Last year we set up and ran as series of interviews with pupils in Y6 from April through to a similar time in Y7. The purpose of the interviews was to see what happened to their attitudes and approaches at the point of transition. We have engaged in a range of transition projects in the past but they have all tended to be based around learning experiences and we felt it important to look at the children’s attitudes and how they might change over that most important of years so that we might be better informed to deal with transition from primary to secondary education.
The six pupils involved in the project were carefully chosen to ensure that they would be receptive to the initiative, that they would be happy to share with us their thoughts and could be relied upon to provide us with an honest account every step of the way. We worked closely with our high school colleagues but they did not attend the interviews until the last couple, as they did not want to inhibit the children’s responses. The semi-structured interviews revolved around the same questions and left space for the children to elaborate and expand on given themes (What makes a great teacher? What makes a great learner? What are the features of the best lessons?) The children’s responses remained consistent in key areas. They all believed good subject knowledge, good classroom management, interesting lessons and getting to know students individually so they can help them learn were the key components. The latter response was interesting because this was not mentioned at primary school but something they talked about regularly at high school. This was informed by the fact they had experienced a range of teachers and some would regularly have supply staff covering regular staff absence. All very different to the primary model they had been used to. They all believed that where staff really made the effort to get to know them, they benefitted and the learning was more successful.
None of the interviews gave us any great revelations and we were not surprised by their answers however the interviews informed staff meetings at the high school as they recognised the value of hearing the thoughts of new students who were meeting their primary school head and deputy each half term to talk about the teaching and learning. When it came to classroom management they very quickly recognised the teachers who made idle threats. They cited many examples of teachers threatening those displaying unacceptable behaviour with detentions and other such sanctions but not following them through. They said that all students grasped these matters very quickly and those prone to ‘playing up’ would know they could do so without any further recourse meaning those who wanted to learn were potentially distracted. The children also stated that the higher the position of the member of staff, the more respect they had in the classroom. It was apparent that supply and cover staff were viewed on the whole as those who dealt with the brunt of poor behaviour and were the least effective at dealing with it. Lessons were covered by staff who weren’t specialists in that subject so the quality of teaching and learning could be a cause of behavioural problems. The number of teachers the children had during a week was a big factor in their changing attitude to teaching and learning and their comments about staff getting to know them were obviously informed by this impasse. How do all their teachers get to know them?
They stayed firm to their views that the best learners were resilient, didn’t give up, could avoid distractions and sought to challenge themselves. They spoke about the importance of a growth mindset and it was good to hear that the same messages were being given at primary and secondary about the importance of failure as part of the learning process. They told us about children who had left primary school with them who now misbehaved and would tell us we ‘wouldn’t believe’ how they had changed. We pondered on this and privately thought about the level of emotional support that some of these children had needed at primary and whether the high school was able to replicate this model given the different approaches at secondary and the difficulty in engaging with parents once they leave primary. The influence of older students also seemed to have a bearing on behaviour and perceptions of the school environment. Children who were big fish in a small pond suddenly became small fish in a bigger pond, this was clearly something they all wrestled with and overall seemed to have grasped positively, knowing where and who to avoid as if by osmosis.
The children’s views on the best lessons didn’t waver over the duration of the project and largely the key factors for them were found in exciting lessons that challenged their thinking and help them learn. They talked about the importance of engagement and questioning, being comfortable enough to make mistakes and to know that they weren’t going to be in trouble for make them. The best lessons were, again, where they knew the teachers and the teachers knew them.
It would have been interesting to keep up with the interviews as the group progressed through high school. They were still excited to see their primary school staff but I guess that would have cooled off over time! By the end of the project high school staff sat in with us and we had a good enough relationship for the children to continue to inform us and in doing so enable to us look again at transition. How do we build and develop the kind of relationships that are necessary following transition to high school? How do we limit the number of staff and so enable those who do teach the children to really get to know them? Is it possible to do this when each subject requires specialist teachers?
I hope the high school have kept the group together as a teaching and learning forum and continue to meet with them. When we want to know about teaching and learning who better to ask than those in the class.