the children’s fault, is it? It is the job of primary and secondary schools to work together to ensure this gap is bridged.

Part of what inhibits this gap being bridged is the fact that Year 6 staff have a dual goal to work towards with their children: helping the children to become secondary-ready and helping them to be SATS-ready. Although I suggest that secondary schools should be more primary-ready (I like that I’ve heard of a school who call their year 7s ‘year 6.5’ to begin with), I do concede that primary schools can be doing things to help year 6 children to be secondary-ready, but SATS get in the way.

Another inhibition in this is a lack of knowledge from both primary and secondary of each other’s curriculum. To this there are two strands: one strand is that teachers are unlikely to have an in-depth understanding of the National Curriculum for anything other than the phase they teach in and the other strand, which is much more understandable, is that teachers are unlikely to have any knowledge of the specifics that are taught in either the secondary schools they feed or the primary feeder schools. Obviously, this is where much work needs to be done both on national and local levels with more training and collaboration clear necessities.

However, even if this work is non-existent or in its infancy, it is possible to aim high with the secondary curriculum. It is most likely that a great many year 7 children have been given the chance to think deeply about a wide variety of matters, that they have been exposed to some high level material in several subjects and have had high expectations placed upon them in varying social and academic situations. Whilst this might not be true for all, it will be for some: a knowledge of feeder schools, including how and what they teach, and to what standard, would enhance the transition for children with regards to what their prior knowledge and skills might be like.

Whilst it is often the case that content needs to be revisited, and in some cases taught for what appears to be the first time, it is worth considering how the brand new secondary school experience might be impeding a year 7 child’s ability to recall prior learning. In stressful situations even the greatest minds struggle to remember things that ordinarily, in less pressured times, they would be able to recall with ease. When year 7s come to a brand new building (a huge one at that), with new peers (and sometimes a lack of old peers), new adults, new rules, an increased expectation of independence in certain matters (getting to school, getting to lessons, following a timetable, bringing correct equipment) and so on – all that stuff that makes secondary so daunting for some year 6/7 children – it might just be that their ability to both recall previous learning and undertake new learning is affected adversely. The cognitive load of starting secondary school is potentially huge.

If this is the case, then surely it would help new children if logistics were changed to allow for the most important thing to take place: learning. Secondary schools might see children settling in better during year 7 if there wasn’t such a wholesale change to the way they do school. Remove particular expectations (don’t lower expectations) regarding some of the above ‘newness’ and use the mental capital gained to focus on learning.

By doing this, year 7 children will be able to engage in debates about the main protagonist in a novel. They will be able to carry out complex calculations. They will grasp new scientific concepts. They will learn new geographical terms. They will be able to use their prior knowledge of historical periods when learning about new ones. They will be able to organise and play team sports. If they aren’t worrying about which lesson is next, what the teacher will say when they find out they’ve forgotten their protractor and so on, they will be able to concentrate on their learning better. If a school is serious about removing these kinds of barriers, they will have to assess and recognise the potential obstacles that are particular to their school and their students.

Should not focus solely on the learning of facts, but also on the organisation, use and application of facts

In the majority of secondary schools, children come from many primary feeders and therefore come with a wide variety of differing curriculum experiences. Some will have learnt about the Tudors, some won’t – the primary National Curriculum is open enough to allow this to happen. Some will have covered aspects of the KS3 curriculum already, and some won’t. This is a source of concern for secondary teachers, one which can often lead to the easier route of planning with the assumption that children haven’t had the necessary prior learning.

This approach certainly means that a teacher won’t be disappointed if children don’t already know something, however it means that some children can become demotivated. Children have an understandable aversion to feeling like their current knowledge and skills are being overlooked; most children like to be challenged and to feel like they are learning something new, or doing something new with what they have already learned. Just as we adults hate sitting through a training session about something we can already do, children can react negatively to being taught the same things over again.

So a curriculum for year 7 needs to be developed with three things in mind:

  1. Stress brought about by great change may be masking the fact that they do actually have the necessary prior knowledge.
  2. Children from different primary schools will have learnt different things
  3. Not all children have the same level of prior attainment, even those coming from the same primary school

What should this curriculum focus on? Of course it should focus on the delivery of knowledge and skills, the balance between the two will be subject-dependent. However, in order to cater to the above three considerations, it should do more than that. It should also focus on the organisation, use and application of facts.

If a curriculum goes beyond the learning of facts, then it can better cater for the variety in prior learning. Whilst some children in a class might need to major on just learning the facts because they are entirely new to them, the children who already know the material from primary school can get on with organising, using and applying the facts. Without going into too much detail (because there is probably a book’s-worth of stuff to say about all that that might encompass), this organising, using and applying boils down to doing something with what they know beyond writing it in their book and storing it in their minds ready to be recalled at a later date.

Framing a unit of work or even a single session with a question that must be answered is a quick way of doing the above. Having a concept-based unit of work where children must think about how particular pieces of knowledge are linked to a given concept could provide opportunities for children to organise facts. Designing units of work that encourage children to draw together knowledge from multiple disciplines provides the scope for children to build schema. Planning sessions and units which require children to make links between the knowledge they have learnt and current events, their own experiences and things that matter to them can provide scope for learning beyond fact retention. Creating a logical sequence of units where children are expected to make explicit connections between prior learning and current learning allows children to do more than just learn the current set of facts or practice the currently taught skills.

The above approach does mean that in any one classroom the depth at which children are accessing the material may differ from child to child, however it does allow for more children to be receiving the level of challenge that they need. Planning a sequence that takes children from learning facts and then on to organising, using and applying them doesn’t have to be an onerous task although it does mean that a traditional three-part-lesson might not always be the order of the day and that groups of children will have varying starting points in each lesson.

It is at this point that I yet again acknowledge that I really need to blog about the development of our own KS3 curriculum!

Provides another opportunity to extend aspects of the primary experience

This point is entirely contextual – specifically based on the experience that year 7s have had in their primary school. When considering how, alongside more primary-like logistics and expectations, a secondary curriculum might give KS3 children a smoother transition from primary learning to secondary learning, it will be necessary to survey feeder schools to gather more information on their curricula.

In our all-through academy the primary curriculum is cross-curricular, particularly in the arts (including English) and the humanities – maths and Science (for the most part) are taught discretely. We have been developing a year 7 and 8 curriculum which bears more resemblance to this approach than it does to a more typical secondary curriculum where subjects are taught separately (again, more of this to come in a future blog post).

The above brief description of our KS3 curriculum may be totally irrelevant to some secondary schools though, where their feeder primary schools teach each subject discretely with no cross-curricular links. Many secondaries will be receiving children who have varied experiences of how their primary curriculum was set up. Moving to a cross-curricular curriculum in KS3 where this is the case may not extend the primary experience at all.

However, at primary school, the majority of lessons in the majority of schools are taught by the same teacher who knows the whole curriculum for the year (something which will probably never be replicated in secondary). Having a KS3 curriculum with deliberate, in-built explicit links would allow multiple teachers to be more aware of the broader picture of everything that the children were learning, meaning that they had a curriculum overview more akin to that of a single primary teacher. Having several teachers of different subjects who know about the whole curriculum is potentially a better next step for year 7 children than having several teachers, none of whom know much about what they will be taught in all their other lessons.

And curriculum is only one step away from pedagogy. It’s difficult to think of one without the other, especially for teachers who have to take the school’s curriculum and work out how it should be taught. Secondary schools could consider their KS3 pedagogy, adapting it to both reflect the primary experience and to prepare for the KS4/5/HE/FE experience: it doesn’t have to just be one or the other, it could form a distinctly different bridge between the two.

Again, context is important – different primaries have different pedagogy and there is no particular way that all year 6 children will have been taught. However, there could be more digging to do here – if primary schools have taken on the whole concept of making children secondary-ready, it is likely that children in upper key stage 2 have already been weaned off things like outdoor learning and more playful experiences. Just because this has already happened, doesn’t necessarily mean that those ways of teaching shouldn’t be present in secondary schools. If secondary schools were willing to employ such pedagogies for their younger pupils, it might then impact back on the pressure that primaries feel to conform to such ways of teaching.

It would seem that a primary lesson will often look quite different to a secondary lesson. There isn’t necessarily any right or wrong in what might be seen as a stereotypical lesson in either phase – each phase could learn things from the other, I’m sure. Some cross-phase observation and conversations between teachers would help to develop ways which KS3 teachers might teach to ensure that their teaching is age-appropriate and not just an attempt to teach 11, 12, 13 year olds in the same way one might teach an older teen.

Whether it is in its design or delivery, the KS3 curriculum can and should support the transition from year 7 to year 8.

Further reading from my blog:

Making Secondary Schools Primary-Ready

Working Towards a Middle Phase in an All-Through Academy: Potential Logistical Changes for Years 7 and 8

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Making Secondary Schools Primary-Ready

We talk a lot of making sure that year 6 children are ‘secondary-ready’. But what if we’ve got that all wrong, or at least partly wrong? What if we actually need to make secondary schools ‘primary-child-ready’?

As a primary-trained teacher who has spent the majority of my career working with UKS2 children, I understand why this is the focus: there is nothing year 6 teachers can do to change the secondary experience – all they can do is change the year 6 children.

In my current role as primary deputy head in an all-through school I have had the privilege of being able to go beyond that, though. I have been able to work with my secondary-based colleagues to work on how we can make our secondary provision more ready for children who are only 5 weeks older than they were when they left primary school.

Starting back at the end of August, it is quite easy to acknowledge, despite the best efforts of primary teachers (in over 30 feeder schools, in our case), that these year 6 children, having been used to the primary experience for the entirety of their time in education, cannot be completely ready for the huge sea change that is secondary school.

Sure, their teachers may have explained timetables, room changes, having their own equipment, typical sanctions, the fact that the building is bigger, lunchtimes and all the increase in independence that is required to tackle all these things, and they may have gone so far as to reflect some of these aspects in their own practice, but without experiencing these things day in day out, inside a secondary school, primary children will not be fully secondary-ready.

They may be emotionally and mentally ready – and this is the true work of the primary school in making children secondary-ready – but even the most well-prepared, excited, practically-minded, optimistic, confident 11-year-old can be flummoxed by which room they’re in next, where that room even is, who is teaching them, which equipment they need, and where on earth the toilets are en route to their next lesson. They may have moved up with a whole gang of their friends and feel super-secure in their relationships, but throw a load of new children into the mix – including great hulking year 11s, and that’s enough to throw anyone, even the most confident, friendly adult who walks into a brand new social situation can struggle.

But it isn’t just primary schools who perpetuate the idea that the only thing we can do to ensure a smooth transition to secondary is make children secondary-ready. It is secondary schools too. And, I really do hesitate to say this as it is very easy to point the finger from the other side. As already mentioned, primary teachers can do very little to alter the secondary experience for year 7 children, but secondary schools have all the power to do so.

With a little thought, some willingness to change the status quo, and probably some collaborative working between primary and secondary staff, secondary schools could really make all the difference. No longer would they have to rely on a plethora of primary teachers to make a whole cohort of year 7 children secondary-ready. If year 7, and perhaps even beyond, was viewed as a time to gradually immerse children (for they are still children) into the ways of secondary school, then that initial culture shock of moving from primary to secondary could be eradicated.

There are many ways this could take form, but there is a general principle to be adhered to, one that many of us a familiar with with regards to learning: reduce the cognitive load.

Coming to secondary school for the first time is overwhelming – overfacing as we say here in Yorkshire. It is a lot of newness. If the number of new aspects of school life are reduced, and children are allowed to focus on acclimatising to a limited number of changes, then they are more likely to feel less overwhelmed and more capable of success in particular aspects of school life.

Then, once certain aspects of school life have become more automatic and embedded, additional changes can be slowly introduced over time so as to build up to a full complement of the necessary aspects of secondary school.

The question for schools is then: which aspects of secondary school life do we want to help acclimatise year 7 children to first?

Each school will probably have a slightly different answer to that question depending on their context, although there are probably common answers: learning, routines for learning, relationships might be some of those common answers.

At our academy we have decided that we want to build relationships and ensure that learning is prioritised, and, as such our first project was to develop a new KS3 curriculum which in some ways reflects the style of curriculum year 7 and 8 children will have been used to at primary school (I intend to blog about this in the future). We have also planned to make lots of logistical changes which support these aims, which I’ve outlined in another blog post.

The changes that we have made, and plan to make, are consistent with the above concept of reducing the cognitive load that comes from making the leap into secondary school. It won’t be the case that the whole of their secondary experience will be like that of their year 7 and 8 experience, but that things will change more gradually as they get older, helping them to become secondary-ready over a longer period of time and accepting that much of secondary-readiness can be developed once they are actually at secondary school. Our approach accepts that year 7 doesn’t have to be a mini-year 11, but that it can be just a few small steps on from year 6, which in terms of child development, it is.

The point of this blog post is not to say this is how to do it, but to say that things could be different, and that if they were, children might transition into secondary school better and in the long term their secondary career could be improved as a result of a more supportive formative experience.

I think I would go so far as to say that things should be different, too: that transition should involve more than a project a few weeks before and after the summer holidays; more than an open evening and a transition day; more than some data being handed from one school to another. It will take a lot of time and effort but if it means that year 7 children get a better deal, and that it has a long-lasting effect on their time at secondary school, I think it is worth it.

Further reading: 

True Transition Begins in September

Three Characteristics of a Supportive KS3 Curriculum