Plus, their Sats are over. The prospect of a range of teachers, richer resources and a new style of learning fires them through summer so that, come September, they should be ready to fly. But all the evidence points to the contrary. Children starting secondary school, even those lucky ones entering the school of their choice, find that far from being launched into a brave new adventure, they are reassessed, their previous work and achievements are undervalued, and they are forced to mark time going over old ground. A series of studies over the past 20 years shows pupils regressing between the last year of primary and the end of the first year of secondary school. Primary-secondary transition is now regarded as the crucial time, when learners drop out or are made for life.
Why is there such a scrabble for secondary school places?
A shortage of schools that parents value and the introduction of the quasi-market in the 1980s has turned many secondaries into their own admissions authorities. According to research carried out earlier this year by Professor Anne West of the London School of Economics, a significant minority of schools use covert and overt selection procedures to select certain groups of pupils and exclude others. "These practices," she says, "enable some schools to obtain higher positions in examination league tables than others."
Securing a place can be a nightmare. Admissions criteria differ from borough to borough, and parents may well hold on to places in schools in more than one borough until the last possible moment. Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College, a city technology college in the south London borough of Lewisham, is one of the most oversubscribed schools in the UK, with 2,000 children from Lewisham and beyond chasing just 200 places. Mike Kent, head of Comber Grove, a primary in nearby Southwark, says the number of secondaries in inner London seen as good schools is shrinking. "It's truly a scramble for places - and secondaries never tell us why some are admitted and some not. Parents only really have a choice if they have a bagful of money," he says. (See case study.) A new admissions code of practice to be introduced by the Government over the next couple of years is designed to make admissions fairer for all - for example, by banning admissions interviews with parents and pupils - but it will have little impact on the problem of oversubscribed schools. The Greater London Authority estimates that the capital needs between 25 and 30 new secondary schools. In answer, the Government has launched the London schools strategy, pledging to build 20 secondaries, 30 specialist city academies and 15 sixth-form colleges, and create 290 more specialist schools.
Why is the information about transferring pupils of such poor quality?
Because schools do not talk to each other about the information they need to transfer. Manageability is key, given that responsibility for distributing information about transfer often rests with a hard-pressed Year 6 teacher. According to Ofsted, the relevance and timeliness of the information is crucial and should negate the need for reassessment when pupils start secondary school. A large secondary may have as many as 30 feeder primaries, with only one or two children from each, making the flow and consistency of information particularly difficult.
In Colchester, Essex, a cluster of schools involving a secondary - Colne community school - and nine primaries has introduced a scheme whereby a pupil's best piece of writing from Year 6 goes with the child to secondary school, so Year 7 teachers know not to accept inferior work. York is making this a city-wide strategy, with "best" pieces of work in English, maths and science following the child.
Ofsted believes children's achievements in areas such as drama, sport, music and non-core subjects should also be communicated across the sectors.
Indeed, independent schools set great store by this in the headteacher's reference that accompanies pupils into secondary. "If you do not know a child is strong in sport or the arts, say, how do you know how to engage them from the beginning?" asks David Hanson, director of education for the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS).
Why does pupil attainment seem to suffer in the first two years of secondary school?
A range of studies over the past 20 years has shown that about two out of five pupils fail to make progress on standardised tests of English, mathematics and reading by the end of their first year in secondary school.
Adjusting to a new routine, the impact of the long summer break, repetition of previous work and new work that doesn't stretch able pupils - they all get the blame. Professor Jean Ruddock of Cambridge University has also highlighted the Year 8 dip, when the novelty of changing schools has worn off and pupil motivation falls off dramatically - in science, by as much as a third.
And recent research from the University of Exeter on pupil attitudes to transfer points out that only 40 per cent believe they are improving as learners by the end of Year 7. Existing gaps in achievement tend to widen - in reading and spelling for boys; written and mental maths for girls. Some of this regression, say many secondary heads, must be put down to artificially high attainment levels at key stage 2 as pupils are coached for high-stakes tests.
Some also argue that a level 4 at key stage 2 is not the same as a level 4 at key stage 3 because pupils are studying a wider range of materials with a wider range of teachers and approach to subjects. But primary heads often feel aggrieved that their pupils' achievement tails off. "Secondary schools have a let's-start-again approach," says Mike Kent. "But it is frustrating to see our children going on to produce work way below the standard of what they've done here."
The key stage 3 strategy This is the Government's plan to overhaul the nature of 11-14 teaching and learning, importing some of the successes from key stage 2. But Professor Maurice Galton of Cambridge University, who has conducted much of the seminal research in this area during the past two decades, questions whether more of the same is the answer. He believes the regression at key stage 3 is more of a hiatus than a backward step, given the extent to which children are coached for key stage 2 Sats.
He is anxious that the increased pace, with more direct teaching, now being imported from key stage 2 to 3 gives less time for discussion and creative group work, and may have a further dampening effect on motivation.
Teenagers, he says, are looking for variety and excitement. A new report to the Department for Education and Skills, written by Professor Galton with John Gray and Jean Ruddock, makes the point that even children who do make progress in Years 7 and 8 may not be enjoying the curriculum. They are focused, but not inspired. "Our measure of children's level of interest in 1997, 2001 and 2002 has shown a decline year on year. That is cause for concern." For some, this fall-off becomes terminal, and powerful anti-work peer groups develop.
Has reform at key stage 3 raised achievement?
It's too early to tell. The strategy started nationally only in September 2001, although Ofsted has noted early promising signs of improved teaching and attainment: the 2002 key stage 3 results are the highest ever, with 67 per cent achieving level 5 or above in English, maths and science. Teachers have also reacted positively to the strategy and its emphasis on more focused teaching and learning.
Why does behaviour appear to deteriorate in the early years of secondary school?
Some heads blame raging hormones while others argue that although pupils are excited about changing school, the transfer from a small primary to a large secondary is more than some can cope with. Primary pupils enjoy strong pastoral support; if they have been through the school they will be known by everybody and enjoy responsibilities, such as being monitors or running libraries. They will also have been working at an intense pace.
They become a small fish in a large secondary sea, and may feel disheartened by their sense of anonymity and that little account is taken of previous achievements.
Peter Hall-Jones, head of Little London primary in inner-city Leeds, says children he has managed to keep on board with intensive mentoring, a battery of personal targets and a curriculum enriched by professional sports coaches, actors and dancers, quickly come unstuck at secondary school. When an ex-pupil died after the stolen car he was riding in crashed, Little London staff decided that, rather than see young lives wasted, they would take back pupils excluded from secondary, set them on their feet and redirect them into other schools or colleges. "Here we develop a relationship with individuals so they want to work for us. At secondary, they are part of a big structure where teachers teach subjects, not individuals. They don't have to put in effort for teachers they only see for a short time, and they crash out feeling unloved and unequal."
Are middle schools the solution?
Some - notably former education secretary David Blunkett - believe 13-19 schools and a seamless transition could be the answer. Middle schools say they are already achieving this and that students crossing over to key stage 3 remain motivated. They will already have enjoyed specialist subject teaching at key stage 2 and, as top year pupils, will benefit from having enthused teachers.
Research carried out for middle schools in 2001 shows that inspectors rate them significantly above secondaries on attendance, personal development, relationships and behaviour. Many independent school pupils also enjoy increased continuity in Years 7 and 8, transferring from prep to senior school at 13, when they are more prepared for an adult world.
How should primary schools prepare pupils?
By giving more homework tasks with shorter deadlines, in line with what pupils will face in secondary school, and using subject specialist teaching whenever possible.
Many schools have consolidated the pastoral aspect of transfer, with arrangements for taster sessions and days when primary children go to the senior school, take part in science lessons, for example, and are shown around the school by "buddies" - older children who will act as their mentors when they join the school.
But schools should concentrate on curriculum links, according to Ofsted and researchers. Some places have taken this on board. For example, in Filey, north Yorkshire, regular meetings between cluster schools focus on curriculum links - staff look at each other's schemes of work and teaching styles, and technology and maths secondary staff teach in the primaries.
The schools have also devised science bridging projects that pupils begin in primary and continue into secondary. Bridging projects in maths, science and English are now available nationally through the key stage 3 strategy.
In Cheshire schools, after the key stage 2 Sats, key stage 3 teachers go to the primaries in the summer term to begin the key stage 3 course.
How should secondary schools support pupils in their first year? What is good practice?
By gathering comprehensive information about individual pupils to set targets that will give them a flying start and to track them from the first weeks. A lively curriculum with a sense of purpose but with some sense of continuity, helps, as does giving students as much feedback as possible.
Colne community school has employed a recently retired primary head to act as primary adviser to the secondary staff. He also teaches English and maths to Year 7 classes. Terry Creissen, Colne's head, says the adviser knows what happens in primary schools and what the standards are, so can challenge students. "They cannot get away with less than what they are capable of." There is also a cluster-wide behaviour policy, so children know what is expected of them across the sectors.
One northern LEA has reorganised key stage 3 teaching so Year 7 children are taught for 50 per cent of the time by a single teacher in one form base. Another has funded secondary teachers to visit primary colleagues to overcome mistrust of primary data. Sue Hackman, national director of the key stage 3 strategy, says secondary schools need to set more hands-on activities for 11 to 14-year-olds, and to include more pupils in discussion. Twenty secondary schools are piloting a two-year key stage 3, moving their Sats forward to the end of Year 8 to give students more of a sense of purpose in their first two years.
What funding is available to improve primary/secondary links?
As part of the key stage 3 strategy, secondary schools are awarded a £10,500 transition package that includes staff training, resource material for transition projects, literacy and numeracy summer schools, and catch-up programmes for the less able in Year 7. Other strands of funding are available through the New Opportunities Fund and Excellence in Cities for transition summer schools and catch-up programmes, joint initiatives between primary and secondary learning mentors and access to secondary teaching for gifted and talented primary pupils. But tight budgets make transition programmes vulnerable, and schools would like more ring-fenced funding.
DID YOU KNOW?
* Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College, a city technology college in the London borough of Lewisham, is one of the most oversubscribed secondary schools in the UK, with 2,000 children chasing 200 places
* The Greater London Authority estimates that the capital needs between 25 and 30 new secondary schools
* Studies over the past 20 years show that about 40 per cent of pupils fail to make progress on standardised tests of English, mathematics and reading by the end of their first year in secondary school
* One northern LEA has reorganised key stage 3 teaching so Year 7 children are taught for 50 per cent of the time by a single teacher in one form base