Curing the First Year blues
Measures are being taken to stop students going backwards when they arrive in secondary school. Kim Bielenberg reports
Just weeks ago they were the big fish in a small pond. Now they are the small fry again.When it comes to making the transition from primary to second-level many students struggle to cope.
Even bright students can flounder in the less intimate surrounding of a second-level school, and curriculum planners admit there is sometimes little continuity in progress.
Anne Looney, chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), hopes the new Junior Cycle reforms will smooth this uneasy transition.
The reforms, which will place less emphasis on exams, are expected to transform lower secondary education when they are implemented next year
Alarming research from the ESRI showed that most students make little progress in first year in the key areas of reading and maths, and some even regress.
Ms Looney told the Irish Independent: "It wasn't just that progress was limited in literacy and maths. Some actually went backwards. We are trying to move out of a situation where students disimprove in first year."
Ms Looney said an important part of the Junior Cycle changes will be improved exchange of information between primary and second-level schools.
From next year, primary schools will have to send a standardised report card for every student to their next schools.
"These report cards will enable the school to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of pupils. The post-primary school will get the standardised test scores from the primary schools."
It is hoped that the new curriculum will give schools the ability to design a first-year programme suited to the needs of students in each school.
For example, if information coming from primary schools shows that students need help with reading and Maths, classes can be planned to take that into account.
"You can have a bespoke first year. Some schools are already doing this. In Killinarden Community School, for example, they have devoted extra hours to literacy and numeracy."
Curriculum planners also hope that the new Junior Cycle will ensure greater continuity from sixth class in primary school. The new English curriculum will place special emphasis on this.
The social adjustment faced by pupils moving up to second-level is just as important as the academic change.
Aine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents Council (primary), said: "They are going from an environment where they dealt with just one teacher to dealing with 10 or 12. That is not always easy."
They might be going from a small village school to a big town where they don't know any of the other pupils.
They may feel intimidated at first travelling on a bus with older pupils.
For other students the difficulty is one of organisation. They struggle to cope with a timetable of over 10 subjects, where they have to move from classroom to classroom, and have the right books and homework.
Research by the ESRI has shown that schools vary in the provision of support structures for first year students.
According to ESRI Moving Up study the schools can help by implementing specific measures. These include:
* Greater links between primary and second-level, so that students learn about what to expect at their new school;
* The holding of a special induction day with staff who act as class tutors for first year students;
* The appointment of student mentors, often known as "buddies", who are assigned to first years. The senior pupils give students advice and guidance right from the start.
At Kells Community School in Co Meath, teachers place special emphasis on making the change as smooth as possible.
Deputy Principal Kay O'Brien: "The idea that they are now small fish in a big pond can cause a lot of anxiety. We try to alleviate that."
"We go out to primary schools to try to talk to the students.
"Before they come to the school the students produce a document called 'my passport'. It includes information about them such as their hobbies, and what their worries are. This is sent to their class tutor, so we have a good knowledge of the students coming into the school."
Students also do a test before they arrive at the school so that that their needs can be carefully assessed. Under the "buddy" programme in the school, 30 sixth year students are each assigned three or four first years and act as trained mentors.
Students are also given practical advice on how to organise lockers, books and the timetable
Kay O'Brien says parents play an important role in helping the transition to second-level.
"I would advise parents to tell the teachers if there is anything that is worrying their child about the move. Even small things can cause a lot of worry, but if teachers know about them it can be a great help."
The National Parents Council advises students to contact the student's class tutor, form teacher, or year head, if there are problems with the transition.