Strong foundations: why primary to secondary transition is so important

on 27 May 2021
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Back in 2015, Ofsted published a paper titled ‘Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years?’ Those of us teaching in the period that followed might recall the onslaught of meetings declaring that Key Stage 3 was now our priority. ‘What about year 11?’ we might have asked. Yes, they remained our priority. ‘And Key Stage 5?’ Also our priority.

The reality facing secondary schools is that exam classes will never not be the priority — and it would take a bold headteacher indeed to direct staff to focus their interventions and marking time on S1 or year 7 at the expense of their exam groups. In an ideal world, we would offer our best to every single pupil who steps foot in our classroom without burning ourselves out or surrendering our own right to a life outside school. In such a world the milk in the staffroom fridge never runs out, the photocopier never jams, and the IT works best on days when you are expecting visitors or an observation.

Truthfully, teachers must regularly draw a line and accept that everything that falls beneath it will receive whatever we have left to give, even if some days all that’s left is an empty tank. Non-exam classes often find themselves falling under this line, not because they are seen as less important but simply because with finite time and resources, something has to give. May often marks a turning point — with exams receding into the distance behind us, we are free to turn our attention back to those groups who might have missed out.

As we move towards the final half term of the year, the opportunity to capitalise on the freed-up time created by the submission of CAGs and the departure of exam groups is more important than ever. The question persists: which remaining priority to prioritise first?

The Transition Challenge

Even in a ‘normal’ year, primary to secondary transition can often find itself near the bottom of the list, yet it is perhaps one of the most influential periods in a pupil’s life. In the absence of taster lessons and transition days, secondary schools head towards September knowing less than ever about their new intake. Vast swathes of information — both academic and pastoral — are lost every year in the handover between primary and secondary, compounded now by two years of disruption to education. The feedback from #MathsConf makes it clear that any division between primary and secondary is a “false dichotomy” — colleagues want to know what their pupils have experienced earlier on in their schooling, because it forms the basis of what they will study next. It is simply the case that in an increasingly loud and demanding list of priorities, something has to slip down the list.

It isn’t just knowledge of students that is lost when teachers in different phases don’t have time to talk. There is a reason why primary and secondary teachers are trained separately: the contexts and methods in which they operate differ vastly. Primary teachers are there from the very beginning, introducing pupils to the world of education through which they will navigate at least until adulthood. Every superhero has an origin story — and Marvel turns these into films because audiences understand the vital role our past plays in shaping our future. To grasp why our pupils embrace certain concepts but struggle with others — at its core, to grasp how they think about problems — we need to know how they learned mathematics in the first place. Their primary teachers are the only ones who can tell us.

Teachers as Builders

Imagine you inherit a house, partly built, with instructions to complete the job as you see fit. You have planning permission to build as many storeys as you like, to add extensions, perhaps even to extend down and build a basement (or wine cellar, if I indulge my own Grand Designs ambitions for a moment). What would you do first?

You’d probably want to know what’s happened already; what materials were used to build the walls behind the veneer, and the location of hidden cavities beneath load bearing structures. You’d want to see the initial blueprints, hear from the previous owners how things had gone before. You’d want time to walk around the entire site, imagining what it could become in the future, how long it would take, where you might encounter difficulties. You would want all this to happen as thoroughly as possible, to prevent problems occurring further down the line.

What would change if you were suddenly told you had only one year to complete your project? Would you scale back your ambitions to ensure you had time to prepare fully, or would you cut back on the planning and race to get as much done as possible?

I’m sure we’ve seen enough Channel 4 documentaries about cowboy builders to know the dangers of the latter — yet this is exactly what the school system seems to push us towards when we take this metaphor and apply it in the classroom. If your new architect presented you with kitchen designs in which the cabinets and countertops didn’t actually fit into the space, you would rightly demand that he or she think again. When it comes to schools, however, it can feel as though getting through the curriculum is more important than getting to grips with it — even if that means some pupils reach the end of their formal schooling with huge, unaddressed knowledge gaps that can’t be disguised with a tall plant or a strategically-placed rug. For the child who begins secondary school lagging behind their peers, they face at least five more years in education trying to catch up, knowing that those ahead won’t be slowing down to wait for them.

Such pupils find themselves further disadvantaged if their understanding of core concepts is itself too weak to carry them through the next stage of their education. Ofsted’s latest subject report in mathematics highlights this, stating that, “When planning curriculum content, teachers also need to prioritise ‘forward-facing’ knowledge. [This] includes the mathematical methods that pupils will take with them on their journey.” We might illustrate this with an example as simple as the equals sign. Let’s imagine Pupil A understands ‘=’ to mean ‘the answer is’, while Pupil B understands ‘=’ to mean ‘is equal to’. The two may be fairly indistinguishable in the early stages of their education — certainly both might achieve correct answers on the same questions. But later on, when asked to balance equations, Pupil A might suddenly find themselves struggling. This simple, but influential, misconception is tricky to diagnose when disguised behind a much more complex problem — and this isn’t the only issue. Where in the secondary curriculum is there space to loop all the way back to this core knowledge, the meaning of different mathematical symbols?

And this is where both teachers and builders find themselves in full agreement: the key to success is a secure foundation. With this in place, we can happily add and knock down walls at our leisure; without it, we are simply kicking trouble down the road.

Securing the Foundations

Primary teachers know exactly where the gaps are — which topics are secure, and which won’t stand up to a strong wind. But without enough time to share this information in full, secondary teachers then find themselves covering old ground looking for weaknesses. This is part of what Ofsted criticised in their 2015 report: an acceptance among departments that the first year of secondary school would involve a degree of repetition.

How does one prevent this?

We’ve been puzzling this over at Complete Maths, and it’s why we created our ‘Secondary Ready in Mathematics’ course. With six weeks of content covering the key fundamental concepts of mathematics, it is designed to act as a de facto building inspector — identifying and plugging knowledge gaps so that all pupils begin secondary school ready to tackle more complex ideas. More than this, it also signposts what’s left to build: as a pupil works through the course, their teacher can track their assessment results from each idea studied.

No course can replace the deep, personal knowledge primary teachers hold about each child in their class — but ours can create a degree of consistency, perhaps even predictability, which allows transition conversations between colleagues to focus on other topics. Some of our customer schools have gone so far as to purchase access to the course for all their feeder primaries so that teachers can feel confident that every student will reach them with the same foundational knowledge in place. More importantly, it lets pupils who’ve slipped behind catch up without their classmates having to slow down and wait.

To wake up each morning and watch the sunrise from your bed, an architect needs to place the master bedroom on the east side of the house; a builder must ensure the window sits at just the right height that you don’t need to get up to see the sky; and an electrician should install plug sockets in such a way that you can position your bed opposite the window without sacrificing a bedside lamp — in short, a series of experts need to cooperate in planning and delivering a shared vision. This is precisely how successful transition should feel.

Just as Ofsted pointed out, this means pursuing a ‘forward-facing’ education. When presented in the right way, even young children are capable of engaging with the type of conceptual knowledge that will serve them well later on. Certainly there is space for teachers to explore different methods of solving the same problem, but ultimately the method we encourage pupils to use should whenever possible be the one they can carry with them for life. EYFS teachers rarely sit down with their post-16 counterparts to share teaching methods, but if we want to equip pupils with the best tools from the start, shouldn’t they? The exchange of knowledge between primary and secondary should go both ways: not just what our pupils learned but how they learned it, and how they need to learn it to be successful later on.

We want, through our transition-focused courses, to facilitate the type of conversations between teachers that lead, in the end, to the outcomes we hope one day our pupils will wake up to.

Planning for the Future

We have so little time with our pupils before we must, once again, send them into an exam hall to have their progress assessed, and their knowledge and understanding quantified. At this pace, there is no time to waste time. We cannot escape the paradoxical notion that everything is a priority, but we can find our way through these competing demands by asking ourselves what actions might offer the best pay off in the future. After all, the final owner of our metaphorical house is the pupil themselves — it is they who will shape what it eventually becomes, and they who will inhabit it, so we owe it to them to provide a secure foundation on which to build.