Tanya Grech Welden is a mother of three, writer and secondary English teacher. Her career has taken her to Liverpool (UK), Port Augusta and back to her home town of Adelaide where she has taught in primary, tertiary and secondary schools. She is a passionate advocate for literacy and likes to dabble in business marketing and fiction writing for adolescents.
As a teacher and a mother it is well known that I have some fairly strong opinions about the decision of CESA to implement the integration of year 7 into secondary settings. The State Minister for Education, Susan Close insists that “there is no evidence that where a 12 year old is educated makes much difference, if any difference at all.” Clearly the current government is choosing to ignore the continual slide in academic performance of students in this state as reflected in NAPLAN. Some would think that this is evidence enough. Now while I personally don’t place too much faith in NAPLAN, if you speak to many teachers (both primary and secondary), they will identify a growing concern about the ability of primary teachers to deliver a curriculum that meets the social, academic and emotional needs of early adolescents. It also follows that, the phasing in of the National Curriculum has exacerbated the effect of this tenfold and was probably the final straw for Catholic Education who then decided to throw caution to the wind and make the transition (with or without the support of the State government).
It makes sense then that many parents are asking what is the difference between educating a year 7 (or 12 year old) in primary school or high school? Is there even a difference in what can be offered in these settings? The simple answer is yes, there is a difference and that difference is massive. In order understand this one must first appreciate the ways in which primary and secondary teachers are trained. Primary teachers, while being experts in pedagogy, are trained as generalist teachers. In other words, most primary teachers teach across all learning areas, from Numeracy to Literacy and everything in between. The mind boggles as to the diversity of content that they manage and as such they are experts in the art of integration. Secondary teachers on the other hand are specialists. That is to say that they will most often have an undergraduate degree with a major in one or two learning areas (Maths & Science or English & Humanities) along with an additional qualification in the field of education. These differences while having an impact on the amount of knowledge teachers bring to the classroom, also alters the way in which specific subjects are approached.
Currently too many students in South Australia are commencing high school with large gaps in learning.
For South Australian students in year 7 this suddenly became increasing significant with the phasing in of the National Curriculum a few years ago. Prior to this South Australian schools existed happily within their own little ‘bubbles’. While we knew that our interstate counterparts commenced high school at year 7 (aside from some erratic grumbling about the challenge for the occasional student moving between states), we didn’t really think too much about what other states were doing. The National Curriculum landed in teachers’ ‘pigeon-holes’ along with the assumption that the year 7 curriculum would be taught in a secondary context by a specialist teacher. For primary teachers of year 7 this presented two main challenges. Firstly, how they might go about teaching a subject effectively without the resourcing and facilities normally available to students in high schools. Secondly, these same teachers had to deal with the reality that the curriculum assumed they had an undergraduate degree (and understanding of) every subject area. The latter, remembering that our primary teachers are generalist teachers, was frankly unreasonable and requires nothing short of superhuman abilities. Secondary teachers, particularly those in the middle years, bear the brunt of the inevitable failure of this when they inherit these students in year 8. Currently too many students in South Australia are commencing high school with large gaps in learning. While some of this missed content can be pushed aside, the skills and fundamentals must be mastered before teachers can move on with more sophisticated concepts. This inevitably leads to time spent in ‘catch up’ with gaps continuing to appear well into high school. These gaps might be what we are starting to see in our NAPLAN results.
Of course, even understanding the curriculum side of things parents will still ask, “How will my child cope with the demands of high school as a 12 year old?” As a mother of three I understand these concerns. After all, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the social and emotional well-being of our children. While each child is unique, and individual experiences will vary, most 12 year-olds will cope well with the demands of secondary school. It is important to remember that the rest of Australia has been doing this for a long time as have our counterparts in the United Kingdom and in other places across the globe. In fact, in many schools across this state students from R-12 already share campuses and in these situations students not only survive but thrive. Furthermore, there is a strong argument to suggest that the social and emotional needs of 12 year-olds are more akin to 14, 16 and 18 year-olds than 5 or 8 year-olds. I witnessed this level of mismatched needs first-hand while working as an Assistant Principal of a Catholic primary school in Adelaide’s east. Here I observed the daily struggles of primary principals as they tried to make sense of the ‘teenage’ behaviours exhibited by students in their schools. Make no mistake, year 7’s were as ill fitted to this context as I was (A high school teacher trying to lead 5 year-olds in Godly play).
While the move of our year 7’s to high school comes with some degree of apprehension, it is no doubt the preferable option for enhancing the educational outcomes of students in this state. In light of the reality that, for the time being, year 7’s will continue to be funded as primary students, one can only applaud Catholic Education SA for their move which, while not only brave, is undertaken without financial assistance from the current state government.
* To view Channel 9’s coverage of the story click here.