Sunday, 20 March 2016

A very special relationship: towards better cross-phase empathy and understanding

I'm going to start this post with a quick plea to secondary school teachers: please stop opining that the new end of Key Stage 2 expected standard for writing 'looks like a GCSE grade C'. Whether it does or doesn't (and, for what it's worth, I'm not convinced such mechanical tick-boxing does) this comment is leading some Primary school teachers to complain 'What on earth do students do for five years?'.

That this question is being asked by Primary colleagues at all, quite frankly, pains me. What do they do? Well, quite a lot actually. My immediate reaction is to present our Year 9 exam papers or get out the superb work of my Year 10s. But, my second reaction is one of sadness because for me that question typifies a lack of empathy and understanding that, in many cases, is found between Primary and Secondary teachers both online and in real life.

In the last year I have had to defend the size of my school from Primary teachers who've presumed that have 1700 students on roll automatically results in a faceless institution in which Year 7 students are somehow swallowed up. For the record, I can assure you that the young people you entrust us with are very much seen as individuals by their teachers, form tutors, and Heads of Year, and we delight in watching them blossom into young adults.

I've also heard numerous complaints that in Year 7 classes across the country core learning is being lost, students regress or, at best, 'tread water'. Whilst the national achievement dip in Year 7 has been well-documented, there are numerous social and educational demands on students as they begin Key Stage 3, not least the widening breadth of study, the more challenging mode of assessment and demand for independence, all against reduced or less flexible curriculum time for individual subjects. I don't think there's a secondary school in Britain that isn't striving to buck this trend and placing the blame squarely at the door of secondary school teachers doesn't do much for cross-phase relationship building.

As secondary school teachers we are painfully aware of the limits of what we can do. We want our Key Stage 3 to build on prior learning and to be a rich, exciting and challenging progression but, try as we might, we simply can't adapt our Key Stage 3 curriculum to compliment all of our fifteen feeder primaries. Conversely, I wonder, could Primary school teachers respond to the curriculum of one 'feeder' secondary school? I would argue that it doesn't take two years to prepare students for English GCSE: it takes a childhood of schooling. But it doesn't always feel there is a willingness amongst Primary colleagues to acknowledge this responsibility on top of the pressures they already have in this brave new world of testing.

It is perhaps unsurprising that relationships become frayed when there are so many external pressures at both phases. We become inward-looking in a kind of Blitz spirit as we batten down the hatches and prepare for what is on its way. With so many challenges, it's no wonder that there's so often a lack of empathy in both directions.

So, how do we go about mending this most special of relationships? Well, I for one am going to strive to keep at the forefront of my mind that whilst times are hard for us they're immensely hard for you too. At every possible juncture I'm going to express my true feelings about Primary school teachers, which is that quite simply I'm in awe of you.

You have skill sets that I simply don't. I knew on day two of my pre-PGCE Primary experience that I didn't have the patience or sensitivity needed. This was perhaps most sharply apparent the moment the boy with the snotty nose approached me and said, "Miss, I've pooed myself" and with the dawning realisation he expected me to do something about it. I'm trying to learn about phonics and strategies to improve handwriting, but I have no doubt that in these areas you are the experts. But then I would hazard there are areas for which the reverse is also true.

My commitment to you will be that I'm going to make better use of all the information you give me about the children you pass on. I'm going to skill myself - and my team - up on grammar teaching so that we can reinforce your use of terminology and language learning. I'm also going to do whatever I can to build professional networks that include Primary teachers, like the wonderful Michael Tidd and Shareen Mayers, so that our relationships grow and become even more fruitful over time.

Let's all agree to meet one another in a space that is judgement-free. Let's read one another's blogs and ask open, honest questions that challenge our presumptions. Let's recognise that we're both working towards the same end and responding to extreme pressures that one another might not fully appreciate or understand. If we can do this then it will be a very special relationship indeed.

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