The Great Learning Lag

This post was written by Jon Tait @TeamTait.

For years and years as a senior leader and previously as a classroom teacher I have spoken, like many others, about the great learning lag between primary and secondary. Every year secondary school teachers receive a bunch of bright eyed and bushy tailed students fresh from primary school with a series of levels or standards that supposedly reflects their educational attainment. The problem starts to unravel pretty quickly when the students appear to (in some cases), be nowhere near what it says on the tin. Frustrated secondary teachers then find themselves not only having to make the 3 or 4 levels of progress that is demanded of them by centralised targets, but also the extra to just get them up to their official ‘starting point’.

At this point I want to make it clear that this is by no means a primary bashing article. Our primaries do a fantastic job in educating and preparing our children for life in secondary school. I only have to look at the high quality learning experiences of my own two children (7 and 11) who attend an outstanding primary school to know that. The issue, I believe, sits firmly with the enormous pressure that the current education system places on SATs week. This year, for the first time, I have experienced this first hand as a parent of a year 6 boy. For a month or so before SATs week, PE, ICT, Music and Art were removed from his daily diet in place of intensive literacy and numeracy lessons. Every night when I asked him what he had done today, his response was almost identical. The build up to the week was like an Olympic athlete priming him or herself for competition and steadily building up week by week under more high performance like conditions. We even had tears on the Sunday night at bed time before SATs week and tears again at breakfast due to the obvious pressure and stress that had been caused by the build up to what he had subconsciously worked out was the most important educational week of his life to date.

What has followed that week makes me smile and frown in equal measures. I smile because he is currently enjoying probably one of the best times in his educational life. PE, ICT, Music and Art are now back on the agenda, along with field trips and an outward bound residential visit. He is loving school life once again and experiencing all of the activities that make school life so rich and diverse. The outward bound residential visit has been character building and hugely significant in his personal development in preparation for life at a large secondary school in just over 2 months’ time. The school are committed to ensuring that the final weeks of his primary schooling are filled with significant experiences of joy and personal development that he will remember for a long time to come. Would any of us complain at this?

So why do I frown? I frown because I feel for the teachers that will pick up my son in September. The teachers that see his high levels in Maths and English and expect him to hit the ground running on day 1 at that level of attainment. In comparison to this daily diet pre SATs week, he will have not done any real significant work on numeracy and literacy since his SATs (and that is before you factor in the 6 weeks holiday he’s about to have) and I cannot blame the primary staff for that. They have worked unbelievably hard with him and have done a stunning job every day of his school life. But due to the perverse nature of league tables, target setting and the pressure for everything to be leading up to one week in his life, it saddens me that we still work in an educational landscape like this. Would I do anything different if I was in charge of a primary school? Absolutely not. I would, like I have done for 10 years as an American Football coach, have my students primed, prepared and ready for action on the day of competition. We do exactly the same in the run up to GCSE examinations in secondary schools. But is that the broad and balanced curriculum that we are all striving for? How can we even contemplate doing anything different when the pressures on attainment scores from the students sat in front of us can make or break a school’s reputation, impact on a school inspection grading and ultimately lead to headteachers losing their jobs?

So what can we do about the great learning lag that exists not only between primary and secondary, but also between secondary and FE colleges and then between FE and Higher Education establishments? The answer must lie in transition programmes that go far beyond the traditional models of the standard induction day and open evening. If you appreciate and understand that there is going to be a lag in attainment between SATs week and September, then you are creating more problems for your school if you are not doing anything proactive to resolve this. Can your Maths and English teachers be re-deployed in their year 11 time to go into primary schools and help bridge the gap? Initially if they see this as more work and an infringement on their ‘gained time’, they might just need reminding that this work might be work ‘in the bank’ with these students, because ultimately they will be judged on the progress that they make with them from September anyway. Getting a head start with these students might prove to be the most sensible piece of early intervention that your school implements.
Let’s face it, who wants to start 10 metres behind the start line in the 100m sprint?

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