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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

5 Bridges Across the Primary and Secondary Divide

Seven or more years ago I visited Serlby Park All Through School with a question, “Why would we become an all through school?”  I met the inspirational Dave Harris (@bravehead) who was the Headteacher of Serlby Park at the time.  Five hours later I left with the question, “Why wouldn’t we become an all through school?”  Building bridges across the primary and secondary phases was Dave’s work and passion.

Photo Credit: Sudheer via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Sudheer via Compfight cc

Dave was fully committed to a vision of schooling that brought about a continuity of education for children from the age of three, through adolescence and up to nineteen when they left Serlby Park as young adults.  It wasn’t just Dave’s enthusiasm that captured your attention, it was his rationale.  I arrived at Serlby Park questioning what they were doing, I left questioning what I was doing.

Building Transition Bridges

Ruth Sutton (2000) examined how schools dealt with transition issues and developed the idea of five ‘bridges’ that would span the primary/secondary divide.  The first three are:

  • The ‘managerial/bureaucratic’ bridge,
  • The ‘social and personal’ bridge
  • The ‘curriculum content’ bridge

From meetings of headteachers, the transferring of student files, to taster and stepping up days there are a whole variety of ways the first two bridges are met.  The National Curriculum, for all its faults, got some momentum going with the curriculum bridge but it’s still too hit and miss.  I wonder how often primary teachers utter these immortal words?

“Why are they teaching that again in Year 7?  They did it in Year 4!”

#SLTChat 9th March 2014 - Transition Bridges

#SLTChat 9th March 2014 – Transition Bridges

Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) once mused about whether throwing out many secondary schools’ Year 7 curriculum and replacing it with Year 8’s would be a problem.  Some people might think it would be a step forward in most schools.  I think there is a lot of truth in this and recent work at St. Mary’s has been focussed on substantially increasing the level of challenge in Key Stage 3.  This work is on-going as there is much more we can do.

Two vitally important bridges that are totally under-represented or missed in the transition conversations are:

  • The ‘pedagogical’ bridge
  • The ‘management of learning’ bridge

These present a totally different challenge for schools and teachers.

Primary are from Pluto, Secondary are from Saturn

Photo Credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Compficght cc

Photo Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via Compficght cc

Teachers from primary and secondary schools are both from the same universe but come from different planets or so it seems.  I’m not sure this statement would stand up to massive scientific scrutiny, as there is probably as much diversity within each of the school phases as there is between them, however, primary and secondary school teachers do seem to have some very different approaches.  This is possibly an exaggeration of the difference between teachers in primary and secondary school but I would suggest it holds a level of truth.  Building the pedagogical and management of learning bridges will involve challenging some very fundamental assumptions and beliefs teachers in each phase have.

Imaging the teaching of Mathematics, secondary Mathematics Departments love to set in homogeneous groups, students complete similar, if not the same, largely conceptual work with the teacher the only adult present.  Compare this to primary schools who often teach in mixed ability classes, group students by ability within the class, differentiate the materials, make Mathematics a very practical experience and have a number of additional adults in the room to support learning.

If we are going to bridge this gap, some may call it a chasm, primary and secondary teachers are going to need to go beyond simply sharing their curriculum, including assessment methods, and approaches to teaching but be given the opportunity to observe each other and jointly plan units of work.

Our Mathematics Challenge

Maths Task

In September 2014, St. Mary’s Catholic College will be joined on the one site by Christ the King Catholic Primary School.  As a hard federated governing body we took the decision to appoint an Assistant Headteacher responsible for developing a Mathematics Curriculum for 3-16 year olds, as one coherent whole, and numeracy across the curriculum in both schools.  We wanted to move beyond the physical building of the new schools, which had occupied so much of our time for the last five years, back to our vision of developing all through education (as opposed to necessarily an all through school).  After two gruelling days for candidates, we appointed Heather Martin who is an early years specialist, has previously been a Mathematics Consultant within the local authority and who impressed with her ideas around the development of pedagogy across the phases.  Heather will be the principal architect and builder of the pedagogy & learning bridge with Mathematics her chosen material to work with.

She will shortly assume the led role in a fantastic collaborative enterprise involving the National Mathematics Partnership and the full family of Blackpool Catholic schools (one secondary and eight primary).  Initial work has already seen visits from St. Mary’s Maths teachers to Christ the King, St. Kentigern’s and St. Cuthbert’s Catholic Primary schools and vice versa.  There is a genuine excitement and professional learning from just these first visits.

#SLTChat 9th March 2014 - Breaking Down the Transition Barriers

#SLTChat 9th March 2014 – Breaking Down the Transition Barriers

Over the coming months there will be the development of a full transition unit in Mathematics.  With the leadership provided by Heather and the National Mathematics Partnership I’m expecting in time a coherent, continuous, challenging 3-16 Mathematics Curriculum to develop, with our answer to life after levels, more opportunities for teachers to observe and learn from each other’s’ pedagogical approaches and the way learning is managed.

All Through Education isn’t just about structures, though these can help accelerate and provide a test bed for developing practice, it is about a commitment to engaging in long term, for better or worse cross phase partnerships where staff can learn from different practice and extend their professional repertoire.  In the final analysis all through education is about the children.

#SLTChat 9th March 2014 - Why Transition Matters to Us All

#SLTChat 9th March 2014 – Why Transition Matters to Us All


Sutton, Ruth (2000), Primary to Secondary: Overcoming the Muddle in the Middle, Ruth Sutton Publications, Salford




7 thoughts on “5 Bridges Across the Primary and Secondary Divide

  1. I am very interested in the numeracy/maths transition work. We have got a massive job to do with our maths teaching and realise the need to work with the partner primaries. I would be really keen to find out more about the approaches Heather Martin has used and what advice she would pass on.

    Posted by wendy daly | March 29, 2014, 7:30 am
    • Dear Wendy
      I’m pretty sure I’ll be blogging out updates about the transition programme, development of the Maths Curriculum and the numeracy element. Getting Maths right from 3-16 is a challenge for lots of us.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | March 29, 2014, 8:19 am
  2. Thanks for this, Stephen. I was the deputy head in a 4-18 school and then the head of a 7-18 school. Have lots of thoughts about this! Hope perhaps to have a conversation with you on the subject sometime.

    Posted by Jill Berry | April 5, 2014, 3:54 pm


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