Transition days are not for testing

In my recent post, Making Transition Count, I shared 20 top tips to improve a pupil’s transition from primary to secondary school.  In this follow-up post I’d like to focus on the all-important transition day that usually takes place in June or July and affords Year 6 pupils a sneaky peek of life in big school…

Two schools, both alike in dignity, in fair academia, where we lay our scene…

Imagine you’ve taught in the same school since you qualified. Now, after many happy years, you’re on the move. You’ve secured a promotion in the school down the road and start in September.

You’ve already met your new boss a couple of times and have read the school prospectus and staff handbook cover-to-cover, over and over.

Now, your new headteacher has invited you in to her school for a day before the summer holidays in order to help you acclimatise.

What would you need to have accomplished by the end of the day in order to consider your visit a success, do you think? What would help you make the move?

Of course, it’s not all about you! A workplace visit is a two-way process. There are some things your new school will need you to do – such as have your photo taken for your staff badge and read and sign the school’s IT policy before setting you up on the school network. And there are some things you will need to do in order to better prepare yourself and alleviate some of your natural anxieties – such as familiarising yourself with the school’s expectations of lesson planning, getting to grips with their assessment policy, and feeling the shape of the school day.

I believe that, in the balance of school and staff needs, the scales should always tilt towards the new member of staff. Indeed, as a headteacher, I would always ensure new staff were put before bureaucracy – their ‘getting to know you’ visits were specifically designed to make them feel at ease and to enthuse them about the future, not as a means of ticking some boxes off the induction process

But I digress…

Imagine how you’re feeling on the morning of your visit. Excited? Almost certainly. It’s a new job and a promotion at that. You can’t wait to get started. A little apprehensive, perhaps? It’s a big change, there will be lots of new systems and structures to get used to. You’ve only known the inner workings of one school before. It will be a steep learning curve, that’s for sure.

Now imagine how you’d feel if, upon arrival, rather than a coffee in the staff room and a friendly chat with the head, you are shepherded into a windowless room and made to sit a number of exams.

It would feel pretty soul-destroying, wouldn’t it? You’d feel under intense pressure, determined to do well and make a good first impression, but nervous about what would happen if you failed the tests – would it mean you’d lose the job before you’d even started it? Whatever the consequences, you’d certainly be embarrassed if the results were not good.

And what does this testing regime say about your new school? Is that what it’s going to be like in your new job? No tea and comfort, no supportive chats, no arm round the shoulders and reassurance?

Whatever your anxiety, imagine how much worse it would be if you were only eleven years old and therefore less socially and emotionally developed, less used to life changes.

Now think about what your school does on its transition day in July.

Many schools do exactly what I’ve described above: they use the opportunity to test pupils in English and maths in order to get baseline data for setting classes and writing targets. Personally, I feel this is misguided and potentially harmful.

Other schools, in contrast, strap their pupils into a rollercoaster and give their new pupils an exciting, high octane ride through the very best that secondary school has to offer.

Every ‘taster’ lesson is a veritable firework display – literally in the case of science. Teachers are funny and self-effacing, relaxed and patient, and lessons are fun-packed and short, punctuated by lots of ‘down time’ to socialise.

I feel this is – though perhaps not quite as misguided as testing pupils – potentially harmful, too, because it proffers a false promise upon which reality inevitably fails to deliver.

My advice?

Ensure your transition days strike the right balance between enthusing pupils about what delights await them in September (whilst also allaying their fears) and giving them a realistic vision of the future.
In short, don’t test and don’t over-sell the secondary experience.

You want the day to be fun and engaging, to make pupils excited about starting their new school, but you don’t want to give the false impression that every day is full of fun and social time, because the reality will not only prove disappointing by contrast but pupils will also feel mis-sold and cheated. This may then demotivate them in September.

What you definitely should avoid on transition days – which often fall hot on the heels of high-stakes, high-pressure key stage 2 SATs – is testing…

Some schools understandably want to re-test pupils to help determine which sets they will be in.

Personally, I would argue that, in an ideal world where SATs results and Year 6 teacher assessments are trusted and where primary and secondary colleagues work more collaboratively, re-testing should not be necessary.

After all, what message does it send to pupils if they are re-tested prior to or immediately after starting Year 7? That their SATs were pointless? That everything they’ve achieved to date was for nothing?

And to what extent does further testing punish pupils and pile on more emotional pressure?

No, I don’t much like re-testing. But…

I understand and accept that some schools feel re-testing is necessary and therefore use CATs tests or other diagnostics assessments.

So re-test if you feel you have to but please don’t do it on a transition day.

I happen to agree that the best time to do it is not at the start of September immediately following transfer – it’s not the best start for pupils who are already feeling nervous, discomforted and unconfident. And September is too late if the test results are to be used to inform setting and targets.

Tests should, therefore, be carried out before the summer when pupils are more confident and comfortable – the big fishes in the little pond – and when the results of the tests can be used to set pupils from the start of September and help with target-setting, rather than after pupils have been organised into sets and may then need to be moved up or down.

However, the July transition day is not – in my view – the time or the place for this.

Transition days are precious, you should value them and use them wisely to help your new pupils adjust to secondary life and to make friends.

You should use transition days to help pupils grow in confidence and self-esteem, and become accustomed to the systems and structures they’ll have to work within from September.

If you really want to know what to do on these days, then ask your current Year 7s and their parents. What would have helped them make the move more smoothly? What did they enjoy about their transition day last year and what, conversely, made them feel more anxious?

If you found this useful, why not take a look at my book Making Key Stage 3 Count which is available in paperback and ebook. It offers lots more advice on how to make a success of transition. The Kindle edition is currently discounted to £4.99. 

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