Primary vs Secondary: The Not So Seamless Transition?


April 14, 2015 by dragonflytraining

Author: @SteveChapmanDFT

(Updated Version)

Over my years in education, I’ve been asked about all the different experiences I have had and the variations I have seen. I’ve taught both here in the UK and abroad; I’ve taught in the state system and also in the independent system. However, the one area I feel has the biggest discrepancy between two systems and arouses the strongest emotions is the difference between primary and secondary teaching. I work in both and this has led to utter incredulity among staff in both sectors.

Having begun my career as a secondary history teacher, I was a bit nervous when starting my first primary lesson. However, within seconds two things became immediately obvious. Firstly, the enthusiasm of the pupils was purely infectious and secondly, it was teaching – the same as what I was completely accustom to, the only difference being that the students were younger.

Over the years I came to be involved with both systems and now I actually teach a lot more primary than secondary. However, this has resulted in me sometimes being looked at as if I’m from another planet.

“How can you bear it having to wipe all those noses?” I was recently asked by one secondary teacher. “All they care about is what colour pen to write in,” added another. I tried to tell them that I had never wiped a kid’s nose at school and that many of my primary pupils were used to working on iPads. I did add, however, that being slightly larger than the average bear, I did find it hard to sit in the primary school chairs!

“Isn’t it scary with all those massive teenage boys hulking around the place?”, and: “Don’t you get fed up with all that monosyllabic grunting?” I was asked by some primary teachers. Well, the obvious answer was “yes” but I tried to reassure them that not all teenagers were that bad.

The simple fact is that despite the massive improvements made in transition these days compared to years ago, most teachers don’t seem to mix between the two systems and they certainly don’t do much teaching in the other sector. This seems such a shame for many reasons; the most important one being an understanding, or lack of, between the two systems.

It gives secondary teachers a much better understanding of who their pupils are and where they have come from when they teach in primary schools. I also believe it to be essential for primary teachers (especially for those in KS2) to teach at GCSE for at least a temporary period in order to see the goals that pupils ultimately shoot the educational ball into.

I recently took my class from Evenlode Primary, a feeder of the nearby secondary, Stanwell School in an attempt to lead the way in demonstrating how the two can work together. The session, which was documented by ITV News Wales, featured Year 5 pupils paired with Year 8 pupils from the other school in order to work together on a story-writing project. The unique collaboration saw primary pupils write the story and secondary pupils oversee, monitor and correct their partner’s work. They also used an online platform called Wikispaces (password protected) to demonstrate progress and for peer-to-peer assessment which is visible to friends, parents and schools around the World.

Pictures courtesy of ITV News Cymru/Wales

Wiki Literacy Project

It was truly fascinating to see each set of pupils apply their separate skill sets to the project for a common goal. Secondary pupils improved their communication, appraisal and literacy skills while the primary children learnt the standard expected in secondary education and were expertly guided to try and achieve that standard. The primary children gained a real sense of where they were heading in education, and I can’t help but feel that their confidence was boosted in this way. The sudden shock of turning up at ‘big school’ will not be an emotion these children will now feel, and that is something which will ease the transition period comprehensively.

Equally, for teachers running this sort of session, there is the real opportunity to see exactly what the standards of pupils from the other system are, and an overall picture will become clear.

At the very least, I believe teachers should be allocated time to sit in and experience the teaching of the other system. What a real understanding from both sets of teachers would set pupils up for is a swift transition with very little time wasted on becoming accustomed to new systems and strategies of teaching. Ultimately, I believe something as basic as this could really prove so beneficial to pupils of both systems and beyond.

Lastly, as the French would say: “C’est tout comprende C’est tout pardonait”, or : “To understand is to forgive.” And whilst I’m not sure we necessarily need to forgive each, I think we certainly do need to understand each other a bit better.

8 thoughts on “Primary vs Secondary: The Not So Seamless Transition?

  1. 3arn0wl says:

    I have similar teaching experience to you, and though I’ve not taught quite so much Primary, I have international, maintained and independent experience, and I completely agree with you.

    One of the differences between independent and international schools and the state sector is that often they have much greater integration of the phases, albeit in a well-deliniated way. I wonder if this is an advantage: staff get to know the students and their families better; students know the school routines, etc.

    When I was in primary school, the only time we went up to “big school” was to use their pool. It seems to me though that if phases shared all their resources more, the system would be both stronger and more diverse.

    • Thanks for your reply.

      Cannot agree with more than integration being the key and something that perhaps the state sector has missed a trick on.

      Recent developments in UK have suggested a move towards collaboration rather than competition so this may ensure teachers from primary’s and secondary’s mix.

      However, I think there may always be a stigma there which will ultimately devalue collaboration. The independent system with its 5-18 year olds schools suffer very little from transition periods as in effect, there’s no transition. Teaching styles, curriculum, surroundings, peers etc remain similar throughout.

      Should we look towards moving to that model or as you say in your blog ‘Is it a good thing to suddenly mix with loads of new people?’

      Who knows? Perhaps Mr.Gove…

      • 3arn0wl says:

        I guess the stigma emanates from the Secondary specialists looking down on the practice of generalists.

        I taught the American system for a couple of years. I must admit I was appalled at the low level of achievement during the “Middle School” Grade 6 (Year 7) to 8 years: the Homeroom swapped 2 teachers, one who covered English and Social Studies and the other who oversaw Math (singular) and Science. It occurred to me that that was the wrong way round: if you’ve got subject specialists, use them lower down. Surely they can be nothing but a strength in KS2 environment!

      • And there lies the problem, not enough primary teachers have subject knowledge and in many cases, primary schools are not teaching the skills in order to curate knowledge, thus the stigma.

        On the issue of the case you mentioned, in using the subject teachers lower down, in KS2 for example, did the high KS’s suffer?

        As mentioned, I have taught in both and perhaps the subconscious stigma remains.

      • 3arn0wl says:

        Two year’s service isn’t long enough to be able to say definitively… And as you know, with students you’re never comparing like-with-like – but there ‘seemed to be’ lots to catch up on at KS4. Whether they all did, is difficult to say.

        The place felt like a Ferrari running like a mini. Does that make sense? There was this constant battle through the treacle of, I don’t know – “protecting their childhood”? Somehow the lower school had much more pull on the middle school than the high school did.

    • 3arn0wl says:

      Are you saying that, in your experience, Primary practitioners don’t have a subject specific degree and a teacher qualification?

      • I understand your ‘Ferrari – Mini’ explanation and it certainly seems apt.

        In response to your 2nd comment, I am not suggesting that teachers do not have the necessary qualifications (although I have seen this in The Bahamas’), just that they seem to lack a depth of subject knowledge. On so many occasions I have come across History Teachers (my subject) with such a shallow pool of History content and appear to display a lack of enthusiasm for their chosen subject. This may see them skim the surface of primary teaching, but in secondary, they often get found out.

        See a recent blog on skills v content I wrote:

      • 3arn0wl says:

        🙂 Another good piece, which I fully endorse.

        I wonder… and I am only expressing inchoate thoughts here –

        At KS1 and to a diminishing extent at KS2 is there teaching of lots of social skills etc. going on too – such that the academic content is somehow secondary?

        Working only in an environment where the academic standards are obviously going to be lower, does that lull staff into a lower altitude of academia? I’m REALLY NOT trying to be insulting, just trying to understand. If staff had to teach more levels, would that raise their game?

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