Guest Blog: What is the best way to tackle maths at the primary/secondary transition?

In this blog, Mari Palmer, headteacher of Settrington All Saints’ Church of England Primary School and Director of our North Yorkshire Coast Research School, looks at the lessons learned from a maths transition project  and poses three questions for schools to consider...

What is the best way to tackle mathematics at the primary/secondary transition?

Like many important areas of practice, research evidence offers us a useful, though limited, steer to answer such important questions. Recent research by Prendergast et al. (2019) confirms many of our instincts: there is a lack of continuity and a lack of teacher knowledge about each other’s curriculum. Clearly then, professional dialogue is really valuable.

On the basis of this desire for greater professional dialogue at the transition, we started our maths transition project in the North Yorkshire Coast Opportunity Area by working jointly with Years 6 and 7 maths teachers in our area. We conducted joint observations and scrutinised the curriculum together, as well as sharing CPD.

We have now run two iterations of this programme, with more participants the second time. As part of our post-course evaluation this time, we collected some startling data. We were aware, from personal experience, that there was a gap between many of the primary and secondary schools in the area. But, when we looked at the data, it re-inforced to us the magnitude of the issue.

In our area, as a primary head I would actually say we have reasonably good relationships with our local secondary schools. We send up SATs results, they come out and visit the children in primary, and run quite a series of visits for them over the course of Years 5 and 6.

However, after working with staff around the EEF's Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3 guidance report, we realised that, while the pastoral care may be strong, the academic transition was often close to non-existent, including in our own school.

When we started working with the two local secondary schools which we feed to, I had not even met any of the four maths teachers involved, let alone discussed the transition of our children! In addition to this, most of the secondary teachers involved had not met each other before.

The staff had a chance to work together for three central get-togethers, and then two more half-days of observations in schools, at the end of which we collected an evaluation from the teachers involved. 

The results included findings such as the following... Prior to the project starting, in the last three years:

  • 58% of staff had not been in a classroom from the other Key Stage;
  • 58% of staff had not observed a maths lesson from the other Key Stage;
  • 52% had not spoken with a maths teacher from the other Key Stage;
  • 52% had not seen the curriculum from the other Key Stage;
  • 79% had not worked together on a project with staff from another Key Stage; and
  • 86% had not shared CPD together.

As a result of the project:

  • 100% of the teachers involved said they are beginning or managing to align their teaching between the Key Stages in some way;
  • 100% are beginning to develop a coherent academic plan between the Key Stages and 86% have begun introducing this;
  • 93% have begun to develop a more coherently planned curriculum and 72% have begun introducing this to the pupils;
  • 100% have considered a progression in skills; and
  • 100% of participants met members of staff they didn’t previously know.

Sometimes statistics plainly speak for themselves!

Aside from these stats, the links that were made which led to further developments were also great...

  • A primary school in one cluster is delivering training around manipulatives to a secondary in another cluster.
  • One secondary has rewritten its Key Stage 3 curriculum in light of what it saw in the Key Stage 2 classrooms.
  • And some KS2 schools have reintroduced calculator lessons to help pupils prepare for secondaries.
  • Finally, I also discovered KS3 teachers thought I taught children how to use a compass and a calculator. I didn’t… but I do now!

It can be the coordination of timely profession dialogue at the academic transition that makes small but significant changes to teacher practice and the curriculum just like this, so that our pupils’ make the leap with the mathematics academic transition.

We should ask ourselves:

  • How much attention are we paying to the academic transition given the challenge can be pronounced in mathematics?
  • As we pay attention to curriculum development, how do we ensure continuity and progression across phases and key stages?
  • How can we find windows of time in the busy term to ensure professional dialogue within and across phases?

And, to re-iterate, I recommend taking a look at the EEF's Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3 guidance report – as well as its supporting implementation resource, the RAG self-assessment guide (pdf) – to develop your work at the transition.