Sunday, 17 August 2014

My year as a 'Cross Phase Leader' Part 1

Back in May 2013, I was given a promotion.  It was a Second in Department job of sorts, having responsibility for KS3 curriculum and assessment, and a 50% timetable.  This seems very generous, but I was expected to spend that time doing something else entirely - working with primary schools.

Schools try many different methods of communicating with their partner primary schools, and can spend a lot of money, or very little.  The importance of such work is generally accepted, though it is often hard to pin down exactly what benefits we are expecting to reap from transition efforts.  Often it's a simple case of attracting Year 4 and 5 students to our schools - advertising the quality of the place to the main consumers; sometimes it's a worthy desire to help the students cope with the terrifying change of scenery and routine; occasionally, and I whisper it, it can be through a need to tick the appropriate box.

Happily, in my case, the first two reasons were paramount.  We are a small school, struggling in a very competitive area with two other, much longer-established secondaries.  The work of the four Cross Phase Leaders (English, Maths, STEM and PE) was in many ways simple: attract more students to our school, to help keep it viable.  However, this is a desperately 'private sector' approach, and clashed with my woolly lefty personality of education being for the kids, so I had to smother this core concern in a more Pete-friendly smock of 'helping students'.  I reasoned we in the English department could learn a lot from our peers in the primaries, and could engage in very practical issues such as cross-phase moderation, standardisation and possibly even planning.  I also wanted to take my own particular brand of teaching down to the Year 4s and 5s, hopefully working with them on projects that they wouldn't normally get involved in.  In short, I was trying to achieve quite a lot.

Once September 2013 came along, the order of the day was networking.  It's astonishing how few contacts we had with the primary schools.  We could easily get in touch with the heads of our main 'feeder' schools, of course...but what about the other schools - the ones we were interested in, as they would enlarge our catchment?  By the end of the year I had made contact with, and worked with, about 70% of the town's primaries, but what a hell of a job this was.  The break-through came in the form of the town's primary Literacy meetings which take place three times a year.  These have a teacher from every primary, and they spend time discussing curriculum changes and SATS.  Once I had infiltrated this - actually inviting them to have their January meeting in our school library - the rest was easy.  I chaired the meeting, chatted to everyone, got their emails and that was that: easy access to every primary.  Having a key contact in every school is very useful - it may be their Literacy Co-ordinator, their deputy head, or a class teacher, but it doesn't matter.  What you need is an ally who will organise things at their end, spread the word and act as a point of contact whenever you want to work with the students at their school.

Before starting the job, we CPLs had been warned of the difficulty of communicating with primary colleagues.  We were told horror stories of teachers who never check emails, or who are actively hostile to any secondary teachers who dare to enter their domain.  I was expecting to meet endless walls of resistance, but what I found in reality were warm welcomes and eager requests for help.  Most of the primary colleagues were incredibly keen to let me work with their students on 'different' work.  Any extra input on reading or writing skills was instantly snapped up, to the point where it became difficult for me to juggle everything.  The 50% timetable began to look too heavy.  In truth, I was astonished at how willing primary teachers were to get me in front of their students; but then I considered - if someone was willing to drop in and teach my Year 10 class once a week, freeing me up, I'd jump at the chance too.

The horror stories had been over-elaborate and exaggerated.  The job of working with multiple primaries across town seemed to be a little more achievable.

Part 2 will be about what I actually did in the primaries.

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