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The Big Leap: Starting Secondary

So here we are - September 1st - a date that heralds for so many people the start of a school year. This is a time that can garner a wide range of responses: I know a number of people who have long since left education, who adore that feeling of anticipation of a new term that they will never have to sit through, but instead use the reminder as a means to 'hit refresh', reflect, reassess, set new goals and targets and (perhaps most importantly) invest in a heap of new stationery. Some of the most-aware-of-term-dates adults I know are, unsurprisingly, teachers. Mostly it seems that September 1st brings both a sting as it marks the end of what always feels like a brief stint of freedom, and a feeling of freshness. The start of a school year is an opportunity to begin again. New classes, new colleagues, new resolutions. September is full of possibilities. And of course there are students, to whom the sound of a new term can echo as 'excitement', 'disappointment', 'apprehension', 'stress', and even 'fear'.

Moving to 'big' school.

Lots of secondary schools tend to begin the school year with an induction day just for newcomers - that is, year 7s. Often this group consists of keen and eager young people who have had the loooongest summer ever and are excited to start at 'big' school and see old friends and make new ones. Unfortunately though, there are also students who have spent the summer holidays trying to push the thought of a new school out of their minds.

It's not only the anxiety of moving to a (more-often-than-not) new location, meeting new staff and students, and shifting from being the oldest in the school straight back to the youngest. The way the content of the school day changes can be daunting. What was once a regular hour of literacy in the morning will become a less than daily hour or so of English, begging the question: what is the difference? 

Literacy teaching is spread between more teaching staff and across subjects.

Although there is much covered in the teaching of literacy in primary schools that is inherent in the teaching of English at secondary school, the biggest change between year 6 and 7 is that those much-honed SPaG skills become something that it is 'expected' are applied across all subjects. Whereas in primary schools, class teachers are able to exploit all writing opportunities as times to explicitly teach and assess spelling, grammar, punctuation, and all the other much-focused on writing skills, once students arrive at secondary school, these skills become far-less a focus in most subjects other than English. Because a student will go from having one teacher who teaches all subjects to one teacher per subject in the shift from year 6 to 7, it is likely that in their school week they will only encounter that one expert in English (and therefore one adult who will eagle-eye their work for errors and places where a student isn't using the sophisticated skills they no doubt mastered the year before) a few times a week. It goes without saying then, that these hard-fought for skills can slip once students have entered secondary school; no longer is literacy one of the two main foci each and every day. 

The English curriculum is more content driven that the literacy curriculum.

This is not to say that teachers of other subjects do not care about literacy. New GCSEs have highlighted the importance of all subjects taking responsibility for the teaching of literacy, and often low literacy levels are identified as contributing factors to poor performance across all subjects. But, across secondary schools (English included!) there is an expectation that students will arrive in year 7 confident in their primary literacy teachings, and able to apply these consistently. Secondary teaching staff understand how hard their colleagues in the previous phase have worked. Which brings me to the next noticeable change - the secondary curriculum is far more content driven in English. I have the pleasure of working with a number of primary colleagues who often comment on the far heftier focus on content in year 7 onwards. Where year 6 teachers will move from topic to topic each few weeks, with each unit clearly building on the skills taught in the last, secondary English has a responsibility not only to ensure that students are continuing to use these skills as well as learning more complex ones, but also that they are engaging with (often quite dense) fuller texts. 

Assessment structures change.

The focus in primary school is to support students in attaining their best possible outcomes in SATs. The vast majority of a literacy-based SAT consists of short, singular responses to questions, or multiple-choice answers. In contrast, the focus for years 7-11 is to prepare students for GCSEs: unsurprisingly, the vast majority of questions in an English GCSE paper are lengthy, often requiring an essay-style response. With the freedom offered by the Government giving 'carte blanche' to schools regarding how they assess students in years 7-9, there is hope that English departments nationwide have taken the opportunity to scaffold student assessments over the five years to support students in making that move from SAT-style to GCSE-style questions. 

How can I help at home?

One of the most-asked questions I face at Parent and Carer evenings is this: what can I do at home to help them with their English? Hopefully it will come as no surprise that some of the most helpful things you can do are linked to literacy and those hard-earned skills so thoroughly taught to them throughout their primary schooling. All of these ideas can be applied and will be of benefit to all subjects in their secondary schooling as well.

  1. Read - read to your child; read with them; listen to them read; ensure that they read independently; let them see you reading; sign them up to a book club; talk about reading (are they enjoying what they are reading? How does it compare to other things they've read? Is it difficult? Are they struggling? Is it too easy? How do they think it will end? - the options for discussion are endless!).
  2. Encourage independence through proofreading. Every time they write anything - an email, a text message, a piece of homework for any subject - encourage them to take a different coloured pen and re-read their work correcting any mistakes as they go - make sure that your help is the absolute last resort. As an adult, this independence is essential; as a student, the independence and initiative to do this consistently can easily transfer to added marks and even added grades in school work. 
  3. Continue to develop their cultural awareness - Encourage them to read widely and engage with opinions that differ from their own. Take them all over the place. If you can't get to a theatre, show them a stage production freely available on the internet. Look at and compare images of different places in the world. Encourage them to take an interest in the news. Take advantage of free museum entry and ask them to link the things they see to the things they are learning about in school whether it's a book they're reading, or a science topic they are studying. 
  4. Talk - develop their curiosity and reasoning skills - Ask them to describe the scene out the window. Ask them what their opinion is on a news item. Ask them why they prefer one film genre to another. Ask them to argue why they deserve dessert/a packet of crisps/to go to the park. Ask them what they think they would say in another person's position. Ask them what the difference is between two reports of the same incident. Ask them why an advert works. Ask them why they think the grass is green but flower petals are all kinds of colours. Ask them to explain how to brush their teeth without using the words: tooth, teeth, brush, paste, mouth. Ask them anything that gets them thinking!

So although September 1st can signal changes to come, it is without question one of the most exciting times in the school calendar and a time for fresh and exciting new starts, with lots of interesting things to experience. 

Keep your eyes peeled this autumn for the launch of Grouty's Guide Book Club, and the upcoming Challenge Membership.