5 ways to think about transition differently

Secondary schools can make the transition less daunting for new students by introducing elements of primary school life

Katie Tomlinson

5 tips for the transition from primary to secondary school

The transition from primary to secondary is always a huge moment in a pupil’s education journey – no wonder, given that they are leaving the security of being in the same classroom for the day, working with the same teachers and know where everything is.

Suddenly this all changes as they enter the big wide world of secondary school. In the international setting, this transition can be even more extreme – perhaps involving moving to a new city or country, or encountering new students who speak other languages.

Tips for the transition from primary to secondary school

However, while the transition moment is always going to be a bit daunting, there are ways that secondary schools can make it as smooth as possible. Here are some ideas that schools could try for the learning environment and logistical arrangements:

1. Timetabling and staffing

Consider timetabling arrangements that could enable more lessons to be taught in a single room for Year 7 students, facilitate less movement around the building or have more subjects taught by the same teacher.

This may sound tough in logistical terms but Aidan Severs, a primary specialist who is now a deputy head in an all-through school, will be trialling precisely this approach next academic year.

Students in Year 7 will be taking the majority of their lessons in one classroom (PSHE, geography, history, English, maths). Lessons requiring specialist rooms and equipment will be taken in the relevant rooms – eg, music, drama, dance, PE, DT, art and science (where necessary). 

It does not mean, as Aidan indicates in his blog Making Secondary Schools Primary-Ready that "the whole of their secondary experience will be like that of their Year 7 and 8 experience, but that things will change more gradually as they get older, helping them to become secondary-ready over a longer period of time and accepting that much of secondary-readiness can be developed once they are actually at secondary school".

Perhaps a less disruptive alternative solution, from a timetabling perspective, might be to have staff moving from room to room for most subjects, rather than students (again with the obvious exceptions being those who require use of specialist equipment and facilities). 

While these ideas might be the stuff of nightmares for the staff responsible for timetabling, it would make a world of difference to students if they had to move around the school building less and could be given a gentle approach to secondary school routines and norms.

2. Bring in Year 6 teachers

A more radical, longer-term idea might be to employ talented and experienced Year 6 teachers into the Year 7 team, since primary-trained teachers are used to teaching across the whole curriculum of specialised subjects. One secondary school in the UK has been doing this for some time. 

Blessed Trinity RC College in Lancashire appointed an experienced primary teacher to work within its key stage 3 team in 2014 and has been using this approach ever since as a means of gently introducing more vulnerable students into secondary life, with one teacher teaching 50 per cent of subjects/lessons.

Laura Murray, the head of Year 7, says that this arrangement now has "a proven track record where pupils who have started in this group have demonstrated accelerated progress".  A similar approach could work in an international school with provision for joiners who have English as an additional language.

At Sri KDU International, our forthcoming EAL Enrichment Centre, which is planned to open within the next academic year, will offer new EAL students a more primary-based experience with one teacher in one classroom for many subjects. 

3. Learning walls

Primary classrooms often have "working walls" that are referred to within lessons and used as learning prompts/reminders.

While the use of working walls within a secondary environment would take careful planning and thought (and perhaps some staff training), if there were some adjustments made to timetabling and room use as detailed above, secondary teachers might more easily be able to employ a similar approach.

The personalisation of classrooms with working walls that support information retrieval and reference could be done with the installation of more boards on the walls within the classrooms and a policy move for working walls within the classrooms and celebration displays outside of the classroom.

Secondary schools could even replicate working walls virtually through the use of online tools like JamBoard or PearDeck, or even perhaps use Google Slides, too. 

This would enable students to access prior learning prompts as they were used to doing in the primary classroom; relieving the pressure on working memory and cognitive load overall.

With many international schools now having high ratios of device technology available in each classroom or "bring your own device" schemes in place, this would not be a difficult element to execute for teachers.

4. Common and recognisable signage

To help children navigate their way around a new building, standardised and recognisable signage is key.

International schools also need to consider how children of different nationalities, where English is not the first language, can be assisted with finding their way around.

Signage could:

  • Be colour-coded with all the same facilities in the same recognisable colour. For instance, green for the English classrooms and red for all toilet signage. Within Sri KDU International, all rooms are colour coded within the signage to indicate which subject they are used for; yellow for English, green for science, etc.
  • Have symbols as well as just text for those students who respond better to visual cues.
  • Be written in different languages to assist foreign students.

All of these things lift the cognitive load from new students at a time when there is already much for them to remember.

5. Orientation and pre-visits

Schools could consider having only Year 7 students in for their first week of term. This would give them an opportunity to become familiar with the environment whilst it is less crowded. 

Since the pandemic has given staff an opportunity to hone their recording techniques, there is also now a place for recorded tours of the school. This is particularly helpful for students who may not have the chance for pre-visits because they are arriving from another country.

Increasing the number of visits prior to the start of the term is also a good idea. This is even better if the students visit with a variety of other people; their current class teacher, their parents, their peers. Research has indicated the more pre-visits children make before the start of term, the more comfortable they feel on the first day.

Overall, a sympathetic approach in understanding the logistics and environment that Year 6 learners have become familiar with during their time in primary, and adjusting their start to secondary life reflecting upon this, gives each and every child a better chance of secondary success; something that every teacher, child and parent wants. 

Katie Tomlinson is the head of primary at a Malaysian international school. She tweets @TheLShipCoach

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