Tag: transition

The elephant in the room: the academic side of KS2-3 transition

The elephant in the room: the academic side of KS2-3 transition

I began my career as a primary school teacher in Year 6. This was all going swimmingly until I couldn’t face the pressure anymore of pretending I knew how to teach football skills to children who were already rooted in county teams; forced to demonstrate how to dribble a ball or shoot a basketball hoop. It was modeling the Haka in a pinafore dress* – somewhat incorrectly – that tipped me over the edge.

*Not recommended.

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After moving to teach secondary for some years, I started a new full time role (last September) working for Greenshaw Learning Trust, and am loving the challenge. With a growing number of schools  – half primary, half secondary – there’s immeasurable potential in the collaborative benefits of cross-school partnership. This might take the form of English HODs meeting together to share ideas and plans, discuss pedagogical approaches, moderate writing or share in CPD opportunities, or Primary Leads meeting to discuss frameworks for assessment in non-testing years, phonics or effective close reading strategies etc.

In recent months, I’ve noticed potential for enormous positive impact – and it’s a contentious area in the education-sphere which, honestly, baffles me.

Ten years into teaching and I still can’t quite comprehend why we, as dedicated and knowledgeable educators, don’t invest more in the academic transition between KS2 and KS3. Truthfully, the last few years have seen a real rise in pastoral improvements of this vulnerable period of change (which is fab) but, from a teaching and learning viewpoint, we appear to have seen no real gains – and this surprises me.

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Over those ten years I’ve engaged in projects that have led me to visit countless schools across the country (not talking my own Trust here – though none of us would claim to be perfect yet either!) who’ve designed KS3 curriculum plans and SOWs that, while new and interesting, resemble little of the level of challenge that children are expected to achieve by the end of KS2.
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The familiar rhetoric I hear in conversations between the divorced worlds of Primary and Secondary tends to go like this:
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Primary:
KS3 teachers don’t even look at our assessments; they just roll out more baseline tests in Year 7 anyway. What’s the point of all our hard work?


Secondary:
KS2 teachers must be drilling children for Year 6 SATs. They come into my classroom and certainly don’t know much at all. KS2 tests must be flawed.

The truth is, both sides carry an element of truth but both are also riddled with errors.
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In my humble opinion, a more accurate picture looks like this:

Primary:

  • a broad curriculum
  • a cumulative approach to building knowledge
  • a tough KS2 assessment – requires rehearsal (some say ‘drilling’)
  • specialist teachers with a deep understanding of SPaG, the teaching of reading and writing, language acquisition, phonics etc.
  • children benefit from teachers who know their class extremely well due to the primary classroom model – 5 days a week, same students all year, same environment, knows the 360o family context etc.

Secondary:

  • end of KS2 assessments do not assess subject knowledge of foundation subjects; further assessments needed at KS3 point of entry
  • more challenging knowledge content – reduced focus on basic skills, results in poorer appearance of basic literacy/numeracy abilities
  • vulnerability in transition – big fish in a small ponds become small fish in an ocean
  • pedagogical approaches / calculation strategies / terminology different between primary and secondary phases
  • teachers possess a huge wealth of knowledge, though may be less specialist in how to articulate extended answers and write thorough responses, which incorporate this crucial subject knowledge

The cosmic chasm between these two realms makes them incomparable.
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One hurdle lies in the fact that primaries hold accountability for their students right until their departure at age 11 or 12, but nothing beyond. Results are entirely dependent on the level of progress they make in that school. Secondaries, however, are dependent on KS2 results to set the bar for expected progress at KS3 and 4.
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Without much awareness from secondary teachers as to what is required by the end of Key Stage 2, no matter how much energy we’ve given to writing that SOW for Year 7, we’re unintentionally doing a disservice to our students who arrive, keen, raring to learn and extremely capable.
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In September 2015, Ofsted published a white paper, ‘Key Stage 3: the wasted years?’ which sought to highlight the depression in performance from KS2 to KS3.

Key findings from this report, among others, lists these three points:

  1. Key Stage 3 is not a high priority for many secondary school leaders in timetabling, assessment and monitoring of pupils’ progress. 85% of senior leaders interviewed said that they staff Key Stages 4 and 5 before Key Stage 3. Key Stage 3 is given lower priority, where classes are more often split between more than one teacher or where pupils are taught by non-specialists.
  2. Leaders prioritise the pastoral over the academic needs of pupils during transition from primary school. While this affects all pupils, it can have a particularly detrimental effect on the progress and engagement of the most able.
  3. Many secondary schools do not build sufficiently on pupils’ prior learning. Many of the senior leaders interviewed said that they do not do this well enough and accepted that some pupils would repeat some of what they had done in Key Stage 2. Pupil responses indicate that repeating work is more of an issue in mathematics and English than in the foundation subjects.

Questions to consider:

  1. Have you got a robust system in place that requires students to bring in samples of their best work on induction days – to record and share with teachers and tutors in advance of September?
  2. Are you aware of the expectations at KS2 in reading (pg6), writing (pg8), and SPaG?
  3. Have you spent time exploring the assessments students sit at the end of Year 6 in reading and SPaG?
  4. Are your expectations at KS3 offering natural progression of challenge from this point onwards, or are you inadvertently creating a culture that allows students to plateau through KS3?
  5. Do your Year 7 and 8 SOWs demonstrate high academic expectations, and does the teaching across your department reflect these?
  6. Have you visited a local primary school to see teaching and learning in action?
  7. Have you met KS2 Leads within your own academy trust/local area/feeder schools to hold professional conversations about what ‘challenge’ looks like in Year 6 and how you might be able to extend this the other side of the transition? 

 

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Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box: The Risk of KS2/KS3 Transition

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I can’t be certain but I’m pretty sure the dance move referenced in the title of this post is a familiar one to most. If you’re a teacher or connected to an educational establishment of some sort, no doubt this piece of simple choreography will have featured at a number of work Christmas parties, or, if you have a quick rummage through some archived home video footage, I’m sure it would appear in the background somewhere.

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For the rigid dads, the well-rehearsed side-steppers or the uncomfortable public movers, it’s great. It offers a welcome blast of structure in the middle of a music track in which, for some, a whole three and a half minutes of freestyle is far too daunting. However, for the more advanced, the rhythm lovers and the naturally gifted movers, this prescriptive routine is a cumbersome straight jacket. The expectation to follow somebody else’s stiff series of lifeless arm gestures leaves them feeling confined. The beautifully-liberated butterfly that once carelessly flitted across the dance floor quickly becomes a caged creature, restricted by bars and limited by reduced expectations.
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While only a metaphor, this is the best way I can describe my lingering concern for the transition between KS2 and KS3. In a previous post (here), I described my career change from primary to secondary teaching. I don’t regret it for a minute. I loved many things about working with younger students but, for me personally, I get great satisfaction out of my role as Literacy Leader, working closely with slightly older students and staff to raise literacy levels across the school.
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Having taught at the upper end of KS2, preparing classes of Year 6 students for SATs and subsequently the impending school transfer, but also welcoming in new classes of Year 7s the other side of the transition, I’ve seen it from both sides. I’m privileged to have experienced this ‘coming of age’ journey as an observer, recognising those students that would once consider themselves the ‘big fish’ in their comfortable bubble of primary school familiarity, inevitably shrink into a new ‘little fish’ identity, in what can often feel like a strange new world of awkwardness and unfamiliarity.
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I’m keen to point out here that I’ve little doubt there are many schools, like my own, that have great transition programmes in place for new students. I know for sure that where I teach, we have a number of different pathways for new starters and do our best to draw the most useful information out of our baseline testing and feedback from feeder primary schools in order to best support our students. It is crucial to build a strong foundation of pastoral support early on to minimise turbulence in this delicate transfer.
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However, I do feel compelled to share a quick reflection.
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I sometimes wonder if there’s a bizarre warp-like divide between primary and secondary. While we claim to understand bits about each other, in reality there is very little crossover between the two. And, in the profession we’re in working with vulnerable young people, I’m not sure that the norm of minimal overlap is the best way forward. Both educationally and socially, I’m convinced that when students reach the end of Year 6, they are incredibly capable of so much. And yet, by the time they reach secondary, they appear almost inept at packing their own bag or chewing their own food. It seems to me that, in addition to the natural 6-week summer ‘dip’ in educational performance, when they arrive at Year 7 (at least initially), they can perhaps sometimes feel confined by this sense of  a cage or by the ‘cardboard box-inducing’ expectations placed upon them. The fact they are now the ‘little ones’ again after a year of feeling like they ruled the school can lead students towards conforming to this ‘brand new’ label that is sometimes prescribed.
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I’m extremely pleased that as part of an INSET day approaching, my school Leadership Team have decided to send staff out into local primary schools, to get an idea of the way they run and the pedagogy that is common across them. I firmly believe this is going to have some really positive effects and am excited by the potential outcomes.
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As a keen advocate of the much-discussed concept of a ‘Growth Mindset’ by Carol Dweck (see here), explored in some fantastic blogs highlighted below, I am of the belief that the education experience should not be limited by our teacher-led expectations. Over-assessment and repeated reference to predicted grades are both common causes for a reduced interest in learning and result in either a strained, a half-hearted or even reluctant push for excellence. Joe Kirby quotes Dylan Wiliam, reminding us of the unhealthy relationship we can develop with levels (and thus model to our impressionable students), in his excellent post on how assessment is shackling schools here.  This current educational debate is often raised in relation to upper KS3/KS4 students who are nearing GCSEs and beyond.
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However, my experience of transition leads me to hope otherwise. This extremely powerful concept of a ‘growth mindset’ over a fixed one asserts that constant reference to target grades and fixed expectations is not constructive in developing a student’s belief that they can always reach greater success. This freedom-giving approach to learning is one that needs to be taught and nurtured from early on in the educational journey. In my current role where I am – based in the SEN department, I would hope that mainstream teachers at all levels, would treat our students who possess real learning obstacles in just the same way as their peers, encouraging them to realise that ‘the possibilities are endless’ for them too (to steal a well-known publicity slogan). And it’s up to us, as facilitators of learning, to establish a comfortable learning environment that offers appropriate scaffolding for ALL students to achieve their full potential.

To me, the teacher who can model a successful transition between KS2 and KS3 is one that has mastered the sensitive balance – not only in establishing a comfortable environment by recognising the real needs of these ‘little fish’ in their big new tank, but also recognising the potential they have to be the ‘big fish’ again very quickly, given the right conditions.

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Alex Quigley, in his brilliant post on “‘The Butterfly Effect’ in Schools” references Ron Berger’s ‘The Ethic of Excellence’ and asks:

What conditions do I need to create for ‘butterflies’ to flourish?”

This is a healthy question we need to be asking ourselves regularly – and responding to – in order to minimise the possibility of trapping students into that metaphorical cardboard box. It is possible, in my opinion, to lift the lid on learning and success by developing a culture across the entire school that subscribes to the notion of limitless expectations.

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