Managing the transition from KS2 to KS3

In my career I’ve taught music across every phase from EYFS right through to HE. In my experience the most problematic transition point for students and teachers of music is that between primary and secondary, KS2 and KS3.

Why should this be? When I talk to secondary teachers I often hear the problems with transition being explained as ‘they don’t do music in primary schools.’ Often I hear complaints of ‘we have to start from scratch’, ‘they can’t read music’, ‘they don’t know how to find the notes on the keyboard’ and so forth. I am not for a moment denying that any of these problems exist. However, I do take issue with the idea that they exist because primary schools have not done any music with the pupils.

Just because a child arrives in KS3 unable to read music, does not mean that they have not done any music at primary school. Crucially, just because a pupil says they have not done any music at primary school, does not mean that is true! For most schools, there is a drop-off in music provision at Year 6 due to SATs preparation. Children, like goldfish, have short memories, and they may have done music regularly all the way up to the end of Year 5, but when asked if they did music at their old school may just think about Year 6, recall all that SATs prep, and say ‘no.’ As a sector, we definitely need to find more reliable ways of communicating pupils’ experience across all subjects at primary school to their secondary schools, without it involving an enormous amount of additional work for individual teachers.

We should also be aware that music in primary schools often looks vastly different to music in secondary schools. Some primaries have dedicated music rooms, but even those pupils lucky enough to have experienced a lesson in a primary music room may consider the secondary music department to be a whole different beast. Suddenly there are keyboards and computers everywhere, and separate practice rooms for group work. The pupils may not have encountered a ‘specialist’ teacher of any subject before, being used to working in their classroom with their class teacher for the entire week. It feels and looks different from primary provision, which makes it harder for pupils to recall and put to work their previous knowledge.

Content too is a massive area of divide between primary and secondary, even though what is set out in the statutory national curriculum for each country of the UK dovetails extremely well between KS2 and KS3. Secondary schools (at least in Y7) tend to have much more of a focus on notation and skills-based techniques (e.g. playing keyboards), whilst primaries often focus more on creativity, expression and confidence. If children are arriving from KS2 ‘unprepared’ for KS3, we need to question whether there needs to be some flexibility at both phases to make more alignment in content and approach and thereby smooth the transition for everybody’s benefit, not least the pupils’. In multiple curriculum design projects over the last few years I have looked at how keyboards can be introduced alongside notation at KS2 as a preparation for their near-ubiquitous use in KS3, and if space or budget makes this impossible, how tuned percussion can be taught in a way that makes the learning transferrable onto keyboards once children get in front of them in Year 7.

However, it shouldn’t be just up to primary schools to adapt their teaching to better prepare pupils for KS3, because the purpose of primary education is not to prepare children for secondary education. Primary is an independent phase which has some really serious work to do with children on their general development. Much of this work will prepare children for secondary school by default, but this is not its primary purpose. The music teacher in a primary school (if they have one!) is not just the ‘music teacher.’ Their focus cannot and will never be solely on helping children decipher crotchets and quavers, they’re teaching them to be resilient, to cooperate, to regulate their behaviour, to problem-solve… the list goes on.

Doubtless many will read that last paragraph and think ‘duh that’s what we do in secondary school too’ and I don’t disagree. However, let’s face it, when all is said and done, primary teachers are the reason secondary teachers aren’t mopping up wee every day! (And I think we can all be grateful for that, given the current obsession with toilet breaks in secondary schools…) Whilst there are of course behaviour and classroom management issues in every secondary school and wider issues to deal with around children’s social, emotional, and mental health needs, secondary teachers are first and foremost teachers of their subject, who also deal with general developmental needs of their pupils. It could be argued that primary teachers are the exact opposite, and that the greatest gift they have to bestow onto their secondary colleagues is to have got most children to the stage where they can self-regulate their biological, social, and learning behaviours (even if some of them choose not to!) so that they are ready to concentrate on subject-specific content.

On top of meeting children’s developmental needs and laying the foundations for their independence as learners in the future, primary teachers are also delivering an enormous, some would say unmanageable, amount of subject content. Inevitably some of the subjects that they have to teach will not be areas of expertise for them. This may mean that some content is not delivered, or is delivered in a different way from that that a subject specialist might go about it, and so when children then encounter specialist teaching at KS3, there can be gaps or inconsistencies that need addressing.

Music is often hailed as a subject that should only be taught by specialists at primary school. I fundamentally disagree with this idea, but even if I didn’t, it can be discounted by the fact that there are never going to be enough music specialists to go around or enough budget to pay for them. In primary schools where music is taught by a specialist then clearly it is going to be easier to manage transition because both primary and secondary staff will speak the same language where music is concerned; assuming that is, that they are afforded the opportunity to actually speak to each other, and that they agree on what needs to be done! In reality though, many schools will find themselves in the position of KS2-3 being the transition from generalist to specialist music provision and will therefore need to find other ways to smooth the musical path for new Year 7s.

So what is the answer to the problem of transition between KS2 and KS3? We have seen that transition issues can arise when there are different expectations, approaches to content, and levels of subject expertise between primary and secondary schools. The key to dealing with this is communication between schools to establish what the issues are and how they can be solved. Secondaries with multiple feeders will find this more difficult than schools with intake from only one or two primary schools, for obvious reasons. Multi-academy trusts could have an advantage here in that there might be a designated music lead with strategic insight across primary and secondary who can really get to grips with making the two phases gel together. Similarly, Music Hubs and their lead schools might also be in a good position from September 2024 to try and take a strategic lead on transition and do some of the legwork to avoid overloading individual teachers at each school.

However you go about it, the key is open, honest communication between professionals, with due acknowledgement of and respect for the differences between primary and secondary provision. And you’d better be sure of your facts before you tell a primary teacher that their Year 6 leavers haven’t done any music, or they may chase you with their wee mop…

Dr Elizabeth Stafford, September 2023. Copyright © 2023 Music Education Solutions Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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