Primary pupils ranked at age 11

17th July 2013.

Today Nick Clegg and David Laws have launched a consultation on plans to overhaul England’s primary school targets;

  • pupils aged 11 would be ranked in 10% ability bands and parents told where their children have been placed
  • the current minimum of 60% of pupils achieving expected levels in SATs would be replaced with 85% as the minimum
  • plans are described as making pupils  “secondary ready.”

The implication here is then that pupils are not currently prepared by primary schools to be ‘secondary ready’, and follows in the wake of recent published figures showing that more than half the children who currently get a good mark in English and mathematics tests at 11 fail to go on to gain decent GCSE grades at 16. Some secondary headteacher representatives have responded to these proposed plans by acknowledging that primary attainment needs to be more robust, in the light of secondary schools carrying out their own baseline testing for pupils on arrival in Year 7, a process which implies a lack of trust in the accuracy of primary assessment.

I think this focus on the transition from primary to secondary is timely, but that the diagnosis of the problem, and  proposed remedy is the wrong one.

  • Genuine communication and collaboration between primary and secondary schools are notoriously rare. The sharing of ideas and methods is usually at best too tokenistic  to provide a continuity which positively impacts on achievement.
  • Primary and secondary headteachers often consider themselves to be a completely different breed and never the twain can meet.
  • Secondary schools often attribute the notorious summer holiday achievement dip, and primary schools’ habit of teaching to the tests, as reasons for inflated end-of-primary results. They often do not acknowledge that if a pupil has achieved a Year 6 level, and their  Year 7 baseline test reveals lower achievement, then the primary level is  the right one, rather than re-adjusting their expectations downwards.
  • Secondary schools are pre-occupied, understandably, with squeezing out as much achievement as possible at the GCSE end of the continuum, putting into place interventions to tackle underachievement in Years 10 and 11.  What they rarely do, is put compensatory interventions in at the beginning of Year 7.  If they have baseline tested the pupil at a  lower level than the level they came with from primary school, they should put in place immediate strategies to close  this gap.  Otherwise this gap is allowed to persist as the reality, rather than unacceptable underachievement.
  • Pupils who find it difficult to achieve well in exam conditions, for example, those that are the most vulnerable, often receive a large amount of bespoke support in primary school. These pupils are often those whose achievement dips most over the summer holiday, because the place where they flourish is at school, rather than at home. The vulnerable pupils are then baseline tested in Year 7, and their achievement is usually lower then that reached at the end of Year 6. Rather than communicating with the primary school and finding out exactly what they did right to bring about the best in the pupil, secondary schools can assume that the primary levels were inflated and vulnerable pupils can begin a spiral of underachievement.
  • Because of poor communication between primary and secondary schools, lots of tremendously important information is lost. For example, primary schools are acutely aware of the difference summer and autumn birth can make on performance, while this is an analysis rarely done by secondary schools. Pupils might leave primary school gifted and talented, but poor performers in test conditions.  These pupils’ ability is often not recognised by secondary schools.
  • Primary schools usually give pupils in Year 6 a tremendous amount of responsibility, which contributes to feelings of self esteem and impacts positively on achievement. This degree of responsibility is often not acknowledged by secondary schools. Sometimes, primary schools can list over 50 different responsibilities that Year 6 pupils are eligible for. For Year 8, some secondary schools cannot list any.

My solution

  • Where I have observed groups of schools successfully countering the achievement dip from primary to secondary, the headteachers of all the schools consider themselves to be accountable for pupils’ achievement in both feeder schools, and the follow on schools. Secondary colleagues  acknowledge that if they do not appreciate the  achievement  in the feeder context, pupils cannot reach their potential in the secondary context. Secondary colleagues see it as their remit to work with the primary feeder to understand how pupils have achieved. Primary colleagues regard a measure of their success as their pupils’ achievement at KS3 and GCSE. If their pupils do not achieve at this level, then they question their the achievement at KS2.
  • Secondary schools which are outstanding at ensuring pupils reach their potential from the first week of Year 7 consider all information on achievement of pupils from the primary setting, on groups and for individuals, to be invaluable in helping them set the highest expectations, and understand how pupils learn best.
  • Primary and secondary schools who are serious about pupils’ achieving consistently across key stages work in a way so they can trust each other’s information. For example, they might  jointly employ a member of staff who works across all settings to ensure a consistency that benefits pupils. This staff member could ensure that there are no duplication  in Year 6 and Year 7. They might work with all schools to ensure a consistency in teaching mathematics’ concepts, so pupils are not hampered by having to re-learn strategies.

The story of underachievement is not just a primary one. If primary pupils are to be ‘secondary ready’, then secondary schools need to work with primary schools, to be ready for the pupils.

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