The dips in achievement levels mentioned in the latest report from the chief inspector of schools have been remarked upon before in various settings by teachers and researchers.
Our research suggests that Year 8 is when some pupils tend to drift away from learning.
It seems to be what one pupil called "just an in-between" year. In Year 7 pupils' attention is captured by the novelties of the new school: new spaces, new opportunities and a wider range of facilities.
But Year 8 has neither the compelling novelty of Year 7 nor the promise of ownership through option choices of Year 9; nor does it have the "real world" urgency of Years 10 and 11 with their opportunities for exploring the world of employment and their preparation for the "serious work" of the examinations.
Year 8 - and sometimes the end of Year 7 - is the time when routine sets in, when engagement can flag: "You think, 'Oh God! I've got this today!' and so on and it gets really boring and you don't feel excited any more coming to school," as one Year 8 pupil put it.
There are no obvious excitements and challenges that Year 7 pupils can look forward to - except those that the school constructs. As a consequence, some pupils whose motivation is fragile turn away from learning. Teachers sometimes say that Year 8 is "the year of consolidation" but consolidation is not a turn-on for pupils.
Year 8 needs a positive, more learning-orientated identity. By this stage pupils are developing - partly as a result of encountering a greater variety of teachers and teaching styles in secondary school - a critical sense. Some pupils said that they had worked out early in Year 8 which teachers did and which teachers didn't bother to respond to their homework - and they reacted accordingly.
One Year 8 pupil, asked why he had so little homework in the summer term, said teachers were tied up with "important stuff" with Years 10 and 11. We can understand the pressures but the situation made the Year 8 pupil feel that his own work was unimportant; pupils pick up unintended messages that the earlier years don't matter - that they are "on the back-burner".
Some heads have said that they usually put their most challenging teachers with the top sets andor with the examination groups; they also think about which teachers are good with Year 7 pupils. But it seems that relatively little attention is given to the kind of teacher that Year 8s need. The mentoring schemes that some secondary schools are introducing to support pupils tend to focus on Years 10 and 11. We think there is a case for introducing such schemes with Year 8 pupils.
Year 10 and 11 pupils who had messed about in earlier years often found that it was difficult to catch up: "I missed loads of school which was my own fault and I'm suffering from that now..." one told us.
" I realise now that there's been so much time that we've just wasted, " said another.
Year 8 pupils seem generally to lack a "craft" competence in the basic language and procedures of learning and their sense of self-as-learner is constructed largely out of the grades they are given and what teachers say about them. Target-setting offers pupils a valuable sense of direction, but without a clear sense of their own strengths and weaknesses as learners and an understanding of the criteria for judging work of quality, it is difficult for pupils to know how to improve their work - and they are ready for this kind of responsibility.
The pupils we interviewed wanted to do well, they wanted to make something of their lives but they didn't always understand the discipline of study and the importance of continuities in learning. Year 8 may be the pivotal year when pupils need to be helped to think and act strategically - but at the same time schools need to ensure that they are sending out the right messages.
Year 8 pupils said that they particularly like projects, residential trips and being given duties for the school: running a charity tuck-shop; taking visitors round the school - things that involve trust, initiative and self-direction.
The authors are at Homerton College, Cambridge. The interviews are part of two projects: Talking about Learning, Thinking about Learning (Cambridgeshire LEA) and Making Your Way through Secondary School (ESRC).
Strategies to help sustain commitment in Year 8
* Give a clear learning-orientated identity, and more status, to Year 8 * Invite Y8 pupils to plan an event for Y7s that shows what is special about being in Year 8 * Discuss learning so that pupils begin to understand the longer-term implications of what they are doing * Develop language for thinking about learning and about themselves as learners * Provide opportunities for Year 8 pupils to exercise the responsibility - and some privileges - that are involved in the move up into the second year * Strengthen homework procedures so that pupils learn to work independently early on * Ensure assessment helps pupils understand how to improve * Make sure pupils catch up missed work rather than get the impression it doesn't matter if they miss learning they will need later on * Monitoring the messages that the school is giving about the status of Year 8