The transition between schools can be hard. Julie Roberts describes how an action research project on classroom dialogue has been used to explore and overcome some of the barriers to learning across the transition from KS2-3

In December 2006, Gateshead was invited to join a National Strategies funded pilot focusing on transfer and transitions. The purpose of the project was to strengthen transfer and transition both within and between schools with a particular focus on continuity of learning. It had four aims: to raise standards; promote effective and personalised teaching and learning; support schools in removing barriers to achievement; develop the capacity of school leaders to improve schools. 

Gateshead LA developed an action research project between a secondary school and five of its main feeder schools to address continuity of teaching and learning. It took assessment for learning (AfL) as the main focus since this was common amongst all schools involved in the project. This provided a common ground from which to develop a collaborative partnership across schools both amongst teachers and headteachers. This was then narrowed down to ‘How could dialogue be developed to support the AfL strategies of success criteria, feedback, peer and self-assessment?’

This work built on the LA’s existing AfL action research work in both primary and secondary schools. We wanted to investigate 1) the similarity and differences of teaching and learning within classrooms, and 2) the processes and structures needed to bring together individual schools’ approaches to AfL to create a commonality of approach.

Cross-phase project outline

  • To develop some commonality of principles and vocabulary to support dialogue in the classroom and across the key stages.
  • Use of cross-phase triads for teachers to observe each other’s lessons.
  • Cross-phase teachers’ learning community (TLC).
  • Headteachers’ learning community.

The project considered the following questions:

  • What were the challenges teachers faced when developing good quality dialogue with pupils?
  • What does good quality dialogue look like in the different key stages?
  • What are children capable of?

All the schools in the LA have made their own decisions on how to implement the various aspects of AfL and had not really had opportunities to see AfL in practice in other people’s classrooms outside of their school. Therefore the project enabled teachers to develop their own knowledge and understanding of AfL and provided them with time to reflect on its impact on pupils. Teachers were asked initially to look at what was similar and different within each other’s classrooms and how this impacted on learning and continuity across the key stages.

Teachers talking cross-phase
The cross-phase TLC consisted of five secondary and five primary teachers. The secondary teachers each held a responsibility point for transition and taught in English, mathematics, science, IT and design technology. The primary school teachers came from Years 5, 6 and 2. For a number of reasons, the majority were from Year 5. Firstly, Year 5 teachers would not be under examination pressure. Secondly, they would have more flexibility to experiment with their practice and visit colleagues in other schools. Thirdly, the primary schools would benefit from being able see how the children’s learning developed over two years.

These 10 teachers were further subdivided into cross-phase triads. These partnerships were to provide teachers with an opportunity to observe each other teaching and the pupils’ learning. More collaborative work between feeder schools and the secondary school could open up opportunities to develop continuity in pedagogy.

Martin (2007) argues that ‘cross phase collaboration between teachers and partnerships between schools are difficult concepts to put into action. Primary and secondary education phases are separate rather than a continuum, with a different initial training, teaching methods and support network.’

This model provided a structure to enable a ‘change-friendly culture where committed individuals are encouraged to develop their understanding and practice, and gradually share these with other willing volunteers’ (Swaffield and MacBeath, 2006).

Teachers also needed to build the work into their department and schools. Therefore a headteachers’ TLC was also formed to help support this process. And build onto work already going on in schools.

Headteachers talking cross phase
Headteachers from the primary schools and the deputy head from the secondary formed a TLC to:

  • support the findings of the work becoming embedded within the schools’ structures, their organisations and resources
  • encourage a consistent approach across the schools whilst competing or contradictory practices would need to be eliminated
  • make strong and purposeful links to other change efforts, the curriculum and classroom teaching
  • promote widespread use within the schools and across departments.

Both TLCs met once every half term. These meetings have been vital to provide the project with ‘momentum, collegiality, and opportunities for further training, reflection and self-evaluation’ (Transfers and Transitions Newsletter (2), 2007).

Similarity and differences between schools and subjects
Knowledge in response to the questions below was shared from the cross-phase observations with other colleagues in the different triads. 

  • What is the quality of the dialogue?
  • What does the dialogue focus on?
  • How can secondary practice build from the primary classrooms?
  • What language do teachers use to create thinking routines?

Bearing these questions in mind, colleagues were encouraged to discuss and reflect on what was similar and different across the subjects and schools. Secondary colleagues commented on the high quality of the dialogue amongst primary schools children, especially with the Year 2 class. It was observed that children tended to be more autonomous and confident than the Year 7 pupils. Secondary colleagues noted that there was a distinct lack of ‘talking partners and collaborative work with Year 7 compared with the primary school lessons. Teachers concluded that more could be done to develop the quality of pupil dialogue in classroom given that approximately two-thirds of their Year 7 cohort came from these primary schools. Therefore the pupils would be familiar to a large number of the strategies. A central difference that teachers commented on was the mixture of terminology used between the different phases such as learning objectives and learning intentions.

Developing a commonality of principles
Teachers were encouraged to reflect on their work individually, within their triads and collectively. In the third TLC meeting, teachers were provided with a list of strategies linked to the key principles underpinning quality dialogue. Teachers evaluated which of these strategies they used with their class on a regular basis. Individual teachers reflected on the breadth of strategies used. These were then collated together so that the range of strategies used across the schools could be seen.

To encourage reflection on the quality of dialogue, teachers used the questioning and dialogue progression grid to identify where the pupils were (see box below). Teachers then decided where they wanted their class to go next in terms of developing dialogue and decided which strategies may help them to achieve this.

Reviewing practice in questioning and dialogue
Some pupils rarely contrinute to discussions. Questions tend to be answered by a small number of ‘enthusiasts’ Pupils are increasing in confidence in discussions and contribute willingly All pupils regularly contribute to whole-class and group discussions Pupils responses are routinely well developed, build on or are informed by the ideas of others and demonstrate high-level thinking
Pupil responses to questions are typically brief, often one word, often recall or repetition Pupils’ responses are more extended, show increasingly higher order thinking and their views are supported by evidence Pupils listen carefully to each other. They respond to, and build on, what others have said Pupils are comfortable with whole class ‘basketball’ dialogue. They are confident to take the lead in initiating and building on dialogue
When pupils sneak out in whole class discussions they are sometimes mocked by peers During whole-class discussions all pupils listen and respect the contributions of their peers Pupils typically give extended responses, demonstrate high-level thinking and can support their views Pupils are confident to take risks, to challenge the ideas of each other and be changed
During whole-class discussions, some pupils are ‘caught out’ as not listening In group and paired discussions all pupils contribute and are beginning to learn from each other. Discussions are usually well focused Pupils are confident to take risks by sharing partially formed thinking or challenging others in a constructive way Pupils reflect on the process, know how to get the most from it
Group and paired discussions rarely last long or discussions drift off task. Discussion – open exchange of ideas/views/information In group and paired dialogue pupils listen to and learn from each other There is always a ‘buzz’ in the air during classroom

The next round of observations included the Year 6 teachers. This enabled the Year 7 teachers to see what the Year 6 pupils could do and therefore plan for it in September. It also provided an opportunity for the Year 6 teachers to become more familiar with the expectations of the Year 7 curriculum. This was repeated in the autumn term so that the Year 6 teachers could see how their pupils were settling into the secondary school and whether there are any differences in terms of quality of dialogue.

Successive TLC meetings have focused on the following areas:

  • Developing a list of technical terms common across the schools, eg talking partners, learning intentions and peer assessment. Teachers gained a range of answers from pupils as to what they understood by these terms. This enabled us to see what terms were pupils familiar or unfamiliar with across all schools and subjects. It also helped us to see if terminology was being used inconsistently. This was then produced as a booklet for all the schools and parents in Year 6 and Year 7.
  • How is oral and written feedback used in lessons?
  • How do pupils respond to the feedback?

Pupils talking, teachers listening
Pupils from Years 2, 5, 6 and 8 were interviewed four times during the project to gain their perceptions on different aspects of this work.

1. ‘What do you think teaching and learning will be like at secondary school?’

  • ‘I hope  we will discuss  our learning when we move to our next school. It would be sad if we didn’t because we share ideas and that helps us to see where we need to improve so we just get better and better.’

It emerged how important ‘talking partners’ were to a number of pupils to help them learn.

2. ‘What do these terms mean to you…’

3. ‘How does talk help you learn?’

  • ‘We like talking to each other because sometimes someone has a better idea. Then you can work together to solve the problem.’ 
  • ‘I explained to the other group how I solved the puzzle… some did it in a different way.’
  • ‘We can share ideas and solve the problem more easily when we work together.’

4. ‘What have you experienced that’s been similar, or different, to primary school?’

  • ‘We are learning in similar ways with learning objectives.’
  • ‘Talking partners are used in English, maths and science.’
  • ‘We used traffic lights, and now we use faces to assess ourselves in ICT and maths.’

One Year 7 parent asked her son, ‘How is secondary school?’ He replied:

‘I’ve been going to school for years, Mam.’’

Teachers talking cross phase

  • Teachers in triads benefited from working closely to share ideas and information.
  • They observed how different strategies opened up dialogue in the classroom.
  • The project provided an opportunity to develop good relationships with primary colleagues.
  • Teacher observations raised expectations about what pupils were capable of achieving.

Teachers said:

  • ‘From not knowing either environment, we know have a greater understanding and insight of each other.’
  • ‘The observations have helped us to continue to develop best practice. ’
  • ‘The observations have allowed us to see and understand what was involved at primary/ secondary level.’
  • ‘Secondary colleagues can now speak confidently to pupils about their primary experiences.’


This project has:

1. Developed talk in learning through ongoing conversation at different levels:

  • learner with learner
  • teacher to learner
  • learner to teacher
  • teacher with teacher.

2. Focused upon anomalies in learning practice and disjointed structure of pupils’ learning journey.

3. Developed some commonality of AfL principles and vocabulary.

4. Enabled pupils to become more confident learners.

5. Improved the quality of work.

Still to come:

Expanded to include 7 Primary feeder schools.

  • Develop common principles for feedback, peer- and self-assessment.
  • Build the work into structures within schools/ departments.
  • Include a focus of the impact of the work on ‘vulnerable students’ in the transfer process.
  • Explore parental involvement.

Julie Roberts is a secondary consultant for teaching and learning, Gateshead LEA


  • Martin, B (2007) Transfers and Transitions Newsletter (1), National Strategies
  • Swaffield, S and MacBeath, J (2006) ‘Embedding How to Learn How to Learn in School Policy: The Challenge for Leadership’ Research Papers in Education, 21(2), 201-215
  • Transfers and Transitions Newsletter (2) (2007), National Strategies