Easing Primary to Secondary Transitions with Chris Foley
In preparation of Year 6s moving on to secondary school after summer, host Helen Woodward sat down with Chris Foley (Headteacher at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic High School and CEO Designate of the St. Teresa’s of Calcutta Catholic Academy Trust) to talk about how schools can help transitioning children feel more comfortable in their new environment.
We’ve provided a transcript of the interview below, but you can watch the podcast in full right here!
HW: Thank you for joining us today, Chris!
CF: No problem at all, you’re most welcome.
HW: The focus of our discussion today is about Year 6 to Year 7 transitions. So, children currently in Year 6 will have had around 18 months of disrupted schooling by September. Some of those children will have thrived at home and will have had computers, Wi-Fi and parental support, but for others it will have been a huge struggle and we know from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office that around 9% of households currently don’t have Wi-Fi. So we’ve got children with a range of needs who will all be coming together in September to Year 7. What are the key challenges drawing children from multiple settings to create an effective learning community in Year 7?
CF: I think the first thing that we’d look at as a school is knowing those children from those diverse primary schools. We’re quite fortunate that most of our pupils come from a small number of Catholic feeder schools. Now, that’s helpful for building a shared culture. I think the first approach we would always take is making sure, first and foremost, we know the children well. Sometimes it starts with going out and visiting the schools and really asking the right kinds of questions. I think it’s quite liberating at the moment, having not had any SATs, because the question used to be “what are they going to get?” and now – in terms of our thinking – it’s framing the question as “what are they like and how have they found the lockdown?” Making sure first and foremost that those children, no matter what their experience has been over the last 2 years, when they come to our school they feel a sense of belonging, and they absolutely realise that the most important person in the building is them, not the teachers. Getting that information right, in terms of how they’ve found the lockdown, what have they liked, what have they not liked, how’s their wellbeing been affected? Not just “where are the gaps in their learning?”, “when do you test the Year 6 pupils?”, “when do you do the baseline?”; we don’t have a clue yet. I think, for me, the challenge is to make sure when those pupils come to our school, they feel welcome and happy, and they don’t feel they’ve got to go through this testing regime to determine where they’re going to fit. We’re going to be putting most focus on our most vulnerable pupils, our SEND pupils. We currently have some pupils coming to us in September that will be in school 1 day a week from now to July, just to make sure they can feel a sense of security in their new surroundings, and I really think it’s about solving the right problems, but before you even do that, getting the correct information. I think, too often, transitions can sometimes feel, from a Year 6’s perspective, like a one-way street. “You’re coming to our secondary school, therefore you’ll do things our way”. I think the world’s changed now, hasn’t it? We’ve got to think “they’re coming to our school, how can we use their gifts and talents to make it a better place”, if that makes sense, Helen?
HW: Yeah, absolutely! And some really key messages there about belonging, which is so important for children to be able to have that sense of security and stability. You’ve already started answering this Chris, because you’ve already started talking about some of the children who are going to be in St. Monica’s for 1 day a week this term, some of those more vulnerable children. How else do you work with primary feeder school colleagues to help ease that transition for children joining St. Monica’s this year?
CF: To give you context, Helen, I took over the school 2 years ago, and the situation was quite challenging. The first thing we looked to do was to go out to the primary schools and have my favourite town hall meeting! If you want children to come to your school, you have to open yourself up to their parents and let them ask you anything. The first thing we always want to do is to talk about our school, and then let the parents ask you a question regarding what’s on their mind. Because it’s quite a challenging jump from being in a smaller school to this enormous organisation, it’s about making the parents feel that we will know their child. And then in terms of understanding what the children can and can’t do, what they find challenging, my dream has always been to, in the summer term, put my heads of English and Maths into a Year 5 classroom and watch the primary teachers, see how they teach those subjects. Because I think all too often there’s that – I suppose it’s that secondary smugness! We think we know better, and we don’t always. In the longer term, I’d love to see Year 6 SATs staff come into a secondary school. A MAT (Multi Academy Trust) gives you good opportunities to see how those pupils transition, and not just September/October, but really in February, March and April of Year 7 so there’s an efficiency of learning. So all those things build that culture of togetherness, but with an appropriate challenge. If you always, always say what you are doing, that knowledge vacuum that always grows when you say nothing, that can be reduced. Being a primary school teacher is far harder, I think, than being a secondary school teacher! It really is! Because it’s far more intense in many ways. I think that when you understand that, you can improve the transition.
HW: You’re describing some really positive collaborative working, and therefore collaborative learning, between your primary feeder schools and St. Monica’s, which is fantastic. I’ve clocked that you’ve been at St. Monica’s for 2 years, so I’m not sure whether you’ve got an answer to this question! But: do you see, or have you seen, any recurring transition issues? If yes, is there a way that collaborative learning can ease some of that?
CF: The biggest recurring issue I think I’ve seen across two headships and then in a senior post in another secondary school is that it’s vital secondary schools understand and see each pupil as an individual pupil. What you often find is that the most vulnerable young people need a little bit more time to move to a completely new context. When I was deputy of a school in Oldham, we trialled a Year 7 school, whereby the pupils would come into, and they would stay in the same zone of learning. At St. Monica’s this year, because we’ve reduced movement time and we’ve allocated spaces for each year group, rather than everyone going wherever they want. That’s had a huge impact on Year 7 in terms of keeping them in the right frame of mind for learning. So I think keeping those routines strong and modelling some level of primary experience is important. The example that I’d give is obviously, because of COVID, and with everyone returning in September we made the decision to, at the end of every break and lunchtime, make all the year groups line up. Which sounds like quite a silly thing to do! But it’s about establishing a culture of how the building functions and how people walk around. And I think primary Headteachers and primary colleagues are really strong at routine and skilling-up pupils. For some reason – no one really knows – they lose all those skills as they move through secondary school, and it’s a frustration isn’t it! So we just try to retain some of those things so it meant that when Year 6 became Year 7, it was really precise in terms of walking down the corridor in single file, all those things. I also think that the communication between the head of year through to Headteachers and parents has got to be really clear. When my children went to secondary school – my daughter’s in Year 5, my son’s in Year 8 right now – what was strange was how communication changes. And I think you only really see that when you’re on the other side. We’ll start to use things like our Twitter account, our YouTube account, to begin to do online briefings and information briefings for those pupils to make sure that when they come into the building, there’s no surprises.
HW: You’ve gone ahead and answered my next question about communication with parents, which is great! And I see that on your Twitter feed, which is one of the reasons we really wanted to have you on the podcast.
CF: My dad always used to say to me: “Listen, Chris. People will choose your school because of how they perceive you.” And therefore, you have to realise that you’re a civic figure, and as a civic figure you have to act in a certain way and say things in a certain way, and build the narrative of your organisation. What you’ll find is people will buy into something if you talk about it all the time. So we talk about being ‘on the bus’, which is a bit cheesy I know. You can’t complain if a parent complains about something when you’ve not made lots of attempts to say what you’re doing. That’s where the Twitter account came from. When I took over the school, Helen, the school was in special measures and its reputation wasn’t particularly strong. It had been a battle. And you have to use every possible way you’ve got to build that narrative. And if you don’t do it, then don’t expect those things to improve.
HW: And parents have their own concerns, don’t they? They have their own concerns about their children’s transition and what’s happening, and they want to have clear messages to feel their sense of belonging and affiliation with the school, too.
CF: And also giving parents that kind of access, you know. It’s difficult as a Headteacher to meet parents all the time. But you want those Year 7 children to know that the Headteacher sees them all the time. They come in to lessons, they do assemblies, where possible they’re on the gate. And I think those things make parents feel better. That’s part of the reason why we have quite a tight routine in the morning, everyone wears a high-vis jacket, everyone knows where they’re going to be, so they feel secure. A primary school is a massive part of a child’s life, and you don’t want them to lose their enthusiasm and joy for learning when they come to secondary school.
HW: Chris, you’ve given us some really powerful messages about belonging, about children being individuals, and the importance of working with them and listening to them and understanding their needs, you’ve talked about collaborative learning between teachers across secondary and primary, you’ve talked about the importance of establishing routines, stability and communication, particularly communication with parents, and a really nice piece of work about how we mitigate the risks, not just for the school but actually for those individual children that have then not been able to engage or fully participate in school. And that’s all been fantastically helpful to hear. Thank you so much for your time and for your insight today!