How should we respond to recent Ofsted reports comparing secondary schools unfavourably with primary?
Last December HMCI Michael Wilshaw told us that secondary schools are less likely than primary to be rated good or outstanding, and that England is ‘a divided nation after age 11’ because the primary/secondary disparity is most acute in the midlands and the north.
This disturbing judgement followed hard on the heels of another. Subtitled ‘The wasted years?’ an earlier Ofsted report claimed that many secondary schools were concentrating on maximising student achievement in Key Stage 4 at the expense of the quality of teaching and learning in Key Stage 3. Moreover, said Ofsted:
Too many secondary schools did not work effectively with partner primary schools to understand pupils’ prior learning and ensure that they built on this in KS3. Some secondary leaders simply accepted that pupils would repeat what they had already done in primary school … particularly in Year 7. This was a particular issue in mathematics and, to a lesser extent, in English.
Divided after age 11? The wasted years? (Echoes of the divisive consequences of the 1944 Education Act are uncanny though surely unintended). In light of such devastating assessments, and mindful of the minister who notoriously decreed that the chief aim of primary education is to make children ‘secondary ready’, primary teachers might well retort, ‘We are making them secondary ready. But are secondary schools ready to receive them?’
Of course, none of this is new. For decades, researchers have documented patchy arrangements for primary/secondary transfer and the phenomenon of the Year 7/8 attainment ‘dip’. Martin Hughes confirmed empirically the professional folklore about children’s primary school learning being ignored or dismissed by some Y7 teachers, while Maurice Galton found a significant drop in pupils’ post-transfer interest in maths and science and traced it to Y7 teaching in which there was too much writing and too little discussion and practical activity.
In mitigation it must be stressed that secondary school leaders have been as eager as their primary colleagues to address concerns about inadequate transfer arrangements by improving communication and information exchange and making children’s transition as comfortable as possible. Yet while the Ofsted ‘wasted years’ report acknowledges the success of schools’ efforts to secure such pastoral continuity from primary to secondary, it finds academic continuity a more intractable problem, and it confirms Maurice Galton’s finding that the failings are pedagogical no less than structural. Startlingly so, for there can be few requirements for effective teaching more obvious than discovering and building on what the child has already learned. How can those castigated by Ofsted not understand this most elementary of principles?
But is it that simple? In exploring diagnoses and cures we should remember, obvious though it may be, that the worlds of primary and secondary are very different, not just in respect of school size and organisation but also culturally and developmentally. Large primary schools are growing larger but they remain mostly smaller than secondary. While the primary curriculum, unless it capitulates completely to the pressures of testing and inspection, remains reasonably broad and uniform from reception to the end of Year 6, the secondary curriculum is an altogether more complex enterprise, starting broadly before it narrows and fragments into multiple options as pupils progress from KS3 to KS4. And though some primary schools are deploying teachers’ specialist expertise more flexibly than they did, say, twenty years ago, in most primary schools generalist teaching remains the default.
These defining features of primary schools shape a distinctive professional culture. Working with young children all day, every day and across what is supposed to be a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum encourages a holistic outlook. Primary teachers still talk about the ‘whole child’ and ‘whole curriculum’ as they have done since the 1930s, and long before the invention of PSHE they saw it as their responsibility to give as much attention to children’s personal and social development as to their academic progress.
So to the challenges of pastoral continuity and academic progression at the primary/secondary boundary we might add the experience of moving between distinct educational and professional cultures. There’s no mention of this in Ofsted’s ‘wasted years’ report.
Human development is a factor too. The primary years – what Alan Blyth called ‘the midlands of childhood’ – are a period of rapid physical, cognitive, social and linguistic development but this follows a fairly steady trajectory. About teenage growth spurts, hormonal surges, sleep patterns, eating habits, identity crises, mood swings, emotional turbulence, peer power, ambivalence towards adult authority and all the rest we need do no more than remind ourselves how very different pre-adolescent and adolescent children can be, including, as we now know from neuroscience, in the structure of their brains. Ofsted says nothing about this either. Yet I recall the late Ted Wragg – an instinctive and gifted teacher of children of any age – turning to me during a somewhat rarified QCA discussion about the Year 7/8 dip to mutter, ‘Have they forgotten what adolescence is like?’
The argument that that an understanding of children’s development is essential to an understanding of the Y7/8 dip is clinched by the NFER finding that it occurs in many other countries besides England. That being so, the unique pattern of English secondary schooling can hardly be expected to shoulder all the blame. Equally, the NFER finding should prompt us to reconsider the relationship between human development, the structure of schooling and the timing of the school day – a relationship which, as the few surviving middle schools will remind us, was central to the rationale for their formation.
These cultural, developmental and comparative considerations in no way excuse such inadequacies of Y6/7 communication, attainment tracking, staffing and teaching as are recorded and illustrated in Ofsted’s ‘wasted years’ report. However, they do confirm that the task of ensuring steady academic progress from the upper years of Key Stage 2 into and through Key Stage 3 is more complex than Ofsted may have grasped; that couching the issue in terms of blame rather than explanation may be what ministers demand but it is hardly helpful; and that pinning the entirety of that blame on secondary schools is neither fair nor productive.
We might enter further notes of reservation. ‘Across England’ says HMCI Wilshaw, ’85 per cent of primary schools are good or outstanding compared with 74 per cent of secondary schools.’ This finding came from inspection data collected before the introduction of Ofsted’s Common Inspection Framework in September 2015. The new framework, says Ofsted, ‘ensures more comparability through inspection when children and learners move from one setting to another. It supports greater consistency across the inspection of different remits.’ This is in effect an admission that under the previous framework – the one that yielded the ‘nation divided’ and ‘wasted years’ findings – using Ofsted data to compare different setting types was an uncertain science. If that structure applied to settings catering for similar age ranges (the concern of the new framework) it must have applied no less, and probably more, to inspection-based comparisons between primary and secondary.
Even more fundamentally, Ofsted reports only what it inspects, and the frameworks, whether old or new, ignore or trivialise aspects of both primary and secondary education that many schools – and certainly CPRT – regard as desirable or even essential. To take one example, the new Ofsted framework uses the phrase ‘across the curriculum’ on several occasions, but like its predecessor ‘broad and balanced’ this is little more than tokenistic, for English and mathematics are the only aspects of the curriculum that are named or about which specific inspection judgements are required. For those who believe that the quality and standards of education reside in more than literacy and numeracy ‘outcomes’, vital though these are, Ofsted’s 11 percentage point claim of primary schools’ superiority over secondary may be deemed questionable. What, I always want to know, is going on in addition to what Ofsted inspects, and does it matter? In all but the most slavishly Ofsted-driven schools, a great deal, and yes it does.
Notwithstanding all this, converging evidence from inspection and research certainly confirms that in the matter of primary-secondary transfer and progression we have a historic problem that has not yet been fully addressed. As well as learning from those schools – secondary as well as primary – that manage these matters effectively, and there are many of them, what can be done?
Well, academies may be contentious but the rapid growth of federations, multi-academy trusts and all-through schools opens up opportunities for the cross-phase exchange, in pursuit of a more seamless experience of schooling for every child, not just of information and ideas but also personnel. In this matter, it is significant that ASCL, formally the secondary school leaders’ union, is now also open to primary leaders and has appointed a primary specialist. CPRT is working with the first holder of this post, Julie McCulloch, to explore and develop the primary-secondary relationship.
Finally, whether we accept Ofsted’s alarming judgement about a ‘wasted’ Key Stage 3, we must I think acknowledge that the education of children aged 11 to 14 has not received the national attention it deserves. Perhaps it too has tended to be viewed as no more than a prelude or anteroom to what follows, in this case the trials and triumphs of Key Stage 4. I find it significant that during the past decade there have been two major independent enquiries into post-early years education – the Cambridge Primary Review (4-11) and the Nuffield 14-19 Review – but that no such attention has been devoted to education between the ages of 11 and 14. True, Labour had a KS3 strategy, but this was a pedagogical prescription rather than an educational enquiry, its focus was as narrow as that of the primary strategies it emulated and it ignored or pre-empted the questions about structures, purposes, curriculum, assessment and indeed pedagogy that the Cambridge and Nuffield reviews rightly sought to address.
So: what, fundamentally, should Key Stage 3 be about, and what do children aged 11-14 most need from that phase of their education? Following CPR and Nuffield we need an independent 11-14 review; or even – so as to include continuity, progression and pupil maturation from Key Stages 2 to 3 as discussed here – a review of education 10-14, from Blyth’s ‘midlands of childhood’ into adolescence.
In any event, there is no room whatever for complacency in the primary world about Ofsted’s criticisms of KS3 provision. We should care as much about what happens to our children after primary education as during it.
The full text of Robin Alexander’s keynote at the March 2016 Annual Conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) may be viewed/downloaded here.