In a recent post on this blog, After primary, the ‘wasted years’?, Robin Alexander questioned some of the assumptions behind Ofsted’s recent tendency to compare secondary schools unfavourably with primary. Citing the different educational and professional cultures of the two phases, the challenges of adolescence and the narrow focus of inspections in primary schools, Robin questioned the bluntness of the instrument with which Ofsted is trying to beat secondary schools.
Whether or not we accept the picture of Key Stage 3 painted by Ofsted, however, genuine continuity of learning between primary and secondary schools is, as Robin put it, ‘a historic problem’. The Cambridge Primary Review found that ‘curriculum discontinuity and variations in teaching practice tripped pupils up while they were adjusting to the new social environment of secondary school’, recommending that ‘The sudden curricular and pedagogical changes that mark [pupils’] moves between schools and between key stage “compartments” need to be eased. Transition must become a process, rather than an event.’ (Children, their World, their Education, pp 371-2)
Historic problems are rarely solved overnight, particularly through structural changes, and we should beware politicians who claim otherwise. But might the changes to our school system heralded by the recent education White Paper, concerning though they are to many primary teachers and leaders, provide new opportunities to bridge the primary-secondary divide, and new incentives and mechanisms for schools to work together?
It’s much too soon to make any grand claims about the benefits of academisation, particularly in the primary sector (a point robustly argued by Warwick Mansell in his recent CPRT research report, Academies: autonomy, accountability, quality and evidence). Where things get more interesting, in my view, is in the emerging evidence behind the benefits of formal school partnerships (including multi-academy trusts, but also hard federations of maintained schools), and in the ways in which school leaders and teachers are working within such partnerships.
Two recent reports by the House of Commons Education Committee (a cross-party group of 11 MPs) examined in some detail the impact of strong school-to-school collaboration. The first report, School Partnerships and Cooperation, found that ‘school partnerships and cooperation have become an increasingly important part of a self-improving or school-led system’, and that ‘such collaboration has great potential to continue driving improvement to the English education system’. The report cited substantial evidence for this claim, including a report by the National College of Teaching and Leadership which found that schools in federations appeared to perform better than schools with apparently similar characteristics that had not federated. Digging into the reasons behind the apparent success of such partnerships, the report identified shared accountability as a crucial factor, concluding that ‘school partnerships with clear lines of accountability and some element of obligation are more likely to be successful in achieving gains from collaboration.’
The second report, Academies and Free Schools, set out to explore the impact of these new types of school. In common with other research in this area, it found no evidence so far that academisation in itself raises standards. What it strongly identified, though, was a relationship between school-to-school collaboration and improved outcomes, quoting evidence from the Sutton Trust on the stronger performance of academies in multi-academy trusts over standalone academies, and from Ofsted on the higher likelihood of academies in multi-academy trusts maintaining good or outstanding judgements, compared to standalone academies.
This report found that the benefits of being part of a formal group were particularly strong for primary schools, whose smaller size and greater reliance on local authority support often made standalone academy status more problematic. Again, these benefits were down to the impact of working together, rather than the effect of academisation. For primary schools, the report concluded, ‘the model of partnership … is less important than the level of commitment of the heads and teachers involved’. As one primary head quoted in the report put it, ‘We are accountable for each other, and therefore it is imperative we support each other to improve.’
Simply being part of a group, of course, makes little difference in itself. What matters is what school leaders and teachers do with that partnership. And that’s where the benefits of primary and secondary schools being part of the same structure, accountable for each other, can start to pay off. I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking to, and working with, school leaders and teachers in cross-phase multi-academy trusts and federations, and have seen some interesting practices start to develop.
One multi-academy trust, for example, is restructuring its curriculum to bring together Years 5 to 8 into a single phase. Children still move from primary to secondary school halfway through, but their learning continues seamlessly. In another group, teachers have come together to design a common approach to assessment, which throws into sharp relief any instances of Year 7 dip. In another group, Year 7 teachers ask departing Year 6s to bring their best pieces of work with them when they start secondary school, stick them in their shiny new exercise books, and look back at them to remind themselves of the standard of work of which they were capable last year. In yet another group, Year 6s all take with them to secondary school a ‘pupil passport’, designed to showcase their academic achievements, but also the broader knowledge, skills and dispositions they’ve developed during their seven years at primary school, alongside their sporting and artistic achievements. How much more helpful is that to their Year 7 teachers than simply being told they scored 98 on their SATs, and so haven’t met the expected standard?
None of these ways of working is impossible when schools are separate institutions, of course, and many primary and secondary schools already work effectively together. But a school in a multi-academy trust or federation not only has an added incentive to work more closely with its partners; it also, crucially, can use the structure of the formal partnership to develop new approaches that can genuinely transform children’s experiences, beyond its own four walls.
Primary schools are right to approach the proposals in the White Paper with caution, and not to rush into any decisions. Advice against marrying in haste is as wise as it ever was. But the opportunity for schools to harness the policy agenda to develop collaborative ways of working that could significantly benefit children is, in my view, real and exciting. It won’t close the primary-secondary divide overnight, but it might just build some bridges.
Julie McCulloch is Primary and Governance Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). She is also a member of the Board of CPRT.