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Upping the ante for Upper Primary

Test results come and go, and can easily be dismissed as yesterday’s news but the recent Australian NAPLAN test results made for both sombre and important reading.

Having now been running since 2011, the recent 2017 results showed that younger students are still doing well, effectively learning the basics of literacy and numeracy.

The key finding was that by the time those same students reached Year 9, they weren’t doing as well. In fact 16.5% of Australian Year 9 students fell below the benchmark for writing. Back in 2011 when these students were in Year 3, only 2.8% of them fell below that same benchmark.

According to Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra, the statistics show that things take a dramatic turn for the worse in Year 7.

In her article on ‘The Conversation’ she says the results show that primary school children begin struggling after Year 4 as reading and writing gets harder.

“There has been a misplaced focus on “back-to-basics” literacy education in recent years. The last ten years of NAPLAN testing shows us we are already exemplary at the basics. It is the complex we are bad at,” Associate Professor Adoniou says.

“It’s time to change tack. Our attention needs to focus on developing the deep comprehension skills of our upper-primary and high school students.”

Changing focus for upper primary

At St Peter’s Woodlands (SPW), the specific educational needs of upper primary students are taken very seriously – one of the reasons why the school introduced a Year 6 and 7 Centre three years ago.

“Of course we’ve always understood that children have very different learning needs as they progress through primary school,” said Simon Theel, Deputy Principal and Head of Primary Years at SPW.

“Three years ago we decided we needed to really up the offerings, and transform the way we educate upper primary students.”

The physical changes came first, with a full refurbishment of the Year 6 and 7 Centre.

The classrooms feature a wide range of spaces, from traditional tables and chairs through to comfy couches, stand-up whiteboard desks and smaller breakout spaces for group work. Artwork and book reviews adorn the walls, blending happily with large format screens.

“The classrooms are fantastic and they really provide a space that is flexible and modern. Teaching staff use varied teaching strategies that cater for the needs of emerging adolescents. We want to help students develop a love of learning and support them to develop courage to identify their strengths and needs. The learning environment supports this process,” Simon said.

“The Year 6 and 7 students also access specialty areas including a Media Centre, Design and Tech Workshops and Art, Dance and Music Studios.”

“By creating a Year 6 and 7 Centre, and making a space that is fundamentally different, the students have responded accordingly. It’s almost like starting at a new school, and there is an important psychological shift which signifies a new learning phase.”

The curriculum too has been ‘super-charged’ to prepare students for high school and to encourage critical thinking and complex problem solving.

“We continue to focus on teaching maths, science, writing, language and arts. But increasingly we are finding new ways to integrate these disciplines. For example, we’ve recently been programming a visiting robot, and the challenges have brought together mathematical coding, team work and creativity,” Simon said.

“Students in upper primary need to be challenged and presented with complex, authentic scenarios. Our ethos, supported by an inquiry learning approach, gives our students a rich education, teaching them how to think for themselves and develop deep comprehension of how to learn and solve problems.

“It’s so important because the upper primary years are really the launch pad to high school – students need a more sophisticated, rather than basic education at this time in their lives.”

New choices for upper primary

Simon says the emergence of upper primary, or middle school as it’s sometimes called, is making parents consider the right choices for their children.

“In the past parents tended to make a fixed choice about where their children would go to primary school, but we are seeing a trend for a bit more fluidity and openness to changing schools for the better,” Simon said.

“Just as early learning has transformed the pre-reception years, the emergence of upper primary or middle school, is giving parents the option to pause and consider the best options for their children.

“It’s always a significant decision for parents to make – what is the best school for my child? But I would encourage all parents of Year 5 students to consider their options for upper primary and ensure their child is getting the best education to prepare them for high school.”