Why I moved from secondary to primary and love it

Six years in a challenging secondary school were fulfilling, but this Teach First ambassador wanted to make the greatest possible impact on children’s lives. And so she switched to the primary sector

My road to Damascus was a graffiti-clad street in Berlin, which is where I escaped to after almost six years of slogging it out in challenging secondary schools. Don’t get me wrong – I loved my job and the last years as head of year in key stage 4 were incredibly fulfilling. I enjoyed seeing pupils grow into young adults, sparring with them as they formed their own ideas and struggled to figure out their place in the world.

Each year, GCSE results’ day came and went with an inevitable mix of celebration, relief, disappointment and frustration. Frustration that, despite all our efforts and their hard work, we were still only sticking plasters over gaping holes; holes that had been allowed to get bigger and shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

I’ve swapped smoking for snotty noses

In Berlin I spent two years studying research and evidence, trying to better understand how to break the persistent link between socio-economic disadvantage and a young person’s life chances.

As a Teach First ambassador, this was not a new mission for me but I approached it with renewed determination.

I didn’t find all the answers, but I did have a moment of absolute clarity. I realised that if I wanted to have the greatest possible impact on children’s lives then I needed to move into the primary phase.

And so last June I became deputy headteacher at a primary academy.

My primary colleagues will say I’m late to the party – and they’re probably right. But my experience in secondary education has given me greater capacity to drive learning forward in a primary setting.

I am acutely aware of the challenges children face when they transition to secondary school, and the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

I am constantly dogged by the shadows of my former secondary pupils when I think about the self-confidence, independence and grit our children need to develop from the moment they join us in reception.

I am driven by a sense of urgency to close the gaps that we know are already beginning to emerge by the time children are 3. I’ve seen what happens when we don’t.

I hold myself accountable to the truism that “if I am good enough, they will be smart enough” and I relish that in primary schools we have a real opportunity to fulfil this commitment; the mindsets and learning behaviours children can develop when they are with the same teacher all day, every day, will set them up for life.

The past year has also changed my perspective on secondary education. It baffles me there is still such a divide among practitioners across the phases and misconceived stigmas attached to both.

As head of year 7, I was guilty of not communicating well enough with our primary feeder schools.

Instead of building on all the positive behaviours for learning – the silent stop, magnet eyes, an ability to move independently around the classroom managing their own resources – I wasted valuable learning time breaking these mechanisms down and I succeeded only in infantilising our students.

I am lucky to have access to cross-phase professional development through the Teach First network but all too often professional development for the two phases remains segregated.

All-through schools have their critics but I find it hard to argue against a model that offers pupils and staff a coherent pipeline of progression, with everyone working towards a common goal. If I’ve become adamant about one thing, it’s the need for greater joined-up thinking.

My conversion to primary education is complete. I’ve learned how to use Fred Fingers, how to partition and chunk, the importance of wow words and finger spaces. I’ve swapped mobile phones, truancy and smoking for nits, snotty noses and the occasional pair of wet trousers.

And every day, I watch hundreds of children doing things for the first time in their lives, like writing their name or reading a book – and it’s wonderful.

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  1. Dear Mei,

    Thank you for sharing these reflections with us! Like you, I’m a passionate believer in the impact that can be achieved through greater collaboration between practitioners and schools across the Early Years, Primary and Secondary phases. At Teach First we have created a free resource to support teachers and schools across those phases to work together more. The Cross-Phase Toolkit is free to download and can be found here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/lnnzo7t53s38sw6/Cross-phase%20Handbook%202015_FINAL.pdf?dl=0

    Please do share your feedback and stories with us as we are keen to capture case studies of effective cross-phase collaboration.

    Thanks again,
    Laura House (Senior Officer, Cross-Phase Development, Teach First)